The African American church and its leadership have often been at the forefront of movements for equality. But the recent Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has shed light on the resistance to social change among some black church leaders —and has left them sounding more like white conservative leaders.
On June 26, the Court ruled that two consenting adults have the right to get married—even if they are the same gender. As conservatives lamented the loss of morality and warned of the hellfire that would soon rain down upon us, President Barack Obama and the White House celebrated the decision.
Just a few hours later, Obama delivered a eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney was a South Carolina state senator and a pastor at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church before he was shot and killed, along with eight other members, by white supremacist Dylann Roof during a Bible study on Wednesday, June 17. The juxtaposition was quite remarkable. It was a day marked by joyous celebration and indescribable pain: the first black president at the funeral of a black man killed by a white supremacist, on the same day same-sex marriage became the law of the land.
In May 2015, the Pew Research Center found that support for same-sex marriage among all Americans increased drastically from 39 percent in 2009 to a whopping 57 percent. Opinions on same-sex marriage vary by race, with 59 percent of whites, 56 percent of Hispanics, and just 41 percent of blacks in support.
One of the biggest indicators in whether a group is in favor of same-sex marriage is religion. Of those unaffiliated with religion, 85 percent support marriage equality. In contrast, 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants oppose gay marriage, as do 57 percent of black Protestants.
Since at least 1992, blacks have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, the reason being that the modern-day Democratic Party champions causes that appeal to the black community: economic inequality, fair housing, taxing the rich, welfare, and public education. Meanwhile, the modern-day Republican Party consistently stands for causes that disproportionately hurt blacks. And much to the chagrin of conservative black pastors, the Democratic president (and those who hope to succeed him) is publicly in favor of same-sex marriage.
In May 2012, after Vice President Joe Biden came out in support for marriage equality, Obama quickly did as well. “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he said during an interview with ABC News. And while many across the United States celebrated Obama’s voiced support, he faced backlash from black pastors.
The Coalition of African-American Pastors (CAAP) is a socially conservative organization made up of black church leaders. After Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality, the president of CAAP, Reverend William Owens, sounded the moral alarm. “We were once proud of President Obama, but our pride has turned to shame,” he said. “The man holding the most powerful position in the world is stooping to lead the country down an immoral path.”
After the Supreme Court ruling last week, CAAP doubled down on Facebook. “Pres. Obama's legacy: Obamacare and Gay care,” read one post. Another update used the “unelected judges” talking point, widely used by conservative politicians when they don’t agree with a SCOTUS outcome:
Today is a significant setback for all Americans who believe in the Constitution, the rule of law, democratic self-government, and marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The Court got it wrong: it should not have mandated all 50 states to redefine marriage.
Five unelected judges do not have the power to change the truth about marriage or the truth about the Constitution.
According to The Christian Post, CAAP and other African American Christian leaders threatened mass civil disobedience. “If they rule for same-sex marriage, then we're going to do the same thing we did for the civil rights movement,” proclaimed Owens. The fact that protesting a law protecting equality is antithetical to the civil rights movement must be lost on Owens and CAAP. Just as notable is the lack of recognition they seem to have for how the black LGBT community has long been at the intersection of racial equality and gay rights.
Two trans women of color were at the forefront of the Stonewall riots, widely considered the beginning of the modern LGBT equality movement. Sylvia Rivera, of Puerto Rican descent, was later one of the founders of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance. She and Marsha P. Jackson, who was black, started the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, which advocated for homeless LGBT people.
Today’s Black Lives Matter movement, which mirrors so much of the movement of the 1960s, was started when three queer black women created the hashtag—Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi—after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2013. Writing for The Feminist Wire this past October, Garza declared that, “Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” The Black Lives Matter movement was inclusive and intersectional from the beginning.
The black LGBT community is strong and has been fighting for civil rights for decades. The coalition of black pastors who invoke the civil rights movement when they rail against the rights of gay couples should consider reading some history books.