How Long Will Black Churches Continue to Oppose Equality?

by Stephen H. Miller on May 15, 2012

African-American church leaders, the foundation of the black civil rights movement, have been overwhelmingly and stridently opposed to equality for gay people, which has contributed mightily to black opposition to same-sex marriage. The Washington Post reported that in North Carolina last week, many black precincts voted 2-1 for the ballot measure to ban gay marriage and domestic partnerships. Moreover, the paper reports that:

African-Americans have historically been more hostile to gays and lesbians than other racial and ethnic groups. Only 39 percent of African-Americans favor gay marriage, compared with 47 percent of white Americans, according to a Pew poll conducted this April.

So it’s a good thing that Obama’s personal endorsement of marriage equality at least has them discussing the issue as a point to debate, as reports USA Today. Still, it may be a long time until the views of most black pastors evolve.

More. From John McWhorter, “President Obama’s New Role in the Fight Against Black Homophobia.”

{ 23 comments }

Tom Scharbach May 15, 2012 at 6:44 am

Still, it may be a long time until the views of most black pastors evolve.

Just about as long as it will take for most white pastors, I imagine.

As Romney said at Liberty the other day, without apparent irony, “ … there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.

Jorge May 15, 2012 at 8:44 am

As Romney said at Liberty the other day, without apparent irony, “ … there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.“

As opposed to what? I doubt you could come up with anything better.

Tom Scharbach May 15, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I take it that you don’t find Romney’s assertion ironic?

Romney didn’t either, apparently, but it stumps me as to why, given that Liberty University teaches that Romney’s religion is a cult, given the history of intolerance toward and persecution of Romney’s religion by Christians during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and given that a relatively large number of Christians have told pollsters that they will not vote for a Mormon.

The fruits of “Christian conscience” in our country is a mixed bag, Jorge.

Jorge May 16, 2012 at 1:15 am

I wasn’t expecting you to evade the question. I must be on to something. It’s like that expression about democracy being the worst form of government in the world (except for everything else).

For the record, there is a certain crusader mentality among certain self-assured good people (in government and religion alike) that strikes me as pure evil. Some of the most noble people in the world are the most twisted. However I don’t think such convoluted thoughts are worth sharing or discussing.

Tom Scharbach May 16, 2012 at 10:30 am

I wasn’t expecting you to evade the question. I must be on to something. It’s like that expression about democracy being the worst form of government in the world (except for everything else).

Actually, its not. It is a statement of quite a different kind, and in the context in which it was delivered (at a University known for its ties to Christian dominionism), a dangerous statement.

I know that Romney was pandering, and I understand the political necessity for him to do so in this election cycle, but I was surprised, quite frankly, to see him make the statement, given that he and his co-religionists have suffered from the intolerance that seems to be a hallmark of a significant number of those who claim to be advancing “Christian conscience” in America.

My observation was about the irony of Romney’s statement, and nothing more or less, an irony amplified by Stephen’s post, the context in which my statement was made.

In the post, Stephen, yet again, commenting on the fact that black Christians, largely ascribing to evangelical/fundamentalist “Christian conscience”, oppose equality in high numbers, while, yet again, failing to comment on the fact that white Christians who ascribe to evangelical/fundamentalist “Christian conscience” are, numerically and in terms of raw power, the greater obstacle.

I have, in all my years on this list, never seen Stephen comment at all on the critical role played by white Christians of an evangelical/fundamentalist bent in opposing equality, nor have I heard him comment on the role of the Roman Catholic hierarchy (as opposed to pew Catholics, who support equality in higher numbers than other Christian religionists), or, for that matter, Mormons, in the way that Stephen frequently comments on the role of black evangelical/fundamentalist Christians.

I think that it is a fair observation that opposition to equality in our country at present stems almost entirely from “Christian conscience” as understood by evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and by Mormons. (Note: I am being careful to avoid entirely the question of whether or not Roman Catholics or Mormons are “Christian”. I do not believe that it is my role, as a non-Christian, to involve myself in that intramural controversy among Christians. I will try to discuss the three on an equal footing, in a way that avoids the question.)

Differentiating between black and white Christians of an evangelical/fundamentalist bent, as Stephen does, seems to me to be a red herring. The opposition to equality among evangelical/fundamentalist Christians stems from a particular application of “Christian conscience” as understood by those Christians, and the fact that black Christians adhere to evangelican/fundamentalist Christianity in higher proportion than white Christians, while accounting for the higher percentages of black Americans who oppose equality than white Americans, doesn’t strike me as otherwise important.

To my mind, what is important is that “Christian coinscience” as understood by evangelical/fundamentalist Christians is a significant driving force behind opposition to equality.

If there is a differentiation to be made about the relative role of black and white evangelical/fundamentalist Christians in the current struggle, it is in the relative damage done by the two groups within the political parties in which they are primarily active. Black evangelical/fundamentalist Christians are an important part of the Democratic Party coalition, but have not taken over the party in the way that white evangelical/fundamentalist Christians have taken over the Republican Party. Romney’s pandering at Liberty University is a testament to the power of the latter in the Republican Party.

My statement was in the context of Stephen’s statement — yet another example of dividing Americans into tribes without reason, pitting one against the other for no reason.

Now, on to Romney’s statement: “… there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.

I concede the point, in one sense. Americans who self-describe as “Christian” account for about 80% of our population. In shear numbers, the good done by self-described Christians will swamp the good done by self-described “others”. In a population of 100, if 80 Christians each do one good thing in a day, and 20 non-Christians each do three good things in a day, the score of good things done at the end of the day will be 80 for Christians and 60 for the others. In a very simplistic, numerical way, Romney’s statement was, or course, “true”.

Having made that concession to simplistic thinking, let me address your challenge to me (“As opposed to what? I doubt you could come up with anything better.“).

As an opener, without rancor on my part and without the wish to ignite religious controversy, let me say this in a religious context. I come from a people who adhere to religious tradition that is older than Christianity by several thousand years, a people who have suffered much at the hands of Christians. We have seen the darkness of “Christian conscience” as well has the light it brings, and we have experienced what it means to be a “light to the nations”. So the short answer to your challenge, in a religious sense, is that I do not believe that I have to come up with “anything better”. I believe that it was done many thousands of years before I was born, and not on my initiative.

Having said that, I recognize that your challenge to “come up with anything better” almost certainly stems from a belief that your Christian religious tradition embodies all that is good, and was not intended to denigrate mine. I would expect you to believe, as a Christian, that your religion embodies all that is good. I do not wish to argue with your faith, but, in a sense, your challenge goes to the heart of my problem with Romney’s statement.

So let me deal with Romney’s statement, equally briefly, in the context of your challenge.

I believe that Romney’s statement should, in the context in which it was delivered (read the text of his address and consider its locus), be understood as a form of Christian triumphalism. If so, the statement ignores the fact that our country has become a beacon of light for the world because a particular theology is not the foundational principle of our nation.

I do not believe, except in the simplistic, strictly numerical sense described above, that “… there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.

I believe, to the contrary, that the greatest force for good in the nation’s history was the understanding and decision to create a system of government that did not reflect a particular theological understanding. My view was well expressed by Edward Kennedy in his 1983 address to Liberty University (excepts below):

The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of religious faith. They may be tempted to misuse government in order to impose a value which they cannot persuade others to accept. But once we succumb to that temptation, we step onto a slippery slope where everyone’s freedom is at risk. Those who favor censorship should recall that one of the first books ever burned was the first English translation of the Bible. As President Eisenhower warned in 1953, “Don’t join the book burners…the right to say ideas, the right to record them, and the right to have them accessible to others is unquestioned — or this isn’t America.” And if that right is denied, at some future day the torch can be turned against any other book or any other belief. Let us never forget: Today’s Moral Majority could become tomorrow’s persecuted minority.

The danger is as great now as when the founders of the nation first saw it. In 1789, their fear was of factional strife among dozens of denominations. Today there are hundreds — and perhaps even thousands of faiths — and millions of Americans who are outside any fold. Pluralism obviously does not and cannot mean that all of them are right; but it does mean that there are areas where government cannot and should not decide what is wrong to believe, to think, to read, and to do. As Professor Larry Tribe, one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars has written, “Law in a non-theocratic state cannot measure religious truth, nor can the state impose it.”

The real transgression occurs when religion wants government to tell citizens how to live uniquely personal parts of their lives. The failure of Prohibition proves the futility of such an attempt when a majority or even a substantial minority happens to disagree. Some questions may be inherently individual ones, or people may be sharply divided about whether they are. In such cases, like Prohibition and abortion, the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual, not the coercive power of the state.

In short, I hope for an America where neither “fundamentalist” nor “humanist” will be a dirty word, but a fair description of the different ways in which people of goodwill look at life and into their own souls.

I hope for an America where no president, no public official, no individual will ever be deemed a greater or lesser American because of religious doubt — or religious belief.

I hope for an America where the power of faith will always burn brightly, but where no modern Inquisition of any kind will ever light the fires of fear, coercion, or angry division.

I hope for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously, but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity.

Twenty years ago this fall, in New York City, President Kennedy met for the last time with a Protestant assembly. The atmosphere had been transformed since his earlier address during the 1960 campaign to the Houston Ministerial Association. He had spoken there to allay suspicions about his Catholicism, and to answer those who claimed that on the day of his baptism, he was somehow disqualified from becoming President. His speech in Houston and then his election drove that prejudice from the center of our national life. Now, three years later, in November of 1963, he was appearing before the Protestant Council of New York City to reaffirm what he regarded as some fundamental truths. On that occasion, John Kennedy said: “The family of man is not limited to a single race or religion, to a single city, or country … the family of man is nearly three billion strong. Most of its members are not white and most of them are not Christian.” And as President Kennedy reflected on that reality, he restated an ideal for which he had lived his life — that “the members of this family should be at peace with one another.”

That ideal shines across all the generations of our history and all the ages of our faith, carrying with it the most ancient dream. For as the Apostle Paul wrote long ago in Romans: “If it be possible, as much as it lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”

Although Senator Kennedy was speaking from his own faith tradition, his comments about the critical importance of separation of church and state, a principle articulated by Thomas Jefferson, who was not a Christian, is a good expression of my own thinking.

Finally, let me say that my initial, short response to your challenge (“The fruits of “Christian conscience” in our country is a mixed bag, Jorge.“) was, or so I hoped, the only response needed. Not so, apparently.

Christians have been both a force for good, and a force for darkness, in our country, as have all religionists. On balance, I suppose, religionists — Christian and non-Christian alike — have been more a force for good than a force for darkness, but I think that “mixed bag” is an accurate statement. When responding to the aspect of religious instinct that foster openness, tolerance, respect and justice — as in “With charity to all, and malice toward none.” — religions of all theologies have made our country a better place. When responding to the aspect of religious instinct that fosters closed-mindedness, intolerance, lack of respect, openness, tolerance, respect and injustice, religions of all theologies have made our country a darker, more difficult and diminished place. Think about it. I think that “mixed bag” applies to non-religionists as well.

When I wrote my short response, I hoped that you would think about it, and in particular, think about it within the context of the history of your own religious tradition as it has played out in our country’s history. I still hold to that hope.

Jorge May 17, 2012 at 12:45 am

Holy Great Wall of Text, Batman! Do you have ADHD of the typewriter or something?

The Elements of Style, my friend: Omit Needless Words.

Tom Scharbach May 17, 2012 at 7:43 am

The Elements of Style, my friend: Omit Needless Words.

Well, take out the ones you disagree with and you’ll have the answer you want. Kind of like a line-veto. It will work for you, no doubt.

Houndentenor May 15, 2012 at 7:49 pm

I think that depends on what kind of Christian we’re talking about.

Jimmy May 15, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Regarding churches , be they white, black, or mixed, this has more to do with denomination and doctrine than it does skin color. White and black evangelicals/fundamentalists likely see eye to eye on this issue, yet see differently on others.

Why is the question specific to black churches, as if they are all alike?

Carl May 15, 2012 at 6:42 pm

No gay judges allowed in Virginia. No matter how much everyone loves to talk about what this or that poll says, or how that Republican wants to like us, the trend lines move further towards anti-gay action.

http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/news/2012/may/15/22/house-of-delegates-rejects-thorne-begland-for-judg-ar-1914948/

Tom Scharbach May 15, 2012 at 8:15 pm
Carl May 15, 2012 at 8:33 pm

The Colorado one will likely be explained away as, “Those Democrats gave us no choice!” I’m curious as to what the talking point will be for Virginia. Will it be, how dare he go on TV 20 years ago to talk about a policy which a supermajority of Americans disapprove of? Or, how dare he say he’s married? I guess he should say, “special friend”?

Any time an anti-gay goal is scored, it’s always the fault of gays, Democrats, or both. I’m just waiting to hear the talking points on this one.

Ironically, even with McDonnell saying he supported the nomination, this view matches up to McDonnell’s own past statements…and since Romney is often expected to choose a very conservative veep, this may help him.

Houndentenor May 15, 2012 at 9:38 pm

1. It’s not any more fair to lump all predominantly African-American churches together any more than it is to lump Westboro Baptist Church in with the United Church of Christ. Surely, black churches are not as monolithic as this post would suggest.

2. I’ll say it again. There is still racism in the gay community just as there is homophobia in minority communities. You’d think we’d know better but it is sadly typical of people who have been bullied to turn around and bully someone else. We have work to do. (And to be clear, homophobia is no excuse for racism, nor vice versa.)

Jorge May 16, 2012 at 1:18 am

(And to be clear, homophobia is no excuse for racism, nor vice versa.)

Houndentenor is a wise and noble man.

Eh, I think if the culture war exists at all it should exist everywhere.

Houndentenor May 16, 2012 at 10:58 am

An eye for an eye until the whole world is blind? Who benefits from that?

Jorge May 17, 2012 at 12:58 am

Wear goggles.

Actually that’s very near to the mark.

But to say it the diplomatic way, racial and other demographic or identity tensions don’t bother me all that much, else I might be shamed into being a better person. I think we can all get along just fine by snarling at each other now and then. (There are people who do not agree.)

The reason I think this is because this is not a country in which it is safe to have honest dialogue on sensitive issues. Probably no country is. So it’s social and political conflict with stealth attacks, neutrality on everything else. I like it that way.

Evans Tibetsy May 16, 2012 at 1:40 am

Blacks are just opposed to marriage period since they practice it so little themselves.

Houndentenor May 16, 2012 at 10:57 am

I could say something snarky about the racism inherent in your statement but I must admit that I say the same thing about the white trash fundamentalists that also oppose gay marriage (they are the ones who have the highest divorce rates and most out of wedlock births) .

TomjeffersonIII May 16, 2012 at 3:18 pm

1. If you are not Christian or not a fundamentalist Christian, then you can quickly see how people who are a particular brand of Christianity are very good at monopolizing just about any serious discussion about ethics or morality in society and turning into into some reactionary pitch fork.

2. Again, sexism/homophobia is probably more of a problem among people — black or white — who have strong ties to a very conservative or evangelical religious movement, especially when church and state mix.

3. Sometimes the ‘gay community leadership’ (or whomever gets decreed to be such by someone) makes rather sloppy arguments when trying to build coalitions with different segments of the population, including people of color. I would say that about the gay political right and left.

4. More LGBT people of color need to come out and be a forefront of the conversation when dealing homophobia in the African American community, for example. More support has to actually be made to create an environment where this is likely to occur and groups that want to focus on building coalitions can thrive.

Houndentenor May 16, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Gays have leadership? You could have fooled me.

Tom Scharbach May 16, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Like cats have leadership, Houndentenor.

Good thing, too. Most of the gains we’ve made have come because gays ignored the sage advice of our leadership. If we’d listened to the leadership, we’d still be waiting for the right time to push for marriage and bring the lawsuits necessary to put the pressure on.

Aaron May 17, 2012 at 7:38 am

Some of the above comments argue that (1) it’s unfair to single out black churches from white evangelicals, (2) Miller is being divisive or racist for doing so.

But there is a difference; white evangelicals may be as “bad” as black evangelicals, but white Christians are not as uniformly conservative-evangelical as are black Christians. There is no black Christian church equivalent to the (mostly white) Episcopoal Church USA. Within the (mostly white) Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, there is open debate (and no “hell fire” condemnation of gays). You don’t see liberal (in the old-fashioned sense) black churches comparable to the (mostly white) Unitarians and other gay-embracing domininations. And African-American culture is more uniformly homophobic than white culture (although yes, the white religious right is “as bad” as are black evangelicals).

These are facts, and if we are to have an adult discussion, they must be noted. Accusing Miller of being “divisive” or worse for doing so is to bury your head in the sand and mistake progressive pieties (no difference beteween black and white culture in America, except when white is worse) for reality.

Jimmy May 17, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Yes, church-going black people are more likely to attend conservative, fundamentalist, apostolic, evangelical, fire and brimstone churches. Yes, that has a strong influence on culture, regardless of skin color. The pernicious commonality is cultural conservatism. Some blacks see gay rights as civil rights. Some do not. We must continue to make our case to anyone who fails to see that correlation.

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