Black Voters Rethinking Gay Marriage?

On Election Day, Washington, Maine and Maryland states voted to legalize same-sex marriage, stopping a 32-state losing streak. In Maryland, African-American faith leaders took vocal positions on both sides of the issue, and host Michel Martin hears from two of them: Reverend Delman Coates and Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Northeast is still picking up the pieces from nearly two weeks of extreme weather. One of our producers was just in New York and she shares her reflections about what she saw there in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality and, today, we want to talk about an issue that has been particularly challenging for many people of faith.

On Election Day, voters chose to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state, Maine and Maryland. That stops 32 states where voters had previously voted on the issue where they opposed same-sex marriage. In Maryland, African-American faith leaders were particularly vocal on both sides of the issue and two of them join us now.

Reverend Delman Coates supported the initiative legalizing same-sex marriage. He is the senior pastor of the Mount Enon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland. Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. opposes same-sex marriage. He has been nationally prominent in the fight to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage and he was also one of the prime movers behind the drive to put the issue to referendum. He's the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. And they are both with us now.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DELMAN COATES: Thanks for having us.

HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Reverend Coates, I will begin with you because you are a major supporter of the ballot measure and I'm just wondering, within your congregation, what was the reaction, both to the issue itself and to your decision to take the position that you did?

COATES: There's been overwhelming support. When I came out in support for marriage equality in February, many of my colleagues thought I had committed professional suicide. They thought my career, my ministry was over. This has actually been the best year in the history of our church. We have had over 1,000 people join our church in the first 10 months of this year. Largely in part, people have expressed their appreciation for having a pastor who takes principled stances, even when it's not popular.

People do not want to be on the side of codifying discrimination as a part of the law, even if they may have personal religious views on this issue.

MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, many people, of course, will remember you from your previous conversations on this program and other programs, where you've been very vocal on this issue. Would you remind us again of why you feel this is such a critical issue, particularly for the people you serve and particularly for African-Americans?

JACKSON: I'm most concerned about the children and the curriculums that will be put into place in the school systems. "Heather Has Two Mommies" is something that comes to mind in the state of Massachusetts. And a gentleman wanted to opt out of the classes and he was arrested a couple of years ago. And we can go on and on about that kind of next-generational indoctrination, I'm going to call it, number one.

Number two, I think there is an air of intolerance that deals with the whole issue of the Gallaudet professor getting dismissed from her job for just signing up that there should be a ballot initiative. We hold a Bible study each week at FRC, the Family Resource Council, downtown D.C. We know a gunman came in there over this issue of same-sex marriage, so there's a lot of tension here and I think it's going to - it will be a very big morally defining arena.

MARTIN: Why is this such a priority for you? Many people look at the state of marriage in the United States more generally, and African-Americans in particular, and say the issue is not same-sex marriage. The issue is that heterosexuals, for whatever reason, can't seem to hold onto their marriages, and they just don't understand why this is such a priority. Could you just talk a little bit more about that?

JACKSON: I think, anytime you redefine something, you run the risk of destroying it. I think marriage as we understand it is on life support in America. Folks don't understand what their roles are supposed to be in the context of the heterosexual dimension, not to mention this - I'm going to call it - confusion and renaming, if you will, of this institution.

So, in a nutshell, that's our biggest challenge. Marriage is the foundational building block of any culture and we're saying that - yes - we need to strengthen it and get it right.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It's our Faith Matters conversation. We are talking about the decision in Maryland, where voters, earlier this week, voted to uphold same-sex marriage that we're talking about with two pastors, both for and against the ballot initiative. Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. has been nationally prominent in the move to oppose marriage equality. Also with us Reverend Delman Coates who supported marriage equality.

Reverend Coates, I just want to play a short clip from the ad that you recorded supporting the ballot measure. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

COATES: I would not want someone denying my rights based upon their religious views. Therefore, I should not deny others based upon mine. It's about fairness. This law does not force any church to perform a same-sex marriage if it's against their beliefs.

MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit more about the religious dimension in this. Was it a religious freedom issue in part for you as well, or what? Talk about that.

COATES: Absolutely. Well, as a Baptist - I'm a pastor in the Baptist Church. One of the defining principles of Baptist heritage and polity is a separation of church and state. Baptists historically have died and fought to maintain this separation. And so on questions of public policy, we affirm that people have the right to their personal theological views but we should not use our personal, subjective theological views and impose them on others in matters of public policy and to deny them equal treatment under the law.

Now with that said, I think it's important for people to understand that what is informing the opposition to this issue is a theological premise. It's an interpretive premise that the Bible condemns homosexuality - if we really can get to it.

Now as a Bible scholar, it's important for people to understand that the Bible is not written in English; it's written in Greek and Hebrew, and my reading of the text suggests that the Bible does not condemn consensual same-gender loving relationships. That what's being condemned in Scripture of all the passages that my friends on the other side point to in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Sodom and Gomorrah, First Corinthians, Romans, these are condemnations of acts of sexual violence, exploitation and abuse, which is decidedly different than two people being involved in consensual relationships.

I think that what's going to happen in the future, as we see the re-emergence of progressive black evangelicalism, is a reassessment of these texts that we've used to deny gay and lesbian sisters and brothers an equal place in our churches and in the society.

MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, of course, I want to hear from you on this. How do you understand this issue theologically?

JACKSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I also feel I have to ask if, you've been at this for a while now and it's true that voters in other places have affirmed your position. But the tide does seem to be turning, and I do have to wonder whether this evokes some sort of a spiritual or theological crisis for you?

JACKSON: Well, let me start with your second question first. No, it's not a crisis for me. We would say you believe what you believe. The issue is that most Christians - and Reverend Coates would agree with me that most Christians in America today, most theologians disagree with his interpretation of the passages he cited. And so for me, it's a matter of faithfulness to Scripture.

What I'm excited about, as far as this thing kind of coming to a head, is that we were outspent maybe 10 to 1 with ads. Reverend Coates' ad was very well done. In New York, when same-sex marriage was passed there, there was a series of ads called "I Am Gay" that were very effective. And in terms of taking people who may not have been informed, you know, a la traditional biblical teaching and exegesis of the Scriptures, and moving them toward his point of view. So I think that the Supreme Court is going to have to deal with this sooner or later, that the overwhelming majority of folks who voted on it have voted against same-sex marriage. And I think it will be good for us to finally have some definitive national readout on this whole issue. And I believe this is part of the Gospel in terms of the whole sexual conduct area - not homosexuality alone or heterosexuality - but issues of pornography, you can go on and on in our culture today. And it seems to me that it would be great if we get this settled and kind of under our belt. And I'm glad that Reverend Coates and others have spoken out and that this is getting to be discussed in the public square.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, each of you go, and I thank you both so much for joining us. Today is the day that we understand that many pastors work on their sermons, so thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I was curious to know whether each of you - given that this is kind of your sermon preparation day - whether you plan to preach on this this weekend. And if so, have you thought about what you might say? Reverend Coates, do you want to start and then I'll give Bishop Jackson the last word?

COATES: Sunday's our women's day so I won't be preaching, but all year I've been teaching about how do we deal with people who are different? What happened in Maryland this past Tuesday and what happened around the country in the other states where marriage equality laws were passed, suggests that the hegemony of the religious right is on the decline. And what we're going to see is the re-emergence of progressive black politics in the black church, wherein this agenda of anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-minority, anti-immigrant politics is over. People all across this country are looking for people of faith who can articulate a vision that is spiritually invigorating, intellectually respectable and committed to social justice and progressive politics.

MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, I understand that you're on a men's retreat.

JACKSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: So I don't know whether you'll be preaching this weekend, but will this...

JACKSON: I too will be...

MARTIN: Will you be talking about it? What do you think you'll say?

JACKSON: Well, I will say that there is a dualism, a little different than his. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God's throne, one Scripture says, Psalm 89:14. And I think that one of the reasons you've seen a swing in some of these votes is that this is caught up in an issue of justice that has to be unpacked. I believe many African-Americans went with President Obama and went also with many of these issues, just voting a Democratic platform, because there hasn't been a balanced view of what I'm going to call historic justice issues.

I would agree with him that race is going to have to come back to the forefront again. It seemed to me that black, Hispanic and Asian Christians who believe with me on their biblical interpretation of marriage are being swayed because they're not really sure that they're going to get a fair shake on the other justice issues having to do with how they live, how they work themselves. And I think if this issue is unpacked, you'll have much less support going forward for just same-sex marriage. But I do think that the American church has to deal with its original sin - as I would call it - of the collaboration of greed and racism has been America's 400-year tarnish or habitual sin.

MARTIN: Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. is the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church. That's in the Washington, D.C. area. We caught up with him at a church retreat at an undisclosed location. Reverend Delman Coates is the senior pastor of the Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Pastors, thank you both for speaking with us.

JACKSON: Thank you.

COATES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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