The question still remains. Did President Barack Obama make a mistake by endorsing gay marriage? Will the African-American community still support him?
“I cannot support the idea of gay marriage, considering I believe marriage should certainly be between a man and woman. After all, that’s the way God meant for it to be,” said one of Philadelphia’s more prominent ministers. “But, I still believe that President Obama is the best man for the job. Sometimes we have to put aside our personal beliefs for the betterment of this country. We are not always going to agree with the decisions of our president, or our leaders in general.”
By now it’s no secret that a significant number of the nation’s Black clergy have not agreed with President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage. Some were even offended. Needless to say, the results are varied.
Last Sunday, most of the African-American churches throughout the country had something to say about the issue. And while there was a serious outcry deriding the president’s resolution on the subject — most still spoke highly of the man himself. There was a minority, like the Reverend Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who spoke in favor of the decision and the president’s growing change of heart.
Bishop Timothy Clarke, head of the First Church of God, a large African-American church with a television ministry in Columbus, Ohio, was perhaps most typical. He addressed the president’s comments after receiving a flood of calls, emails and text messages from members of his congregation.
“No church or group is monolithic,” Bishop Clarke said to USA Today. “Some were powerfully agitated and disappointed. Others were curious — why now? To what end? Others were hurt. And others, to be honest, told me it’s not an issue and they don’t have a problem with it.”
Like others around the country, the bishop told his congregation that he opposed gay marriage. It is not just a social issue, he said, but a religious one for those who follow the Bible. “The spiritual issue is ground in the word of God.”
“That said, I believe the statement the president made and his decision was made in good faith. I am sure because the president is a good man. I know his decision was made after much thought and consideration and, I’m sure, even prayer.”
The conflicted sentiments within African-American churches reflect a broader struggle in the American public. A USA Today Poll showed that slightly more than half of Americans agreed with the president’s decision. A scientifically valid breakdown of African Americans was not available, but past polls have shown Blacks generally to be opposed to gay marriage.
The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have also weighed in behind President Obama. Long-time segregation fighter and now U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina has gone further than Obama, saying it is a question of civil rights and should not be left to the states.
None of the local leaders believes the issue will have much effect on support among African Americans in the next election. “We are not one-issue people,” one minister said.
African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but they also have a strong history of following their religious leaders. The Black community has been among the least supportive of gay issues, even of African Americans coming out of the closet.
A Pew study last month found the percentage of Blacks favoring gay marriage has increased from 26 percent in 2008 to 39 percent now; those opposed, however, numbered just under half. Others note that even the conversation sparked by recent events was almost impossible a decade ago.
This divergence from other usually liberal sectors showed up in 2008 when Californians voted on Proposition 8 in support of a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to separate genders. A CNN exit poll showed that 70 percent of African Americans supported Prop 8; at the same time, 94 percent voted for President Obama. Majorities of other ethnic groups also backed the measure, but not by numbers as large as the Black voters.
Although not loudly, President Obama himself opposed the amendment, which federal courts have since ruled unconstitutional, but without removing the stay on gay marriage.
The president, who also has belonged to African-American Christian churches, has said his position on same-sex marriage has been developing. Polls find that many consider his recent declaration in favor of same-sex marriage to be politically motivated in an election year after he was put in a corner by statements by Vice President Joe Biden.
When a few days later North Carolina voters passed an amendment to ban same-sex marriage, partnerships and civil unions (similar restrictions have been written into other states around the country), President Obama issued his ground-breaking statement. That landed him on the cover of Newsweek, which declared him the nation’s “first gay president.”
Pastor Enoch Fuzz of Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church of Nashville, Tenn., said last week that he understood why many pastors opposed gay marriage, although he supports gay marriage. “I know many in the Black community have trouble accepting gay marriage,” he said. “But all of us have gay friends or family, and we love them.”
Fuzz said he thinks the president’s comments won’t hurt him politically, although some African-American Christians may be upset with him.
“There’s really no better option,” Fuzz said to Religion News Service. “People are not going to go out and vote for Mitt Romney.”
In Columbus, Mayor Michael Coleman is confident Black churches and voters will stick with the president, even if they disagree over gay marriage. The four-term African-American mayor made the same conversion himself on the issue of gay marriage — for the same reasons — this year.
“I had to evolve on the issue and think it through, too, and I came to the conclusion it was the right thing,” said Coleman, a Democrat who supports Obama. “When it is the right thing to do, politics is irrelevant.”
Obama won’t be abandoned by Black churches either, not in the key swing state of Ohio, Coleman said. “Many in the pastoral community appreciate his courage in making the decision, even if they disagree,” Coleman says.
In North Carolina, where Black churches helped pass a constitutional amendment last week banning gay marriage, Ron Gates, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Asheville/Buncombe County, decided not to focus on gay marriage in his sermon last Sunday, but instead make it “a footnote,” so his continued support for the amendment was clear.
“I support my president and love my president, but I think he is wrong,” said Keith Ogden, pastor of the predominantly Black Hill Street Baptist Church in Asheville, to Religion News. “He is not God, and he doesn’t speak for all Black folk because he is African-American.”
Religion News Service and USA Today contributed to this report.
Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for The Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at zackburgess.com.