DETROIT – In the week since President Obama announced his stance on same sex marriage, the reaction around the country ranged from relief to happiness to outrage. The reaction across the black community, a key voter base that helped Obama ride to election in 2008, was mixed to say the least.
Some members of the faith community met the president’s announcement with confusion, and even anger. Others, while not fully agreeing with his position, refused to let that stance change their support.
“This new development is consistent with the president’s commitment to civil rights and equality for all American citizens,” said Rev. D. Alexander Bullock, the senior pastor at Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Mich. and Michigan coordinator for Rainbow PUSH. “We cannot let religion, race, class or sexual orientation justify the equal status of all citizens. I applaud the president for courageously, in this election cycle, defending the rights of all Americans.”
Bullock’s stance echoes that of other high profile clergy members, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Michael Eric Dyson. Rev. Otis Moss of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago wrote a letter urging members of the black clergy to stand by the president after he made his announcement and not pull their support.
WATCH PROF. DYSON AND NELSON DEBATE GAY MARRIAGE AND FAITH
“Gay and lesbian citizens did not cause the economic crash, foreclosures, and attack upon health care,” Moss wrote. “Poor underfunded schools were not created because people desire equal protection under the law. We have much work to do as a community, and to claim the president of the United States must hold your theological position is absurd. He is president of the United States of America not the president of the Baptist convention or Bishop of the Sanctified or Holiness Church.”
The Rev. Delman Coates, the pastor of the Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md. wrote on theGrio last week that he was going against the grain and supporting President Obama’s stance, stating that the Constitutional law trumps any given religious beliefs.
“In the public policy arena, the issue is simply whether gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and civil liberties as other American citizens. For me, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’,” Coates said.
“One’s personal religious beliefs about homosexuality should not be the basis for determining whether same gender loving couples deserve equal treatment under the law. To do so establishes a discriminatory and dangerous public policy precedent that potentially threatens the civil liberties of all people. As a Christian minister, I believe my role is to live in my faith, not to legislate it, and as long as the state does not seek to regulate the church, the church should not seek to regulate the state.”
Not everyone has followed Coates’ lead. This past weekend, Rev. Dr. Emmitt Burns of The Rising Sun Baptist Church in Baltimore, told CNN that he was withdrawing his support for President Obama and would encourage his parishioners to stay home on Election Day.
“People I know are saying that they don’t support this, they don’t like this. They’re disappointed with the president and they plan to stay home,” said Burns, who is also a Maryland State Legislator. “I don’t plan to vote for Romney, but right now, I plan to stay home.”
Burns backed off of that stance on Wednesday, saying during an interview with Coates on Fox News that he misspoke because he was angry with the president and he is now encouraging those in his church to vote.
“I will support the president, and I don’t see a conflict here,” Burns said to Bill O’Reilly. He said that he could be true to his faith and support the president. Burns, however, did also say that he felt gay rights were not a civil right.
“I could never hide the color of my skin,” Burns said. “It is not a civil rights matter, it is a moral matter.” This has become a common refrain of many blacks that oppose gay rights and same sex marriage.
Some have argued that because gays have the ability to hide their sexuality they can protect themselves from discrimination in way that blacks can’t. This has led to tensions over who “owns” the civil rights movement.
“Black people do not have a copyright on civil right insurgence or resistance,” Dyson said while guest hosting The Ed Show last week. “Furthermore, we should be proud that anyone can look at us and derive from our experience, and example and a paradigm of their parallel resistance to forms of incivility, civil rights injustices, and to the outright degradation of their personalities.”
During that same show, Dyson called out Sophia Nelson, Roland Martin, and the Rev. Jamal Bryant for what he felt was their “sanctification of bigotry in the name of faith.” Nelson, the author of Black Woman Redefined, an attorney, and frequent Grio contributor, sought to clarify her stance on the issue, which does still reflect that of many African-Americans.
“I was not pleased with what I saw and what I heard,” Nelson told theGrio on Wednesday. “I have to admit that it was a bit shocking, and we’re in this rough and tumble game all the time, to be singled out like that and called out on our faith.”
Nelson, who has acknowledged that prior to 2008 that she voted Republican, said that she has respect for President Obama and said that he is allowed, as an American citizen to change his position on the issue — which was has “evolved” twice since 1996.
“With regard to people saying they will vote against the president because he has taken his position on this issue and flipped — and he has flipped — I think that’s an individual decision and it’s a deeply personal decision,” Nelson said.
“Personally, when I vote for somebody running for president, I vote for people on the totality of issues that I care about, as I suspect that most people do. I think that people look at pocketbook issues more that they do social and faith issues.”
In terms of the focus of gay marriage on the black community, Nelson said that the black community’s position is no different than that of Catholics, Muslims, and Jews, saying that all religious texts are consistent on the stance that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“It’s not just Christians, it’s a host of religions,” said Nelson, who had an opportunity to directly respond to Dyson on Wednesday night’s Ed Show. “I would welcome the debate anytime over whether marriage is between a man and a woman. The text is clear in Genesis 2, in Matthew 19, in Romans 1; we can go through a litany of scriptures. I can find no where in scripture that says anything about two men or two women.”
Nelson insists that a better dialogue must be developed to step away from the language of condemnation often thrown at gays, such as they are “going to hell.” She says she is coming from a place of faith and not homophobia, and takes the Bible in a literal sense, noting that she is also does not support premarital sex or cohabitation.
“I take the position that I am just standing by the definition of my Bible,” Nelson said. “If you’re not a Christian, this doesn’t even apply to you. If you are a Christian, and this is where we get into some issues, Michael Eric Dyson is a Christian and we vehemently disagree with what the scripture says.”
“What I would like us to do is actually talk about this and let’s stop with all the name-calling and nastiness,” Nelson said. “I don’t oppose same sex laws because I hate you or think you don’t deserve the same rights I have or any of those things. The reason I oppose them because my faith, Sophia’s faith, doesn’t have to be your faith.”
In terms of taking her position, Nelson — and others — rationalize that they as Christians are simply trying to live their lives through their faith the best way they can. While popular sentiment is changing toward homosexuals in the black community, the internal conflicts will remain, even as this subject takes a back seat during the heat of the race.
“I’m someone trying to practice my faith. I’m flawed. I fail every day, but I try to do the things that I say that I’m about because if I don’t, then I can be called a hypocrite. All I’m saying is that people of faith have to be concerned and consistent. You can’t just pick on gay people. That’s not what the Bible says.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith