Annette John-Hall: With same-sex marriage, black churchgoers caught between doctrine and social equality

Posted: June 09, 2012

I probably wasn't the only one who braced for a backlash after the NAACP followed President Obama's lead and came out with a resolution supporting same-sex marriage.

How could I not? As a black Christian, I've seen the eye-rolling disapproval among plenty of fellow believers. I've heard the self-righteous vestibule chatter, felt the thick tension in the sanctuary when pastors mention homosexuality from the pulpit — if they dare.

I'm not saying African Americans have cornered the market on the gay-marriage debate. But almost every poll confirms that black folks tend to be more conservative on social issues, given their ties to the church. Because Obama made history by becoming the first president to support gay marriage, and because the NAACP is the nation's oldest and most prominent civil rights organization, with plenty of black clerics on its voting board, all eyes are on are on us, as Tupac would say.

Well, the NAACP boldly came through with a clear, forward-thinking resolution, unlike the "word" of so many pastors who hijack scripture to justify ambiguous positions, leaving church members scratching their heads. Heck, we leave church a lot of the time praying for more clarity than when we went in.

That said, you'd think the NAACP's pronouncement would be a huge deal in the black community. But guess what. It wasn't.

At least, not publicly.

"No one has said anything," says J. Whyatt Mondesire, head of Philadelphia's NAACP. "Not even the preachers. Maybe other cities have had a different experience, but we've gotten no calls, no letters, no nothing."

Could be that religious leaders are focused on more pressing social issues.

"I was just talking to a pastor about this: Philadelphia's murder rate is off the charts — more than 20 ahead of last year," Mondesire says. "Our public schools are in crisis. So there are many things that are more earth-shattering."

Fact is, when it comes to gay marriage, church members often feel pressed to decide between their commitment to church doctrine and their commitment to social equality. For many of us, equality wins. After a lifetime of struggle, we aren't about to line up on the wrong side of history, by, as the NAACP puts it, codifying "discrimination into law."

Folks may have muted the public debate, but that doesn't mean they've stopped talking among themselves.

Truth and fire

Randy Robinson, 46, acknowledges same-sex marriage is a complex issue, one infused with politics, religion, and the "r" words — rights and rites.

But his personal truth never wavers: "Marriage should be between a man and a woman. Because I believe in the sanctity of marriage, I take this stuff very, very seriously," says Robinson, a never-married member of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Mount Airy. "I believe God gave marriage to us as a gift for procreation."

Robinson expressed a biblically based view I've heard many black Christians express. And I'm guessing there had to be a little fire and brimstone among the NAACP old guard on the day of its vote, even though the convincing 62-2 tally pretty much reflected the NAACP's consistent and long-standing support of gay rights.

Former chairman Julian Bond has advocated for gay marriage for years. Recently, local NAACP chapters have fought state-level same-sex marriage bans from California to North Carolina.

Their stances undoubtedly reflect that of their new-school leader. At 40, Benjamin Jealous is the youngest president the NAACP has ever had. And his support of gay marriage represents a generational and personal view.

Not only is Jealous' brother gay and HIV-positive, but, as the son of a white father and an African American mother, Jealous learned firsthand how people suffered when institutions sought to strip them of their basic civil rights. See, in plenty of Southern states it was against the law as late as the 1960s for Jealous' parents to wed.

"Our endorsement on this issue isn't going to make us lose membership," Jealous insisted in an interview. "It may even help us gain membership."

Especially in an election year where the choice is clear.

"Some people may not agree with President Obama, but we're willing to give him the cover because we don't want this to be an issue that will derail him in the election," Robinson says. Besides, he adds, "there are a lot more issues more critical."

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @Annettejh

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