“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:
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.
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).
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.
In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.
Meanings make definitions
We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.
So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.
Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).
Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.
What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.
Wanted: Real Christians
This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?”
None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.
I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.
Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.
Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.
I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.
Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.
NOT FEELING LUCKY: A gay activist used a clever Internet campaign to create a new meaning for GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's name on Google. Has the culture war gone digital? (Photo by Mike Segar/Newscom)
Since vaulting to a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum has become headline news in short order. And so, too, has his so-called “Google problem.”
For the uninitiated, Santorum’s name was dragged through the virtual mud after a series of controversial statements regarding homosexuality drew the ire of sex columnist and gay activist Dan Savage. In an effort to retaliate against Rick Santorum for linking homosexuality with polygamy, bestiality, and moral relativism, Savage polled his readers to find the most offensive definition possible with which to associate with the word “santorum,” settling on a byproduct of anal sex. He then launched an Internet campaign, complete with its own website, designed to point search engines to this definition when users searched for the name Santorum.
(Relax, people. The link was to Wikipedia.)
Because this happened awhile back, few people knew about this outside of Santorum’s campaign staff, his small-but-loyal following, and liberal bloggers who intentionally linked to Dan Savage’s website in order to embarrass the then-U.S.-senator. But since his Iowa resurgence, in an effort to play catch-up, political reporters and pundits have been delicately referring to this as Santorum’s “Google problem.”
But the problem has very little to do with Google. And in the big picture, it has little to do with Rick Santorum directly, although his feud with Savage vaulted his name into the internet spotlight. See, Google’s search algorithms direct users to what they’re looking for based on a complex set of criteria, which includes how many and how often people link to a particular website. The way that Dan Savage and his supporters were able to defame Rick Santorum is by intentionally manipulating that process, a term sometimes referred to as “Google bombing.”
But Rick Santorum’s problem is really not with Google, which is why his attempt to get Google to remove the offending search result, rather than proving his fighting mettle, mostly showed his ignorance regarding how the search engine, and by extension the Internet in general, works.
Instead of a Google problem, what Rick Santorum has is a meaning problem. And unfortunately, so do many other Christians in politics.
Words have meanings
See, the crux of the clash between conservative and liberal activists is often in the meanings or connotations of words. For Santorum and other Christians who believe that God’s standard for marriage and sexuality is for one man and one woman, the word “homosexual” or “gay” is shorthand for “deviant.” As in, “if you deviate from our standard, then you’re wrong.”
For Dan Savage and many of his ilk, I think that what’s so offensive is not simply the idea that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, but that this sin in particular is so vile and morally objectionable that people who engage in it deserve whatever dehumanizing rhetoric is flung in their direction. That’s what they get, I’m sure they imagine Christians saying, for choosing that lifestyle.
Unfortunately, because of the decades-long conflation in American churches of Christian doctrine with Republican politics, many left-leaning, non-religious Americans have adopted distorted definition of Christianity. For them, the word “Christian” is an adjective akin to “hypocritical” or “judgmental.”
Many postmodern, Gen-X and/or Millennial Americans have similar cultural leanings, even if they grew up in Christian households. I have a friend who is a Christian, the child of a Presbyterian pastor. In his household, growing up, the term “conservative” was usually a slur, and to this day any reference to The 700 Club brings up a slight wave of nausea.
By itself, this barely qualifies as news, as it’s been covered ad nauseam by younger, hipper Christians trying to ditch the stench of stuffy cultural superiority.
But in this situation, it does explain a lot.
The gay civil rights movement
For starters, it explains why so many gay activists have borrowed the tactics, imagery, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement.
A galvanizing force in the Black community, the African American church has been, for decades and even centuries, the focal point of political activism for Blacks in America. And it’s easy to forget this now, but there were plenty of White people in the late ’60s who denounced Dr. King and the civil rights movement as rabble-rousing nonsense. So entrenched were these Whites in their typical Christian Baby Boomer upbringing, with an idea of Christianity as American as baseball and apple pie, that they failed to see the civil rights struggle as a biblical issue. It was countercultural, so for them it was wrong.
By contrast, many liberal White people voluntarily joined the struggle — especially those whose parents grew up in that time and for whom it became de rigeur to adopt many of the cultural artifacts of the Black church experience without actually believing in God, Jesus, or salvation. It’s like they got swept up in the passion of the struggle and came along for the ride, sort of.
(For a pop culture example, imagine Steven and Elyse Keaton from Family Ties in their twenties, singing “Kum Ba Ya” during a protest.)
So when these liberal White folks (or others close to them) struggle with their own sexuality, then later come out of the closet and choose to adopt publicly gay identities, it makes sense that they would generalize the Christian response to homosexuality as just another example of people in the church rejecting anything countercultural. It’s logical. They did it to the Blacks, now they’re doing it to us.
Understandably, many socially conservative Blacks are uncomfortable and even resentful when queer activists link their struggle to the civil rights struggles for African Americans, if for no other reason than because Black folks hardly ever had the luxury of staying in the closet for political or business reasons. But despite being socially conservative, most churchgoing Blacks are still an overwhelmingly Democrat voting bloc, which means that popular African American politicians usually have to work a delicate balance between having a positive voting record on gay rights but not being too outspoken on the issue.
(This is one of the reasons why President Obama, regarding gay rights, tends to let his subordinates do the talking.)
So the questions abound: How can we accurately represent Christ and the church for those who don’t believe? Is there or should there be a theologically orthodox, African American Christian response to the civil rights movement? And what does any of this have to do with Rick Santorum?
For these and other answers … stay tuned for Part 2.