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May 11th, 2012
09:24 AM ET

Complexity in black church reactions to Obama’s gay marriage announcement

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first gained wide public recognition in the mid-1950s, he made a special request to evangelist Billy Graham.

King was poised to join Graham on one of his barnstorming crusades, but he would do so only on one condition. He asked Graham to publicly speak out against segregation, a request Graham declined, says San Diego State University historian Edward Blum.

“What Graham feared was losing all of his influence,” Blum says. “For him, personal salvation was primary, justice secondary. For King, justice was primary.”

After President Obama this week became the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage, black clergy and churchgoers could be facing a question that's similar to the one that fractured King and Graham: Should my ideas about personal holiness trump my notion of justice?

The answer to that question is evolving – just as Obama’s views on gay marriage have been. Poll numbers and interviews with black clergy suggest it’s simplistic to say that the black church is anti-gay marriage and may desert Obama, as some pundits have suggested.

Equal rights for some people?

Some black pastors take the approach of Graham, who recently came out in support of a successful drive to amend North Carolina’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships.

For them, personal salvation is primary; homosexuality a sin, and so is gay marriage. Their enthusiasm for Obama will be diminished, Blum says.

“It will be, ‘I’m going to vote for him, but I’m not going to talk about him much,’ ” Blum says. “It’s the difference between voting for him, or voting for him and putting out a street sign and making sure your neighbor gets to the poll.”

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Others in the black church say their approach centers on justice.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who was a part of King’s inner circle, says Obama had to support gay marriage because he believes in equal rights.

“You can’t believe in equal rights for some people and yet not believe in equal rights for everybody,” Lowery says. “That includes the right to marry the person of your choice. Equal rights for some people are an oxymoron.”

Lowery says Obama’s announcement was “more revolutionary” than the moment that President Lyndon Johnson went on national television during the heyday of the civil rights movement and called for racial equality, declaring, “We shall overcome.”

Obama’s “We Shall Overcome” moment will force Americans – black and white – to reexamine positions on same-sex marriage, Lowery says.

“A lot of white people didn’t believe in desegregation until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional,” says Lowery, who presided over Obama’s inauguration. “And then they began to rethink it and basically came to the same conclusion.”

Pastor or president?

At least one black minister in North Carolina captures another neglected dimension to the debate. He opposes same-sex marriage but doesn’t like the energy Christians devote to opposing it.

“He’s the president of the Untied States, not the pastor of the United States,” says the Rev. Fred Robinson, who lives in Charlotte. “America is a democracy, not a theocracy. I’m not going to vote on one issue.”

Robinson says some Christians are better at being against something than for something. Christian divorce rates are just as high as those for secular marriages, he says.

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“Our witness is stronger if we actually show that we believe in marriage and lived in and honored it,” he says. “That would be a greater witness than running to the polls to enshrine discrimination in the state constitution.”

The Rev. Tim McDonald, founder of the African-American Ministers Leadership Council, says he opposes same-sex marriage, but he is more concerned about issues like health care, education and jobs.

He's interested to see how black pastors handle Obama’s announcement when they step onto the pulpit Sunday.

“I don’t see how you cannot talk about it,” he says. “I have to. You can say I’m opposed to it [same-sex marriage], but that doesn’t mean I’m against the president.”

McDonald says more black pastors are talking about same-sex marriage than ever before: “Three years ago, there was not even a conversation about this issue – there wasn’t even an entertainment of a conversation about this.”

Polls show that black opinions on same-sex marriage are changing.

According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in April, 49% of black respondents described themselves as opposed to marriage between gays and lesbians, 14% fewer than in 2008. The percentage of African-Americans in favor of it increased from 26% in 2008 to 39% in 2012.

In 2008, Californians voted on Proposition 8, a measure that would make same-sex marriage illegal in the state, at the same time that they cast ballots for president.

CNN exit polling showed that 70% of California African-Americans supported Prop 8 but that the overwhelming majority - 94% - also backed President Obama.

Black pastors who preach in favor of same-sex marriage know they may pay a price if they take Obama’s position, says Bishop Carlton Pearson.

Pearson is a black minister who says he lost his church building and about 6,000 members when he began preaching that gays and lesbians were accepted by God.

“That’s the risk that people take,” he told CNN. “A lot of preachers actually don’t have a theological issue. It’s a business decision. They can’t afford to lose their parishioners and their parsonages and salaries.”

Pearson navigates the tension between the Bible’s call for holiness and justice this way:

“I take the Bible seriously, just not literally,” he says. “It’s more important what Jesus said about God than what the church says about Jesus.”

CNN staff writer Stephanie Siek contributed to this report.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Christianity • Gay marriage • Politics

soundoff (2,207 Responses)
  1. Foreverwar

    Black churches being against civil rights has to be the height of irony.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Jay

      They want to vote for BO because hes black ("God is not partial" Acts 10:34)... Their faith will be tested and FAIL because they claim to be "christians".

      May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  2. Mike

    Seriously? Obama isn't going to lose one single African American vote. Trust me.
    He is black (at least the half of him that gets him votes) and they are black. They will vote for the black guy over the white guy every single time. Tell me I'm wrong? How else do you explain the overwhelming majority of African American voters casting their ballots for this guy? Has he actually done anything to improve the lives of African Americans? NO he hasn't. Yet they'll vote for him because of one reason and one reason only. Color.
    I won't vote for him because he is a Democrat. Yet many blacks who voted Republican in the past clearly jumped ship because a man of color was running for President. Explain it to me any other way than they did so because of his color.
    There is not explanation because there is no other reason.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Then how do you explain 80% of the black community voting for Clinton, Gore and Kerry? For Mondale and Dukakis? Idiot!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Scott

      Wrong on every single count Mike. They voted for Obama for the same reason everyone else did. Issues. Of course him being black brought a sense of pride to the black community, but it's not like they would vote for Herman Cain or Michael Steele or Clarence Thomas. They don't represent the social issues important to black americans. In other words, black americans don't vote based solely on race. They vote for the person they feel will best represent their interests. They voted for Gore, they voted for Clinton and they voted for Kerry. Sorry, but it is whites that tend to vote based race much more often.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  3. liz48

    Blum has to be on another planet....I am a bprn again Christian and cannot with a free conscience positively vote for a person who is an offense to God in what he supports; and this is the president of the country!

    May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jay

      Really? The bible says that "God is not partial" (1 Cor 10: 34,35) Yet americans seem to think God aligns himself with particular nations and supports mans corrupt governments.

      My point, If you're a true christian, you shouldn't be involved in politics....

      May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Bob L

      I doubt you would be voting for him anyway. Either way he's only really coming out for equal rights and he's not actually doing anything about it (leaving it to the states).

      May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Jay

      OOPS! That should be ACTS 10:34,35. Silly me.....

      May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • sam stone

      liz: you have no authority to speak for god

      May 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • BFD

      Really? Then how do you explain away voting for someone that is willing to cut aid to the poor, and let people die due to lack of medical care? Hypocritical much?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  4. Jay

    False religion.... Always meddling in politics. Real faith does not require trying to influence man's corrupt and broken and governments.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  5. a disgrace

    HOPE AND DREAMS TURNED OUT TO BE VACATIONS AND PARTIES! ALL OF AMERICA IS GOING TO MAKE A EXAMPLE OF OBAMA AND COLOR WONT MATTER....

    May 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • CB

      Turn off the Faux News, it is rotting your brain.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  6. AnAmerican

    At one time, not too long ago, it was a major change to the laws of marrige if you wanted to marry outside your race and dozens of states VOTED that into law. LOL!!! Guess what America, you can no longer write discrimination into law.

    See – its this little thing called deomcracy that keeps gettin in the way! And that darn statement "....with liberty and justice for all." As well as Majority rules, with Minority rights. Darn Democracy!

    NC's vote will be knocked down in court and it does not matter if you like it or not, Obama is on the right side of history.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • DD

      You claim democracy will kill the opposition to gay marriage, but then you state that a law that was overwhelmingly supported by the majority of voters will be overturned in the courts. Sounds like you don't understand democracy very well. Unfortunately, what we have in America right now is the democratic process being destroyed by liberal judges. Look at the states who have voted on this issue and you will see that the American people don't want gay marriage.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • AnAmerican

      Duhhh DD – That's what the courts are for in a democracy!! What do you think majority rules with minority rights means! If it were left to the majority to vote for minority rights, African American's would still be living under Jim Crowe (which was voted into law by the majority), inter-racial marrige would still be illegal (which was voted for by the majority), women would not be able to vote, minorities would still be regulated into low jobs/education, minoirities would not be able to vote, women would have no rights - shall I go on?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  7. Sheepleherder

    Ironic that people who still suffer discrimination, would make such a determined effort to discriminate against others.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  8. David

    To even think that any previous persecuted group of people would not stand behind the President on this issue is embarrassing....equal justice .... Equal opportunity...we are all equal....what is so difficult to understand...live and let live

    May 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • as;ldkfj;aksl

      That's a bunch of crap. In 2008 when they were voting for their first black president they were all gung ho. At the same time they were advancing their agenda they vote against gays having rights.

      So much for fighting for civil rights. I guess it only counts if you are black.

      What a joke... a bunch of black bigots. Who would have imagined.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  9. Mike

    I truly hope not! I might be gay, but I still love my black brothers and sisters the same as the rest of my friends. I would also never be afraid to step in and lend them a hand if they needed it. We must stick together those of us that are actively discriminated against daily. Thank you VJ and Aretha for helping to reinforce my colorblindness. And thanks for helping me to come out of the closet and stop being afraid by always living in fear of being found out.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  10. Blue Eyes

    I admire him for speaking out. He simply stated that everyone should have the same rights. He did not say that he was for or against and he difinately did not bring his faith/belief into it. Everyone has the right to be treated the same.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  11. Yma Sumac

    Why are blacks and hispanics even debating this? Given their own fight for their own equality and justice in America, their full-fledged and wholehearted support of equality and justice for gays and lesbians *should* be a no-brainer.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Freedom524

      Because they have morals

      May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jay

      Its not just a "black vs. gay issue". Its a (so called) "black CHRISTIAN vs. gay issue" .. Obviously you'll see these people will deny their faith just to help Obama.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  12. chaz

    think of it Mr Pres...if everyone went around saying "I'm the President" it would take the special meaning out of BEING the president...its the same with being Married...please get another word for it, and giver it equal legal value...that was we can tell the difference

    May 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Christine

      I don't like the assumption that people of any skin color would vote based on just one issue. As an African American woman I know you have to look at everything the candidates stand for and decide which you think is best. When it comes down to it, even if I don't agree with SMM – I still support Obama. Look at my other option! Would I vote for Mitt Romney? Never in a million years.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • shellz

      I think your logic is faulty. You say give them the same rights but call it another name so we "can tell the difference". If something is the same then, it is THE SAME. Do you remember "separate but equal", didn't really work out that way did it?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Marriage? Well, how bout "civil marriage" or "marriage union?" Does that help you with the distiction?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • sam stone

      gosh, that is sooo right, chaz....let's make it more special by restricting it to white folks. sure, them darkies can have equal rights, but just can't be married like us special folk

      May 11, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  13. Jay

    Turning your back on Christ and Gods word to support a man? Some "christians".

    The bible says, "Do not put your trust in nobles, nor the son of earthling man, to which the way of salvation does not belong."

    May 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • cdgfla

      The bible also says its okay to kill your wife for adultry, that a man lived inside of a fish, and that a man combined 2 of every plant and animal species on earth inside a boat smaller than a WWII aircraft carrier.

      Yeah...

      May 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  14. BillyD1953

    There is something particularly disturbing to me about any African American using Christianity, the religion of the slave masters of their own ancestors, to now discriminate against gays, another minority long victimized simply for being born different. These black ministers should all be ashamed of themselves. They are a disgrace to the long, difficult, and continuing fight for the civil and human rights of minorities in our society.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Religion of the Oppressed

      You shouldn't be offended. The religion of the oppressed was the Christian faith. Read a hymn book, look at the black national anthem, read civil rights speeches, read a biography on tubman, Douglass, etc. They all believed in Christian faith and saw it's MISUSE for what it was. Abolitionist trumpeted the cause using the Christian faith etc.

      To say that it was just the religion of the oppressor is revionist history. The bible said that kidnapping a person and putting them into slavery was punishable by death. That's a strong prohibition. The oppressed also found parallels in the story of the children of Israel and their experience in Egypt also........................

      May 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  15. MAGAPE29

    1. AnAmerican is CORRECT..
    2. More CHRISTians would be fine with it if they named it commitment NOT Marriage. That’s where you lose A LOT of CHRISTians & African-Americans..
    sn: If more people had a living will, power-of-attorney, regular will &/ a medical directorate then this foolishness wouldn’t happen.. Laziness is never cute
    3. CNN be careful of who you have on as a guest. Jamal Bryant isn’t a good representative of any one. He’s a pimp in the pulpit who LOVES cheating on his spouse, having kids out of wedlock (alive & aborted), taking money from the church to accommodate his "image", and sleeping with multiple women (including vulnerable college students he supposed to be "counseling"). That isn’t a person to interview about the church nor marriage. (Go to Baltimore & find the truth about him not the lies he, his publicist and his staff want people to believe.) You are better off interviewing pastors like P.M. Smith (Huber Memorial), Bishop Thomas (New Psalmist) or Gregory Perkins (St. Paul Community Baptist) who are known for being legit in the community and practicing what they preach.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Hypocrites

      The CHRISTian marriage must also get a name change. Jesus spoke out against divorce. CHRISTians gradually changed the rules. CHRISTians now give divorce a big fat waiver. CHRISTians have turned the sworn oath in the name of God into a joke, "Until death do us part," has been turned into, "Until the next hot chick."

      Divorce is a CHOICE!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  16. Jake

    Tired of churces, religion, religious spokesman and others designing our form of Government. Stay in the business you are in and let government do it's job. None of you have any business in telling Government what to do, nor does Government has any business preaching from your pulpit. Seperation of state and church...ever heard of that and what it means?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  17. God

    I knew I shouldn't have created blacks, they are always causing problems.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • GOD

      Satan, please stop using my username.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • calvin

      Really, !! Blacks are always creating problems! Jesus help you for Mocking Him. God help You to see that Man is the Problem-No Matter what Race, Gender, Color they are!!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Thunder

      Only the devil would say something like that. God loves all people, and He DOESNT make mistakes.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  18. Carla Nelson

    Let me say this Obama is in a hard place. Now I don't agree with the choice he made because he is the POTUS. But what I do agree with him on is that you can't discriminate against anybody because of you religous beliefs. I'm An Afro American so I know how it feels to be discrimnitaed against because of color. Once upon a time A black man couldn't go in a place to eat or even ride a bus, or even vote. Now we might sat that this is different. It is not different because what if a gay person told me me that your people struggled for rights. Remember you can tell a gay person why it is wrong and even take them to the BIble but you still have to show that person love because in the end no sin is greater than the other all will be judge by GOD and not man. I will still vote for him becaue this Gay thing has been around since Jesus time and you will not stop it by just not letting them get married because it is also wrong for people to live together also wether it is man or woman or to of the same kind. So what I'm saying is that people are responsible for how they make choices. It is just like if you have son or daughter involved with someone you don't approve of but all you can do is treat that person nice.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Rick Springfield

      In my town, only Black people now ride the buses. The entire bus system is ran by Black people from executive director to drivers to maintenance workers. Its a boon for crime because gangstas will ride them and rob old women who just cashed in their SNAP or welfare checks. Onboard video will show the old ladies getting robbed and then yelling" Driver, stops the bus. I just been robbed." The driver then says, "Aiynt my problem. I axed my boss about stopping for these robberies and he says to just get the stops done. Honey,yooze going to have to call the police when yoooze gets to your crib."

      May 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  19. B Like

    A moron selling his soul for votes ,, you are by far the worst president that ever stepped on this country's soil ...

    May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • satan

      I think you mean G.W. Bush, dipsh!t.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • cdgfla

      Says the bigotted, white, and uneducated tea party voter that conveniently forgets the disaster of 8 years of GWB.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Dean

      Correct...Obama is a holy idiot.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Your mamma made a mistake in having you!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • CB

      So, you awoke from a 8 year coma in 2009?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  20. K

    Most blacks will support Obama no matter what he says or does. This is called racism

    May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Saboth

      Or...simply supporting a president that has done a good job for 4 years and is the president GW wishes he could have been.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Jay

      Most whites will hate him no matter what he does. So whats your point?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • rick1948

      You mean like the people who always vote Republican or Democrat – no matter what?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Mike

      Good job for 4 years? Where have you been?
      Since he took office there is higher unemployment, more jobs gone overseas, fuel costs have skyrocketed, deficits the like we have NEVER seen. But oh, I forgot, it's all Bush's fault isn't it?
      Your exucses began before Obama was ever elected. If things improved in the U.S. you would credit him. If they didn't (which they haven't) you would blame Bush.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      I disagree with your analogy! Eighty percent of blacks voted for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale and Dukakis! So what's your point?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.