What should black Christians do when social issues and faith collide?
President Obama’s support for same-sex marriage rights has been a hotly debated topic recently, especially within the black Christian community.
It is important to note that the president cited his personal Christian beliefs, as well as conversations with his daughters, as major influences on his current position. He is certainly not alone. For many black Christians the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage is one that requires an evaluation of how much faith should inform their views on public policy.
Historically, this has been an easy question to answer. The civil rights movement was heavily influenced by black ministers who were able to harness the power of social activism for the cause of advancing equality. For blacks at that time, the desire for radical cultural change was seen as perfectly consistent with both biblical teaching and the concepts of freedom and liberty that are at the core of our national identity.
The issue of same-sex marriage breaks from that tradition because it is an area where many African-Americans, particularly black Christians, hold views that seem out of step with the fight for equality. A recent study by the Pew Research Center of changing attitudes on gay marriage found that while 47 percent of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, two-thirds of black Protestants opposed same-sex marriage — a figure only eclipsed by white evangelicals. There is also an element of these trends that is generational. The same Pew study found 63 percent of Millennials (those born in 1981 or later) were in favor of same-sex marriage, compared to 39 percent of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).
Human sexuality is discussed extensively in the Bible, and the teachings on those issues are decidedly conservative by our modern definitions. This presents a serious dilemma for African-Americans who have historically viewed their faith as a tool for social justice. Some individuals, like Reverend Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church, don’t believe religious beliefs should be imposed on others in matters of public policy. Black Christians who don’t share this view find themselves out of step with more progressive members of their religious community.
Christians struggling with their views, whether personal or policy-related, on same-sex marriage should take an honest inventory of their own beliefs to determine whether any objections are genuinely rooted in faith or the results of personal prejudice.
Self-examination is also necessary to ensure that opposition to this and other polarizing social issues is not a result of twisting either the letter or spirit of biblical teaching. My pastor often says that when you take a text out of context you end up left with a con. For example, while the Bible was used by many whites to justify slavery in our country, the course of history has made it clear that they were motivated more by the desire to maintain their privileged political and economic status than fidelity to the scripture.
Remaining consistent in your beliefs doesn’t absolve Christians from their duty to love others, regardless of sexual orientation. With respect to the same-sex marriage debate, it also isn’t a license to use gays and lesbians as scapegoats for the erosion of traditional biblical values. A recent article in Ebony on single Christians who have forgone abstinence before marriage reveals that the struggle to reconcile one’s faith with societal norms is not restricted to the issue of same-sex marriage.
Sincere Christians who choose to hold firmly to their beliefs must be willing to deal with the criticism, often from other professed believers, that results from practicing a faith that is not swayed by societal pressure. They must understand that many people will neither share their core beliefs nor the zeal of their application. Professor Michael Eric Dyson, an ordained minister and supporter of same-sex marriage rights, recently offered a strong rebuke on The Ed Show to several prominent black Christians who cite their faith as the reason for their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Resolving the tension between personal beliefs and public opinion requires resisting the temptation to morph into an “a la carte” Christian—someone who selectively reads the Bible to find scriptures that superficially support your positions—when your beliefs put you in opposition with the tide of popular culture. It also means doing something that is equally difficult for progressives and conservatives—viewing politics, race, sexuality, and other social issues through the prism of your faith, not the other way around.
Delano Squires is a blogger and public policy strategist in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent contributor to the marriage and parenting website Black and Married with Kids and has written extensively on relationships, popular culture, and matters of faith. Follow him on Twitter @Mr_Squires.