Obama’s Gay Marriage Support Shocks Black Church

President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage has rocked America’s black church community. From Prof. Michael Dyson to prosperity preacher Rev. Jamal Bryant, the pulpits and the pews are weighing in, and the responses are shaping up to be an interesting crossroads for the relationship between the president and African-American churches in the 2012 election.

The prevailing narrative in the media is that black churches are wholesale against same-sex marriage. From the 2004 elections to Proposition 8, this narrative has dominated, despite the fact that there is significant support from African Americans in and outside of the church for same-sex marriage.

Media outlets portrayed the recent North Carolina vote on Amendment 1 as monolithic, though many in the African-American church community opposed it. Take Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, who preached a powerful message against Amendment 1, equating Americans’ use of the Bible to oppose same-sex marriage today with the defense of slavery and militarism in the past eras. Kristin Rawls, a writer and activist, notes that the efforts against Amendment 1 in North Carolina crossed racial and religious lines, with organizations coming together under an umbrella organization, Protect All NC Families.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina vote and any subsequent discussion was consumed by the president’s announcement that his thinking has “evolved” and that he now supports same-sex marriage. For some black religious leaders the president’s thinking represents a de-evolution, but for many others the president’s declaration was welcome news. The National Action network posted a letter signed by Rev. Al Sharpton, Julian Bond, Melanie Campbell, and Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery embracing the decision, while Rev. Jamal Bryant, megachurch prosperity pastor, was vocal in his opposition:

Our faith reserves marriage for a man and a woman. President Obama, as a product of the black church, is fully aware of that. Knowing this, the president made this endorsement without calling or preparing any of us. For many of us, it felt like a betrayal.

Rev. Bryant went on to say that he and other black pastors felt “jilted” by the president, particularly since they had defended him against Franklin Graham’s recent attack on the president’s Christianity. Prof. Michael Eric Dyson gave an impassioned sermon on The Ed Show, calling out the black church and Rev. Bryant, Sophia Nelson, and Roland Martin on their opposition to same-sex marriage, encouraging them not to become “sexual rednecks.” [See video, left.]

Dyson’s no-prisoners approach to the subject had Twitter and Facebook on fire with both support and criticism of his prime-time message. In response, Rev. Bryant had a conference call with pastors around the nation to discuss how to respond to President Obama’s support on same-sex marriage in the hopes that black pastors would not turn away from the political process as a result of this development. Ms. Nelson, upset about being labeled a bigot by Prof. Dyson, issued a statement stating her support for gay rights, but that she does not support “gay marriage” and that she lives her life as a Christian consistently, even citing her celibate dating relationship.

If you wonder why the issue of same-sex marriage is so freighted for African Americans, it is not simply because of their biblical beliefs. It is a deep historical narrative. Many enslaved African Americans were not allowed to marry, and after the Civil War, searched desperately to find their partners. Those who were lucky, married. Weddings were seen as a sign of prosperity, and joy for all in the community. Long before Star Jones had a lavish wedding (she has since divorced), Sister Rosetta Tharpe, former Church of God in Christ Evangelist and eminent guitar player, had her wedding in a stadium with 20,000 in attendance. Tharpe’s wedding music and service was recorded by Decca records, and sold well. Juanita Bynum and Bishop Thomas Weeks’ wedding was a spectacle, topped only by their subsequent breakup and divorce. Many church women I knew wanted to model their wedding after the Bynum and Weeks wedding long after it was clear the magic was over.

So when the black president says marriage is for everybody, straight or gay, and that it comes out of his faith, it elicits a visceral response from African-American Christians who have staked their spiritual and social lives on the institution of marriage. The admiration in the African-American community for the president and first lady’s marriage shines as a beacon of possibility, for married couples and singles alike. The sight of a black family in the White House is the pinnacle of what many African-American Christians believe a marriage should be. For them, hearing President Obama support same-sex marriage is sacrilege.

While I commend Prof. Dyson for taking the issue head-on on The Ed Show, calling the church out, I long for a reasoned, sustained, and engaged conversation on this issue. When the Eddie Long scandal broke, I hoped that it would be the beginning of the end of homophobia in the black church. Of course, this has not happened. Perhaps it is time for some of the pastors preaching against same-sex marriage to look to their own houses first. Same-sex marriage is not the biggest sexual issue in the black church. Creeping preachers, stunted sexuality, homophobia, and sexual abuse are competing for issue number one in their churches; at many, they are tied at the number one slot.

It is high time to for the leaders of the black church to ‘put away childish things’ and to engage in a real conversation about sexuality, same-sex marriage, and the homophobia embedded in the black church community. Pontificating and posturing props up preachers, and does little to edify congregations. Black church preachers’ biggest fear on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is that their congregants will begin to think and reason over scriptures on their own. The days of accepting the velvet intonations of Leviticus from the King James Bible, and the simplistic catch phrase, “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” are over.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.