How Do Black Churches View Gay Marriage Debate?

Farai Chideya explores proposals to ban gay marriage, and how the legal arguments for a ban resonate in African-American churches and communities with Dr. Robert Franklin, professor of social ethics at Emory University in Atlanta.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Continuing on the theme of same sex marriage, let's turn to the black church. Some clergy interpret the Bible as condemning homosexuality. Others turn to scriptures on judgment and say that judgment is God's not theirs to make. On the phone from Atlanta, Georgia is Dr. Robert Franklin, professor of social ethics at Emory University. Dr. Franklin, thank you for joining us.

Dr. ROBERT FRANKLIN (Professor of Social Ethics, Emory University): Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So, how is the gay marriage debate shaping up in the black church?

Dr. FRANKLIN: I think you characterized it correctly. It is a debate. If there is a vigorous conversation going on now, publicly, in the black church community, that in the past it's been relatively muted and held in private spaces. And it has to do with who should be, can be, married, and how the church sanctions relationships, how it sanctions and places its blessings on marriage.

CHIDEYA: I think the important thing to note is that this conversation in the black church community happens against the background of considerable anxiety about the future of black families and black marriages in general. And I think, unfortunately, at a time when there are declining marriage rates in heterosexual community, skyrocketing divorce rate, high rates of father absent, the black church community is essentially anxious about the future of their families, marriages and the well being of children.

And so as this issue of same sex marriage emerges, I think it sort of gets filtered through a fairly high anxiety. That, together with the very calculated, and in my opinion infuriating manipulation of members of both the secular political right and the religious right in the white community, to manipulate black anxiety and a tradition of black conservatism on family values. We see lots of well-intentioned black clergy and black church folk being manipulated on this issue.

CHIDEYA: And when you talk about manipulation, are you talking about the ways in which many people have advocated for gay marriage to be this wedge issue that drives apart the Democratic party, which still gets the vast majority of African American votes and African American voters.

Dr. FRANKLIN: Precisely. I certainly saw, during the last presidential election emails from friends of mine, black clergy who are otherwise thoughtful and judicious and evenhanded people, sort of turned up the rhetoric against picking out the gay community and then picking on them. And I thought that was unusual. It didn't represent what I understand to be the law of love that Jesus calls us to. And so, I think that the black church community, ultimately should declare a moratorium, now, on gay-bashing and mean-spirited rhetoric or aligning ourselves with people who employ mean-spirited rhetoric, and have our own conversation. And bring in biblical scholars and Christian psychiatrists and social workers, and have a real conversation - a village-wide conversation - about the future of black marriages, families, and how we embrace and show love and discipline toward all members of our community, especially so-called non-conformists.

CHIDEYA: In his most recent novel, E. Lynn Harris, who's an incredibly popular in black literature and books, writes specifically about the challenges to the black church and homosexuality, and points out something that I think most of use who've gone to black churches know. Which is that there's a lot of gay people in black churches.

Dr. FRANKLIN: Yes, indeed.

CHIDEYA: So how, how - is it kind of a don't ask, don't tell policy that…

Dr. FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think that that's pretty close to what I've certainly observed growing up. Keith Boykin, the gay activist from the National Black Justice Coalition, uses a wonderful phrase that I think really describes just what you're pointing to in terms of the black church being the most homo-tolerant and homophobic institution in the African-American community.

And in the past, there's always been the knowledge that, you know, members of the congregation were gay or lesbian and many of them offering - providing leadership in the music ministry and in other ministries in the church. People knew it, and it was a sort of don't ask, don't tell, let's not make a big, public deal out of this. There was some measure of public condemnation, but always a considerable private tolerance on the issue. We need to continue that tradition, while we have the conversation about whether or not we will support or oppose same sex marriage.

CHIDEYA: And final question. We don't have much time, but again, as I asked our previous guest, how do you make a distinction between individual codes of morality and the law? If you deeply believe that homosexuality is wrong, it's just wrong, how do you reconcile that with the law, if you may even have gays and lesbians in your church, but you just believe it's wrong? Shouldn't you, in fact, push for a law that restricts marriage?

Dr. FRANKLIN: Well, you certainly can under our constitutional system. But Jesus really provides real genius on this issue for Christians who are struggling with it. And he essentially says, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and render unto God the things that are God's. Which means, for me, that it's possible for Christians, who are against homosexuality, for instance, or against same-sex marriage, to permit the state to do what the state wishes to do in a court with justice and distributing equal benefits and responsibilities to people, even permitting civil union or marriage. But at the same time, rendering unto God their sense of who is married in God's sight may be very different. And that can be a matter of personal theology and conscience.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Again, Dr. Robert Franklin is professor of social ethics at Emory University in Atlanta. Thank you so much.

Dr. FRANKLIN: Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Coming up, the personal papers of Martin Luther King go on the auction block and is racial profiling okay if it's used for anti-terrorism. We'll discuss these topics and more on our roundtable, next.

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