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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, listeners respond to this week's stories, including our Mocha Moms conversation about talking to your kids about the role of race in the presidential campaign. That's next in Backtalk. But first, our weekly Faith Matters conversation.

In less than two weeks on Election Day, Californians vote on Proposition 8. That ballot measure would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and could overturn a California Supreme Court decision earlier this year that cleared the way for same-sex marriages in California. The fault lines of this argument are clear. Gay rights groups insists that this is a civil- and human-rights issue, while traditional values groups argue that gay marriage undermines the family and the culture. So, we decided to talk to those at the crossroads of both arguments.

African-American faith leaders have historically championed civil and human rights, yet many are also deeply concerned about the stability of the traditional family and believe that same-sex marriage threatens that. Joining us to talk about this is Bishop Harry Jackson Jr., senior pastor of the Hope Christian Church in the Washington, D.C., area. He's also the founder and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, a group of ministers who advocate for traditional family values nationwide. He's been active in the campaign to pass Proposition 8. Also with us is the Reverend Deborah Johnson, senior minister - sorry - senior pastor and founder of Inner Light Ministries in Soquel, California. She's a spokesperson for the No On 8 Campaign, and she has been trying to get black pastors to oppose the proposition. I welcome you both.

Bishop HARRY JACKSON JR. (Senior Pastor, Hope Christian Church; Chairman, High Impact Leadership Coalition): Thank you, Michel.

Reverend DEBORAH JOHNSON (Founding Minister, Inner Light Ministries): Thank you.

MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, if I could begin with you. You're based in the Washington, D.C., area, as we've said. You've been a regular visitor to our program. You traveled all the way to California to speak at rallies in support of Proposition 8. Why is this issue so important to you? And why do you think it should be an important for other African-American faith leaders?

Bishop JACKSON: First of all, I don't think it's an anti-gay issue. I see that in the next decade, the traditional marriage institution in the black community could become extinct. Seven or eight out of ten black babies are born out of wedlock. Forty percent of the young women like my two daughters will never be married. They'll be single for the rest of their lives. The institution of marriage is faltering, and then, if you redefine marriage, you redefine the family, and into this confused mass which is the black family, we add on another burden.

MARTIN: Reverend Johnson, you've been an outspoken opponent of Proposition 8. You're also working to enlist other African-American pastors to your side of the argument. What is driving your involvement? What are you views on this?

Rev. JOHNSON: From a faith perspective, the reason why this is so important is because it is a deep matter of social justice, and faith communities have always been in the forefront of social justice. I know, as an African-American, if Emancipation Proclamation had been put on the ballot for a public referendum, we probably would still be picking cotton. The right to marry is a human right. It's not a legal right. It's so basic a human right that even somebody on death row still has the right to marry.

MARTIN: What do you say to that, Bishop Jackson? This is a fundamental human right and that a person, who particularly is steeped in the tradition of the oppressed, has a duty to stand with those who are oppressed. What do you say to that?

Bishop JACKSON: I would want to define it as a civil right versus a sacred right. We have the ability for people to have very civil unions, all kinds of live-in arrangements, but marriage is something from a biblical perspective that's sanctioned by God. And I think that in the places where same-sex marriage has become the law of the land, there's an increase of the problems that we say are already rampant in the black community. That's why I say marriage as an institution could become extinct in a decade or so in the black community. If we start tampering with this and playing this experiment, where's it going to take us? And that's my concern.

MARTIN: Can we have Reverend Johnson respond to this?

Rev. JOHNSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Reverend, can I got to respond to his sort of cultural - particularly sort of cultural argument, particularly about the African-American community, which I assume you know what's he's talking about.

Rev. JOHNSON: Yes.

MARTIN: He feels that sort of marriage is so fragile that this needs to be definite - give me your take on this. And would it be OK for me to disclose that you are married, and that if this measure would have passed, then your marriage would be threatened?

Rev. JOHNSON: That's perfectly fine. The argument that Bishop Jackson is making underscores the importance of why it is that we must defeat Proposition 8. The very fact that our black community needs stability is all the more reason why we should, in fact, recognize all of these stable units that are already in the black community, that are serving in the black community. They are our neighbors. They are our friends. They're in the church, that their presence strengthens the black community. Why do we want to save the family when we throw people out of families?

MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, what about that point? What about - I think that the subtext of Reverend Johnson's point is that same-sex families are families, that they deserve the protection and support of the community, the protection of the law and the support of the community equally with traditional families that people are accustomed to thinking of. What do you say about that?

Bishop JACKSON: I would say we're dealing with redefinition. That's the key word I'm dealing with. As soon as you make it that anybody can get married, so to speak, it devalues something about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Bishop JACKSON: I don't understand that. That's what the stats seem to say.

MARTIN: You know what? Can I ask you, Bishop Jackson...

Rev. JOHNSON: This is what...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Reverend Johnson, but Bishop Jackson, I think the thing that some people don't understand is, why would it be that depriving some people of the right to marry would persuade other people not to get married? What's the relevance of it? Because people understand the argument, that not allowing people who wish to be partnered with someone of the same sex is going to somehow encourage heterosexuals not to get married. Can you explain that?

Bishop JACKSON: Yeah. I think it's the issue of, as I'm calling it, a redefinition. One of the problems that we have in America in the black community is what I'm going to call role definition within marriage, what's a mother supposed to do, a father supposed to do. We've got so many families that don't even have a father in the home. The concept that we're going to tamper with the basic baking ingredients of this concoction becomes a problem in trying to reproduce healthy families.

MARTIN: You know, this is an interesting argument.

Rev. JOHNSON: This is...

MARTIN: Hold on a sec. It's an interesting argument because I could see the opposite argument. I mean, under slavery, you know, enslaved African-Americans were not allowed to marry, and once they were allowed to marry, got married at a higher rate, because they so valued it, having been denied that right and privilege.

Bishop JACKSON: Well, I understand your point. And I think there is fundamental problem in the black community, has to do with the faith leaders, I think. Somewhere, we're not teaching people how to hold onto - cherish basic relationships, and that has nothing to do with gay people. It has everything to do with the way ministers have conducted themselves and how we've discharged our duties. That being said, we're asking the culture to have a sociological experiment with a dangerously threatened institution that's on life support. This is not the time to try to have that kind of thing. That's the kind of argument I'm making.

MARTIN: Reverend Johnson?

Rev. JOHNSON: There is absolutely no evidence that a gay family is any less stable or any less of a family. So, we have this irony where we have people who are parents - we're even empowering them to be parents through the state - and then coming around and saying, but you can't, in fact, be married.

MARTIN: I need to jump in just for a second to say if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with two African-American faith leaders with very different perspectives about gay marriage in California. There's a measure on the ballot in November that would overturn the state's permission for same-sex marriage.

Reverend Johnson, can I just ask you on a - from a faith perspective, what about those who are African-American - because African-Americans, I think, are often sort of misunderstood both politically and socially people because they tend to sort of vote in a certain way. People think of them as sort of being liberal when, in fact, they, on sort of cultural and social issues, sometimes have a very sort of different perspective. What do you say to those who believe that biblically, same-sex marriage is wrong and therefore the law should not support it?

Rev. JOHNSON: As a faith leader, I would say, one, we are not doing biblical marriage. Nobody is doing biblical marriage. The biblical marriage, women were chattel. You didn't have a right to choose your partner. Love didn't even figure into the equation. The Bible is a beautiful book, and I love the Bible. But what we, as African-Americans, have learned is that that very Bible has been used against us. It was the same Bible that justified slavery, that justified the subordination of women, and that we have learned through our history that it is really important to go back to the Bible and to view the Bible through the love ethic of Jesus, a love that says love your neighbor as yourself and don't treat people differently just because of who they are.

MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, this isn't the first time the gay-marriage issue has been discussed in the African-American community. In the 2004 presidential election, many people believe that President Bush's slim victory in Ohio, which one could argue was the foundation of his national victory, was a consequence of socially conservative African-American voters turning out to vote on this initiative. But there are those who argue - you're then making common cause with folks who in overall did not have the interest of the African-American community at heart on matters of other domestic and foreign policy. What do you say to that?

Bishop JACKSON: I say it doesn't matter whether you vote for McCain or Obama. Vote yes on Proposition 8. I don't think you're going to have the crossover in this election that you did in the past. It did happen in 2004 because there's much more unity around the marriage issue and some of the values that President Bush espouses, or espoused, I should say. But I don't think you have that same dynamic supporting McCain at this time.

MARTIN: What's your take, Bishop Jackson, overall on the whole question of same-sex marriage within the African-American community? The country overall seems to be divided, sort of, fairly down the middle on this. What do you think?

Bishop JACKSON: I think most African-American clergy persons believe that same-sex marriage is still not mandated or sanctioned in the Bible. We tend to be very, very fundamentally oriented with, this is what it says in the scriptures. I do think that, as African-Americans who've been oppressed, the civil-rights argument is probably the one that is most likely to get people to move and to accommodate, as Reverend Johnson has been arguing.

MARTIN: Reverend Johnson, what's your take?

Rev. JOHNSON: My take is that regardless of what you feel about male couples or female couples marrying, you should vote no on Proposition 8. The Proposition 8 is a very bad, dangerous precedent. You should never allow the majority to take away the constitutional rights of the minority. What's next? Do we prevent children from immigrants, or children from undocumented workers who were born here in America, from getting an education? With all the fervor we have about Muslims, do we stop Muslims from teaching our children or from running for political office?

MARTIN: Reverend Johnson, what is your prediction? What do you think is going to happen?

Rev. JOHNSON: Yes. I believe that Proposition 8 is going to lose. As far as the African-American community is concerned, what I find when I talk to a lot of faith leaders is that they feel like they are caught in a wedge, that they actually want to speak out against Proposition 8 but are often silenced. They fear that if they do that, there would be such retaliation from the Yes On 8 Campaign and members of their congregation that may support it that it may, in fact, turn against them. So, they tell me they want to, but they don't.

MARTIN: Final word from you, Bishop Jackson. What do think is going to happen?

Bishop JACKSON: Well, I think that Yes On 8 is going to stand - and because 60 percent of the Californian electorate voted to have marriage defined as between one man and a woman, radical judges overturned the will of the people earlier this year in order to say that same-sex marriage will be the law of the land and the state. That's fundamentally non-democratic.

MARTIN: What if Reverend Johnson is right? What if Proposition 8 is defeated? What does that say to you? And what is if it is the case that African-Americans vote no? What would that say to you? Would that send any message to you?

Bishop JACKSON: It means if it wins or if vote no is the order of the day, that you have same-sex marriage moving much closer toward being the law of all America.

MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there, and I thank you both for a spirited discussion. Bishop Harry Jackson is the senior pastor of the Washington-area Hope Christian Church. He joined us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Reverend Deborah Johnson is a senior pastor of Inner Light Ministries in Soquel, California. She joined in from the studios of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Bishop JACKSON: Thank you, Michel.

Rev. JOHNSON: Thank you.

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