The Black Church, Obama, and Gay Marriage

The Black Church, Obama, and Gay Marriage

“There’s no way I can support this man now.”

“I disagree with his decision, but not enough to make me vote for the alternative.”

 “Obama is too calculating to have made this view known apart from some political strategy. I need to let this marinate.”

Those are just a few of the comments we overheard from different Christians following President Barack Obama’s announcement that he now supports same-sex marriage. His “evolution” on the issue dominated the news last week, and his explanation about how his personal faith informed the decision opened up a wide-ranging discussion on gay rights, the Bible, and the proper Christian response.

For the record, UrbanFaith maintains a traditional view of Christian marriage as an institution ordained by God to be a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman. However, we recognize there is a diversity of Christian opinion on the subject of homosexuality and gay rights, especially within the African American community. So, we asked a spectrum of Black Christian leaders to share their perspectives on President Obama’s announcement and the subject of same-sex marriage. The opinions that follow belong to the respondents and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of UrbanFaith.

Not a Central Issue for the Black Community

Dr. Vincent Bacote

The president’s public affirmation of the legalization of same-sex marriage will not be a surprise to many people, because his “evolving views” have trended in this direction for quite a while. It could be problematic in November with some demographics, but most likely he will still have the great majority of the African American vote because this isn’t one of the central issues for the community; even though same-sex marriage is strongly resisted by the community, other commitments will likely lead to a share of the vote similar to what he received four years ago…. But I could be wrong. It is certainly possible that this was a great political miscalculation.

Vincent E. Bacote (Ph.D., Drew University) is an Associate Professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. He is the author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper and the editor of Precepts for Living, Urban Ministries Inc.’s annual Bible commentary.

Rev. Chris Williamson

Offensive to God

President Obama’s position on gay marriage is not only offensive to God, it should also be offensive to all Christians. With one insidious statement, he threw another piece of dynamite at the institution of marriage that God designed and always intended (i.e. one man married to one woman). But as we rightfully criticize the president, we should also pray for him. May God send someone to help him rethink and even retract this hellish statement in the light of Scripture.

Those of us who want to see the president reclaim a position of truth should let him know. Here’s the letter that I sent to the White House following Mr. Obama’s announcement:

Mr. President,

Because of your recent statement in support of gay marriage, you will not get my vote in November for a second term unless you retract.

Truthfully, I’m very disappointed in you. You profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, yet you form and endorse opinions that contradict the words of Jesus. I love you, Mr. President, but I love Jesus more. What Jesus says has more authority than what you say and how your friends choose to live.

I will be glad to write you or speak with you about what Jesus teaches on this subject. Just let me know.

You will continue to be in my prayers.

Sincerely,

Chris Williamson

Chris Williamson is the founder and senior pastor of Strong Tower Bible Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Since 1995, Strong Tower has been a disciple-making, Bible-based, multi-ethnic church committed to Up-Reach, In-Reach, and Out-Reach. Rev. Williamson is the author of One But Not the Same: God’s Diverse Kingdom Come Through Race, Class, and Gender.

Dr. Cheryl Sanders

Seeing the Larger Picture

President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality will alienate some of his constituents who are Bible-believing Christians, including some African Americans. However, I hope that the voters will take note of his positions on weightier matters such as unemployment, education, and foreign policy and not allow the same-sex issue to overshadow them, as occurred in 2004 when evangelical voters helped to re-elect President George Bush on the basis of his opposition to same-sex marriage without regard to his miscalculated policies in Iraq and at home. I think this is an opportune time for religious leaders to assess President Obama’s accountability to African American congregations and denominations on our most pressing social and political concerns, and then apply the same measure to Republican contender Governor Mitt Romney.

Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders is Professor of Christian Ethics, Howard University School of Divinity, and senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. She has authored several books, including Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth & the Poor (1997) and Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (1996).

Andrew Wilkes

Rethinking Sola Scriptura

Obama’s announcement reveals an inconsistency in African American biblical interpretation at the congregational and denominational levels. Black clergy routinely contextualize scriptural passages on slavery and women while simultaneously insisting on a plain, non-contextualized reading of Scripture in regards to sexuality and gay marriage. This diversity of interpretative strategies is rarely acknowledged. Regardless of where we stand, it’s time we eradicate the fiction that our moral conclusions are strictly and exclusively reached by reasoning from Scripture. Once we deconstruct the notion that any of our positions are “Biblical” with a capital B, we can then charitably discuss our respective visions of how to faithfully interpret the canon of Scripture on matters of sexuality. Such discussion can help us accomplish the positive good of Christians modeling charitable dialogue to a corrosive political culture and the negative good of ceasing to bear false witness — theologically conservative black churches/denominations in regards to theologically liberal ones and vice versa.

President Obama has supported gay marriage since his first run for public office in 1996. What has evolved, therefore, is not Obama’s position but public opinion. Some speculate that the White House tested the political waters by rolling out the support of Vice President Biden and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan prior to Obama’s announcement. I’m not sure if that’s the case—we’ll find out when Obama releases his presidential memoirs. In terms of reelection, I doubt that Obama’s support will decrease the voter turnout or the likely scenario that African Americans predominantly vote for him in 2012. Black folks know Obama is not a theologian-in-chief, but our commander-in-chief. Secondly, President Obama is generally regarded as stronger than Gov. Romney on issues of greatest import to college-educated African-Americans (his most reliable voting bloc) — jobs, supporting small business, expanding educational opportunity, and so on. As Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic once tweeted, “No one gets everything they want in a candidate.” Since the Voting Rights Act, black voters, whether Republican or Democrat, have never seen — and will never see — a fully satisfying candidate for President of the United States. Believing that such a candidate exists, or that Obama was that candidate, is an understandable but lamentable sign of political immaturity. I hope that we grow up civically, prioritize the issues according to our respective metrics, and then see how the votes aggregate once it’s all over.

Andrew Wilkes, an UrbanFaith columnist, works at Habitat for Humanity-NYC as the Faith and Community Relations associate and serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York. He is an alumnus of the Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Hampton University. You can follow him on Twitter at: @andrewjwilkes.

Dr. DeForest Soaries

Not So Fast

“I didn’t hear the president propose a government program or policy. He expressed a personal opinion, which he has the right to do.”

Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey.

Rev. Julian DeShazier

The Incompatibility of God and Caesar

Will President Obama lose some of the Christian Right in this year’s electorate? Sure, but he lost most of them already, and he’ll win a few back after the poor discover how out of touch “Daddy Warbucks” Romney really is. And if you think the Black Church (not a monolith) won’t vote for Obama over this: wrong again. The Latino vote (again, not a monolith) is overwhelmingly conservative theologically, and this may stir the pot. Overall, though, I have to believe there are more civil rights sympathizers (who want equal rights period, regardless of the issue) than ideologues. The media gives the microphone to the dogmatists, but I suspect the levelheaded have been listening to The Who (or at least watching CSI: Miami) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” That is, if they remember George W. Bush.

The issue itself needs to be considered on civil and religious grounds — and not at the same time. The Bible should not dictate policy or how rights are distributed; God and Caesar make “strange bedfellows,” as Leo Tolstoy once remarked, and ironically, as Jesus agreed (Matt. 22:21). Yet as we render unto Caesar, we church leaders must affirm our prophetic DNA — to name when Caesar is denying basic human dignity. It happened with slavery. It happened with abortion. It is happening now with health-care rights for women, and with the issue of same-sex marriage. You may assess the decision itself on biblical grounds (as unsound an argument as that is), but Caesar cannot deny the ability to decide. This is a putrid yet common discrimination — to deny choice because of our displeasure at how one may choose — and it is an offense to God. Every citizen is also a child of God.

What the Bible says about homosexuality is fairly clear: not much, and almost never in the context we intend. But should theology shape policy? Should the office of the President also be a seat of moral authority? I worry that the trajectory of human history, including (mostly) politics, has been in search of a more perfect Christianity, and it has proven a crash course. But if we can use our worldview in search of Truth, instead of assuming these are the same, then the kingdom may be closer than we think.

Rev. Julian “J.Kwest” DeShazier regularly provides social commentary surrounding youth, ethics, and culture. A graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School, Julian is the senior pastor of University Christian Church in Chicago, his hometown. To build with this scholar, activist, and artist, hit him up at www.jkwest.com.

A Lament for Trayvon Martin

A Lament for Trayvon Martin

On Sunday, February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man, argues that he was acting in self-defense. Incredibly, Mr. Zimmerman has not yet been arrested. However, due to the organizing efforts of his parents, civil rights groups, MSNBC shows, and concerned citizens, the latest racialized miscarriage of our criminal justice system is now getting the widespread attention that it deserves. On Monday, March 20th, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are embarking upon an independent investigation into the causes and circumstances of Mr. Martin’s death. Many important commentaries have been written on the death of Trayvon Martin: in particular, Mark Jefferson’s piece on the Urban Cusp merits special attention.

My aim in writing about Mr. Martin emerges from a threefold motivation. First, Christians ought to publicly lament when a young black man receives a death-dealing blow — or in this case, gunshot — due to an unjustifiable use of force. The occasion for lament intensifies when one considers that local law enforcement, as of today, has not yet arrested Mr. Zimmerman. This apparent disregard for one of our most cherished legal precepts — equal justice under the law — is a principal reason why Mr. Martin’s family, along with hundreds of thousands of citizens across this nation, are protesting and petitioning on behalf of Trayvon Martin. While all of the relevant facts of the situation are not in, it seems highly probable that engaging an unarmed teenager with deadly force will exceed any legal appeal to self-defense. Lament, as Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann notes, is a profound, prophetic indication that something is out of joint socially — a visible acknowledgement that God’s just and peaceable dream of shalom has been shattered in the world. Speaking frankly, a multiracial lament concerning the murder of Mr. Martin might help reduce the cynicism many black and brown Christians harbor about where racial justice stands within evangelical movements for racial reconciliation.

Second, Mr. Martin’s parents have started a petition that merits signing. I encourage you to read about the particulars of his case and consider offering your support.

Thirdly, if you reside in the Greater New York City area, I invite you to attend “A Million Hoody March,” which will be held at Union Square starting this evening at 6 o’clock. The hoody signifies Mr. Martin’s article of clothing at the time of his death.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the moral arc of Florida’s criminal justice system is bending towards injustice. We can, if we will, play a part in tilting it towards justice.

Click here to read and sign the petition demanding that justice be done in the Trayvon Martin case.

The Journey to 2012

The Journey to 2012

Welcome to that crazy point in the American political cycle where chatter and buzz about potential presidential candidates swell and subside at a seemingly nonstop rate. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen prominent GOP personalities of all stripes announce their addition to or subtraction from the 2012 conversation at a steady clip. Meanwhile, President Obama’s reelection campaign is on. But even after his triumphant takedown of Osama bin Laden, there’s no surefire guarantee of his 2012 success, and poll numbers reveal that the bump in his approval ratings following bin Laden’s death is already waning.

In light of this looming political crossroads, we asked three Christian commentators to offer their thoughts on Barack Obama’s presidency thus far, what he must do to be reelected, and how we can begin changing the polarized atmosphere in America today. Our panel of contributors includes R. Drew Smith on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on Obama’s presidency; Larycia A. Hawkins on how Obama’s reluctance to embrace his “blackness” hurts his presidency; and Andrew Wilkes on why it’s imperative that all Americans take responsibility to “do good” in between elections.

Barack Obama and the Niebuhr Presidency
By R. Drew Smith

Barack Obama has noted the influences on his thinking of prominent, twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. More than one recent president has cited Niebuhr’s influence, but Obama’s presidency has more strongly embraced core tenets of Niebuhr’s realism about the political importance of approximating rather than absolutizing our political ideals, and about the willingness to take required actions (even when inconsistent with our deeper purposes and preferences) in pursuit of those proximate objectives.

Niebuhr’s analysis provides reinforcement to the adage “politics is the art of compromise.” Most American presidents have been clear on this point — although there have been strong arguments for at least two recent exceptions. The presidencies of Jimmy Carter and of George W. Bush, who both cited Niebuhr as influential in their thinking, were much less given to a Niebuhrian approximation of good than Obama seems to be. Both Presidents Carter and Bush were sharply criticized for their uncompromising leadership styles. Ironically, President Obama has been equally criticized for his compromising style.

For Niebuhr, compromise was not something pursued for its intrinsic value (i.e., compromise for the sake of compromise), nor merely out of a desire to achieve or retain positions of leadership. Compromise was a means for achieving a common good. Similarly, Obama has understood that, in politics, you rarely get everything you want and, in order to set some of what you want, and to govern on behalf of all of the people, you may have to swallow some things you find unpleasant. This has been his approach in each of his major legislative initiatives and in the battles over the federal budget — with his end results being successfully formalized policies that in each instance have been decried on several fronts for their presumed deficiencies.

Here Obama is not being inconsistent with what he projected during his presidential campaign. He was elected in large part because he symbolized a change from politics-as-usual. He represented a bigness in his projection of ideals at the heart of the American political imagination — ideals related to being a nation fundamentally committed to rights, freedom, and opportunity for its citizens and for the world. Obama’s health-reform bill, his economic stimulus program, his budgetary battles over key educational and social-service assistance he believes are definitive of American government, and his diplomatic or military pressures in support of political reforms in Egypt, Libya, and Ivory Coast are more suggestive than not of the idealism supported by voters in 2008.

Obama has certainly not been pitch-perfect in the compromises he has reached. The current budget’s draconian cuts to safety-net programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) smack of a familiar calculation about the political expendability of the poor — or, in Obama’s own words, “asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it.” Should programs effectively responding to persons most in need have been non-negotiable items in Obama’s budget, and in his presidency? Asked another way, was acceptance of the funding cuts to a program like WIC in the interest of a proximate good, or was it an unwillingness to take required actions for achieving that proximate good?

American presidents possess significant leadership capital, and how they choose to expend that capital is what defines their presidencies. What defined Obama’s candidacy was that it embodied something more in the eyes of voters than his personal quest for the office. The fact that he has been able to achieve constructive compromises within America’s polarized, zero-sum political context is a feat for which he deserves applause — and one for which he was singularly well-suited. Nevertheless, his presidential term, and his prospects for reelection, will turn on how well he connects his political actions to a broader good and how well the American people understand those connections.

Dr. R. Drew Smith is Director of the Center for Church and the Black Experience at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Scholar-in-Residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. He has edited numerous volumes on churches and public life, including Black Churches and Local Politics: Clergy Influence, Organizational Partnerships, and Civic Empowerment and New Day Begun: African American Churches and Civic Culture in Post-Civil Rights America. He is currently writing a book on black churches and contemporary public policy activism.


Can I Get a Black President?
By Larycia A. Hawkins

Perhaps Barack Obama’s strategy of racial transcendence during the 2008 presidential campaign was understandable. As an outsider candidate with little name recognition at the provenance of his bid for the White House, Obama had to fashion a broad, patchwork base of the American public. So above the racial fray he went.
But as a former community organizer among black communities, surely he could code switch, that is, speak to the black community in familiar tones (when on the Southside, do as the Southsiders do), galvanizing black support by highlighting particular black concerns, right?

Wrong. Even when engaging the black community on issues of black concerns, candidate Obama spoke the racially patronizing language of personal responsibility. Translation: white middle-class values are the standard of societal respectability, and African Americans? They are a hot mess. During his June 2008 Father’s Day speech at Apostolic Church of God on Chicago’s Southside, Obama did not parlay the pulpit into an opportunity to cast a vision for how he planned to address black concerns, but he instead disregarded a black agenda in favor of castigating black behavior.

The primary glint of a black president has been Obama’s cadence, which when in black communities does sound like that of a black preacher. So, black concerns he will not emphasize, but the black church he will use as a resource when it suits the moment.

President Obama is certainly cognizant of the fact that some policies are of heightened import to black communities. Indeed, in his famed race speech in March 2008, Obama recommended that black Americans, “…(bind) our particular grievances — for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family” (emphasis added).

The President’s conflation of black grievances and broader American grievances–which he personifies as white–is in short, grievous. While joblessness is undoubtedly painful for all Americans, joblessness plagues the African American community with furious ferocity given that black unemployment is double white unemployment. While white women may still struggle to shatter the glass ceiling, black women must still struggle to get a foot past the interview door given the fact that their ethnic names render them less likely than white women to get an interview in the first place.

Can I get a black president who does not talk down to the black community, but who rather acknowledges the peculiar burden of race and the double burden of race and gender?

Can I get a black president who does not capitulate to the post-racial cacophony that renders race irrelevant to crafting policies about problems that differentially affect white and black and Latino Americans?

So what must President Obama do to be successful in 2012? Where race is concerned, nothing is ever simple, but an acknowledgement of the utility rather than the futility of a black agenda will improve the President’s standing among black communities and with the Congressional Black Caucus. Yes You Can be a black President for black concerns, Mr. Obama.

Dr. Larycia A. Hawkins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College. She is a co-editor of the book Religion and American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Her research includes projects exploring black theology and its relationship to political rhetoric and black political agendas, like those of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP. Prior to academia, she worked in state government administering federal programs, including the Social Security Disability program and the Community Development Block Grant.


A Civic Altar Call
 By Andrew Wilkes

The race for the 2012 presidential election is in full swing. President Obama recently commenced his campaign, released his first ad, and convened a $30,800-per-plate fundraiser in Harlem. On the Republican side, former Governors Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney have both established exploratory committees — which, in plain-folks’ English, means they’re running for President. As we move towards 2012, our attention will increasingly shift towards the drama of electoral politics.

But what if all of us — and not only politicians — are elected for public service? What if God created us in Christ for good works? St. Augustine envisioned sin as the state of being turned inward upon oneself. Given this portrayal, the implication is that election is not only about our hearts flowering open to God, but also about our hearts pivoting, in love, towards the neighbors, enemies, and strangers in our midst.

In a representative democracy, we often assume that our elected representatives will handle all of our public concerns. Everyday folks, we surmise, have to take the kids to school, perform well at work, and wake everyone up for Sunday service. We consider ourselves to be exemplary citizens, moreover, if we watch a presidential debate or two, read a candidate’s policy platform, and set aside the time to vote. Both concerns are legitimate. Private matters should not be sacrificed on an altar of the common good. Informed electoral participation is indeed commendable.

A fuller sense of human flourishing before God, however, involves taking responsibility for our communities between election cycles. The work of democracy relies on a voting public, but also includes the tasks of board governance in nonprofits, broad parent engagement in local schools, and sustained involvement within — or perhaps the reform of — public institutions like libraries, hospitals, and prisons.

Presidential elections are critical inflection points within our society. What happens in November every four years impacts the national budget, the operation of federal agencies, and the resources of state, county, and local governments. Their importance, though, does not depreciate our sacred summons to “do good to all as we have opportunity” (Gal. 6:10). God is issuing a civic altar call to those with ears to hear. Our communities, our congregations, and our precious children await our response.

Andrew Wilkes is a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, as well as a contributing writer for Sojourners Magazine, and a Huffington Post blogger. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Hampton University, he has worked as a Freedom Schools teaching intern for the Children’s Defense Fund, a policy and organizing fellow for Sojourners, and a policy intern during the first administration of Newark Mayor Cory Booker. You can follow him on Twitter: @andrewjwilkes.