Black Christians, the Homosexuality Debate, and the American Creed

Malcolm X used to tell blacks to put aside their religious differences in order to confront their common oppressor, but lately it’s not so clear who that common oppressor is.

By Kim Pearson

All of a sudden, it matters tremendously what black Christians all over the world think about sexuality. When the Episcopal Church of the United States of America consecrated openly gay clergyman Eugene V. Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, African and Caribbean leaders of the Anglican Church led the revolt that has brought the denomination to the brink of a historic split. When, in June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional, social and political conservatives salivated over the prospect that opinion polls showing heightened African-American opposition to gay marriage might cause some black American voters to vote Republican. Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin advised his party that the marriage issue could be a “great wedge issue” for Republican candidates in 2004.

If Republicans have their wish, the result could not only be a significant re-alignment of the black voting bloc, which has been overwhelmingly Democratic since the New Deal era, but a fundamental blow to the progressive black theological tradition that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. In the long run, this may prove to be the most substantial effect of the 2004 election, because that tradition — epitomized by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea that the United States “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” in his “I Have a Dream” address — has been the fundamental challenge to this country’s claim tomoral exceptionalism.

Historically, politicians invoked the Diety in the service of broad secular principles that have come to be known as the United States’ civil religion — principles embodied in the Jonathan Winthrop “City on a Hill” sermon that Ronald Reagan, Howard Dean and so many other advocates of American exceptionalism like to invoke. Those principles were probably best articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville in his authoritative but vexing 1835 classic, Democracy in America, and they include a generalized belief in a Judeo-Christian God, individualism, a disdain for elites, the valorization of private property and a preference for de-centralized problem-solving. Slavery and its legacy have always been the blot in that vision: clearly Africans and their descendants were treated in unchristian ways, they were stamped with a stigmatized racial identity; they were treated as property instead of being allowed to accumulate it.

African-descended people differ substantially in their views on homosexuality and gay rights, and much of the disagreement stems from conflicting religious views. The disagreements, which are becoming more vocal, are dividing people who have been allies on many other issues. For example, prominent African Americans such as Coretta Scott King, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and presidential former hopefuls Al Sharpton and Carole Mosely-Braun have announced support for the National Black Justice Coalition, which advocates for gay marriage. But former King aide Rev.Walter Fauntroy is a spokesman for the Alliance for Marriage, a group pushing for a constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to the union of a man and a woman.

The debate over homosexuality within the black community has unique dimensions and implications, even as many of the discussants on either side echo religious, scientific and political arguments employed by others. While many black churches, clergy and churchgoers hew to the traditional understanding that scripture prohibits homosexual unions, activists on both sides of the debate say that same-sex marriage is not a wedge issue for black voters.

That hasn’t stopped Republican strategists from hoping, of course, and indeed, black conservative evangelicals such asBishop Wellington Boone and the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson have been prominently featured in conservative Christian media decrying the same-sex marriage movement as an attempt to hijack the Civil Rights movement.

To be sure, black Christians debate the interpretation of several Scriptural passages traditionally understood to condemn homosexuality, just as other Christians. Harvard Divinity School professor Peter Gomes, for example, is among those who defense of gay Christians rests significantly on the contention that these passages have been misinterpreted.

However, for black Christians, the issue is much more than a difference over whether Gen. 19was about inhospitality, whether Lev. 18:22 pertained to temple prostitution, and whetherRomans 1:26-28 was about idol worship. It has to do with the difference in the way black Christians approach the meaning and practice of their faith, and whether the tradition of African American liberation theology will continue to privilege what some see as a patriarchal worldview. Those differences are more than an academic exercise, because the critical lens ofliberation theology has informed African American culture and politics for the last 150 years.

Black Christian theology emerged as a response to the white supremacist use of Scripture, along with scientific racism, to justify slavery and colonialism. White supremacist clergy and theologians claimed that blacks were the cursed descendants of Ham, and emphasized Bible passages that appeared to condone slavery. Black Christians developed a Christianity that emphasized the oneness of humanity and God’s intervention on behalf of the oppressed. Instead of Ham, they focused on Moses and David.

While they preached a gospel of individual salvation, getting right with God often carried with it a responsibility to uplift the race through clean living and community service. Since the late 18th century, black churches tried to put their vision into practice by investing heavily in building schools, health care, character education, housing and small business development. Although these efforts often suffered from inadequate resources, discrimination, sabotage and a lack of management expertise, the resources of the institutional black church seeded the Civil Rights Movement and spawned most of its leadership. In other words, there would have been no “I Have a Dream Speech,” and certainly no Poor People’s March, without the critical lens of the African- American church.

As J. Deotis Roberts, a leading black liberation theologian explains: “I view racism as a symbolic, even paradigmatic form of oppression in this country. All forms of oppression are related. Rosemary Reuther is correct when she observes what she calls an infrastructure of oppression. Jacqueline Grant is even more precise as she describes the triple oppression of black women in her womanist view of theology. James Cone reminded us years ago that in America blackness is a symbol of oppression. It is unlikely that seminaries will be effective in dealing with other forms of oppression until they face their own institutional racism. As a black theologian and educator, I sense the need to focus on racism (of which I am a victim) while standing in solidarity with those who are the object of other forms oppression.

Not every contemporary black religious leader shares Roberts’ perspective. Victor Andersonof Vanderbilt Divinity School, has noted that many black clergy have what could be considered liberal or progressive views on civil rights, but conservative views on sexual ethics. At the same time, black churches and neighborhoods have long been places where homosexuality itself was frowned upon, but gay community members were tacitly accepted — as long as they were quiet about their sexual orientation. Mindy T. Fullilove, M.D., and Robert E. Fullilove, III, Ed.D. refer to this phenomenon as “the open closet.”

Some theological conservatives, such as popular black Pentecostal pastor TD Jakes, see both racism and homosexuality as spiritual “brokenness” that can be healed by seeking Christ. As a leader of a mega-church with a multiracial congregation, Jakes is one of several black religious leaders whose services combine much of the form of traditional black services, but whose theology is much more in line with the mainstream evangelical emphasis on individual conversion. Rather than attack institutional racism, they often preach that a proper relationship with God will result in improved material and personal circumstances.

Other theological conservatives on this issue see sexual variance among African-descended people as a manifestation of the social degradation that resulted from slavery, segregation and colonialism. For them, a liberatory response requires that men be in primary positions of leadership, but that the institution of heterosexual marriage be exalted. Further, because they believe that theological and scientific evidence exists that people are neither born gay nor condemned to remain gay, they repose considerable confidence in ex-gay ministries.

For these thinkers, support for glbt rights is not only biblically unsound, it is spiritually, politically and culturally damaging to black people. Not only conservative black Christians, but the Nation of Islam shares this view, which is partially why, on several occasions, the NOI has endorsed expressed by such Christian Right leaders as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The NOI has also collaborated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’sUnification Church, an organization with substantialties to the religious and political right. (It should be noted that the Muslim Nation of Islam’s theology borrows substantially from Marcus Garvey, a black Christian nationalist who was himself influenced by thefundamentalist revival of the 1920s.

However, theological liberals and radicals on this issue see the rejection of glbt people as an extension of the oppressive logic that was used to demonize black people and justify slavery.

Some of these thinkers agree with arguments made by pro-gay theologians and scholars who contend that the traditional understanding of Biblical condemnations of homosexuality stem from the Hellenistic cultural biases of the early Church fathers, not from the Bible itself. Those who subscribe to this school of thought contend further that this Hellenistic bias, because of its elevation of mind over body and spirit, is incompatible with African Christian expression, which regards mind, body and spirit as equally important.

On the other hand, some liberation theologians agree with conservatives that there are Scripture passages that proscribe homosexual behavior, but they argue that these passages should be discounted in the same way that we discount passages condoning slavery, child sacrifice and Old Testament-era rules about diet and dress. Further, some of these thinkers argue, there is both room for and value in the Christian witness of glbt people. For these people, then, Christian duty compels support for glbt people inside and outside of the Church.

Finally, pro-gay Christians differ from orthodox Christians in their understanding of the science of human sexuality. For orthodox Christians, the popular saying that, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” is more than a flippant rejection of the claims of gay rights advocates. In orthodox Christianity, God’s relationship Adam and Eve is a metaphor for God’s plan for human marriage and social relations, as well as for God’s relationship with the Church. It was also understood to be a description of the natural world.

Pro-gay Christians give credence to evidence amassed by respected evolutionary scientists, psychologists and anthropologists that complicate our understanding of what is “natural” in the area of sex and gender. One noted researcher in this area, Stanford University theoretical ecologist
Joan Roughgarden, has created a sensation by positing that while sexual reproduction requires the union of male and female genes, the packaging that carries the genes, as well as expressions and performance of gender are more diverse than has been previously understood. Roughgarden contends that God may have created not just Adam and Eve, but also Adam/Eve, and Eve/Adam. Thus for pro-gay Christians, the complementarity implied in Gen. 1:26-7 is often construed as more metaphorical than literal.

While these debates rage, many African people of faith wonder what to believe. Others, certain of their position, are mystified as to how those who disagree with them can call themselves Christian. In the meantime, AIDS is killing young black people at an alarming rate, andhate crimes against people of color perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered are on the increase. Malcolm X used to advise blacks to put aside their religious differences in order to confront their common oppressor, but the contemporary debate may reflect growing disagreement among blacks about what that common oppressor is. And that is exactly what some conservative hopes for.

Kim Pearson teaches writing for journalism and interactive multimedia majors at The College of New Jersey, and writes about race, religion and sexuality for freelance outlets and in her weblog, Professor Kim’s News Notes.

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