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.

Tony Evans: Gay Marriage Is Not a Civil Rights Issue

Tony Evans: Gay Marriage Is Not a Civil Rights Issue

ALTERNATIVE VOICE: Dr. Tony Evans pastors the 9,000-member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and is president of the Urban Alternative, a national ministry devoted to restoring hope in families. (Photo: Bob Daemmrich/Newscom)

When President Obama announced that he now supports same-sex marriage, he cited his Christian faith as the reason for his “evolving” views. Yet for many other Christians, their commitment to Jesus Christ and an orthodox view of the Bible is the reason why they reject homosexuality as a valid lifestyle.

In a report on NPR’s Morning Edition, Dallas preacher and bestselling author Tony Evans said the issue is especially intense in African American churches. “The breakdown of the family is the single greatest challenge that we face today,” said Evans, which is why he believes black pastors are often the most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage.

NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty then asked Evans about the argument that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue like race, but Evans wasn’t having it. “The issue of race is not an issue of choice. It’s an issue of birth,” he said.

When Hagerty asked Evans whether he believes homosexuality is a choice, he replied: “The Bible is clear on that one too. And that is, sexual relationships are to be between men and women within the context of marriage. That’s not only related to the issue of homosexuality, but adultery, or fornication or bestiality. All of that is proscribed in the Bible.”

Read and listen to the entire report here.

Kirk Cameron’s ‘Unnatural’ Controversy

Kirk Cameron’s ‘Unnatural’ Controversy

SPEAKING OUT: Actor Kirk Cameron during his infamous March 2 appearance on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight."

To everyone who’s gay, was gay, has gay friends, supports gay rights: Christians don’t hate gay people. Or, despite those who actually feel that way, hatred is not an official Christian position and doesn’t appear in the WWJD handbook.

I know the rhetoric suggests otherwise whenever some religious personalities appear on TV. But please understand that the message from the loudest seemingly self-appointed Bible expositors on your nearest conservative broadcast affiliate aren’t telling the whole truth.

I don’t necessarily put Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron in the same vitriolic category as some others, despite headlines from his March 2 interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan. I read the entire transcript to confirm my assessment; though, initially, I was annoyed at what I thought was yet another loudmouth misrepresenting what it means to follow Christ. I didn’t get the sense that “Michael Seaver” was trying to browbeat anyone or trumpet an idea for the masses to bow down and accept. He was simply answering the question he was asked as honestly as he could. Still, something was missing from his now-infamous declaration that “[homosexuality is] unnatural … detrimental and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.”

(For the record, you know what else is unnatural? That sugary orange drink in the indistinct plastic container. I could probably make a biblical case for why it and others like it should be forbidden. But I digress.)

Make no mistake: I know what the Bible says about homosexuality in Leviticus, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, albeit in translated versions. However, my experience as a Christian who’s constantly stumbling reminds me that grace is the determining factor of how I got to this point of trying to honor God in all my thoughts, words, and actions. A part of that means extending the same love and grace that I’ve received to everyone else — regardless of what others believes or how they behave.

Anything less than that offends my Christian sensitivity to all people, all who are equally subject to doing things that would offend God. The Bible has a whole list of those things spanning across the Old and New Testaments. I’ve committed my fair share of sin, and with help from several friends, family members, and associates, we’ve likely got a majority of them covered – and that list, unfortunately, includes murder. I bet the same is true in every social circle worldwide. So, who are we to cherry pick one offense for an opportunity to don a white wig in judgment?

But that’s exactly what happens when someone wages any variety of anti-gay campaigns that distort the universally extended love of Christ. The most vocal “broadcast Christians” don’t seem to have campaigns against arrogance, envy, severe anger, laziness, lust in all its forms, greed nor gluttony. Those are the deadly ones. Other documented abominations — translation: things God hates — such as cheating, adultery, lying and creating drama (biblically known as sowing seeds of discord) seem minor.

I’m not sure why homosexuality is singled out and made into a determining factor for goodness or depravity, and it is not my desire to argue for or against it. While for some people homosexuality may be an embraced choice, for others it is natural — much in the same way it might feel natural for a married man to “check out” a woman other than his wife. Feelings happen, but acting on them is another story.

Recognizing my own weaknesses  — as well as the fact that I’m not God — I’m in no position to judge. I’m also in no position to say what is or what isn’t so in the mind of someone compelled to be someone that I’m not, or do something that I wouldn’t.

As Christians, we’ve received and continue to get too much grace, forgiveness, and abounding love from God to condemn anyone else. In light of that, I often have to wonder, Where is the love?

I didn’t see it in the One Million Moms’ attempt to have Ellen DeGeneres fired as spokeswoman for J.C. Penney. I don’t see it in any of the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church. I certainly don’t hear it in the Christian conservative discourse of the current political season.

And I am sick of not seeing it from people professing to be my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Perhaps it’s popular to protest the existence of gay people to prove you’re really Christian. It has to be. Otherwise, why would strong language against gay people keep coming up? News flash: We as Christians are not known by how vehemently we target other people. We are not known by how we vote. We’re not even known by the cool Christian T-shirts that we wear. And we definitely shouldn’t be known as a right-wing, hate-mongering club of sinless holy rollers.

We’re known by the love we show to others. And if those among us haven’t mastered that love, it’s up to the rest of us to speak just as loud and proud about what Jesus would really do.

Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.

Gay Marriage Paranoia

Gay Marriage Paranoia

GAY UNION: Reginald Stanley and Rocky Galloway became the first homosexual couple to legally wed in Washington, D.C. in March 2010. (Newscom Photo)

“Lord, we’re definitely living in the end times.”

“It’s about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

I heard these complaints from callers to a Christian radio talk show in Virginia alarmed by New York’s June 24 vote legalizing gay marriage. Similar cries are being voiced across the country among Christians who apparently believe homosexuality is THE unpardonable sin and biggest threat to marriage. America is headed for hell, they say.

But government legalization of gay marriage may be a blessing in disguise that the church in America needs today. Gay marriage isn’t what Christians should worry about. Conformity is the bigger threat.

Romans 12:2 warns:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Separation of church and state is not just a philosophy concerning the relationships between governments and organized religious institutions. It’s ultimately about the church (people) being the moral conscience that influences the nation (society), as the Founders intended. When people of faith become too close and comfy with society’s secular standards, we get negatively influenced. This is evident in the case of marriage and divorce rates.

The accuracy of divorce rates has been questioned because of difficulties obtaining clear data, but according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national divorce rate is about 34 percent.  According to a study by the Barna Group, the Christian divorce rate is 32 percent. A U.S. Census study released in August indicates that southeastern states have the highest divorce levels. Explanations are that people there tend to marry younger, have less education and lower incomes compared to, for example, their northeastern counterparts whose average divorce rates are the lowest. With the Bible Belt leading the way in divorce, and the national Christian rate mirroring the nation, we’re certainly not the “salt of the Earth” God intended when it comes to marriage.

Not only lay people, but many of Christianity’s most well-known figures are divorcees, even multiple divorcees. Their scandals read like the pop culture celebrity breakups blogsites. How can Christians claim to believe that marriage represents Jesus Christ’s love and eternal bond with the church and is between a man and woman only, yet have equally high divorce rates? How is it that the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) community that many Christians say is headed for the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah is a stronger advocate for committed marriages?

Could it be that Christians have “conformed” as the Scripture warns?

America’s Founding Fathers wisely established the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution because they understood the disastrous results the church/state union had in Europe. The bond has been a bad dealfor the church for centuries since Emperor Constantine I wedded the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church in A.D. 313 for strategic benefit. Christianity grew and spread, but at the cost of much horrific state-motivated sins, such as the Crusades, colonialism, and slavery, that were sanctioned by the church. Christianity’s moral stature suffered.

Secular and spiritual motives on marriage have often clashed. The marriage debate was at the heart of Protestants splintering from Catholics as King Henry VIII established the Church of England because the Pope refused to annul his marriage. The king wanted to wed a different woman who could bare him an heir to the throne.

If we believe marriage is under God’s higher authority, why would we need the government to change the Constitution to define marriage to our liking? Our greater concern should be that the government never infringe on church freedoms, including whom individual churches choose to marry. Instead of petitioning the government to adopt a definition that not even all Christian agree on (there are also LGBT Christians), show by example why marriage between a man and woman works best. Be the conscience of society by significantly reducing the Christian divorce rate. Otherwise, we’re just hypocrites who have conformed to the world.

I’ve been married once, for nearly 20 years to the same woman. We’ve successfully reared three children into adulthood. It has been wonderful and challenging; my shortcomings and stubbornness over the years haven’t helped. Marriage is not easy and there are situations where couples are better off parting ways. I realized this at age 12, watching inside the courtroom as my parents split.

Still, as Christians our best witness to society on marriage is to put our energy into making our marriages work, not speculating about the end times, or pressing to block two consenting adult citizens from pursuing their equal rights to privacy and happiness under the government’s laws as guaranteed by our Constitution.

In the end, only God’s judgment of all of us — straight or gay — matters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the writer and are not necessarily the views of UrbanFaith.com or Urban Ministries, Inc.