Words from a Christian radical

obama-joseph-lowery-articleIt’s hard to write about a minister without talking about what the man believes, in terms of the Christian faith. At the same time, I imagine that it’s hard for folks at the edgy Style section of the Washington Post to write about faith issues, period, especially when dealing with a Civil Rights Movement giant who is now in the orbit of President-elect Barack Obama.

Still, Krissah Thompson’s news feature on the Rev. Joseph Lowery does give you some sense of the man. But the best anecdote in this story, irony of ironies, actually describes the hole on the story’s soul.

Describing media and public perceptions of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — with whom he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 — Lowery gets rolling on a gospel train and we read:

“They have made Martin a glorified social worker, and they have almost made our young folks believe that all Martin did was go around dreaming,” Lowery says. “He was a nonviolent militant. He was a Christian radical.”

He titled his last sermon of 2008 “The Four Fathers,” and delivered it while sitting on a stool behind the big wooden pulpit at Antioch Baptist Church North, describing how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, King and Barack Obama have all ushered in new American eras.

“For white folks in the South to vote for a black man as president is drastic. This is revolutionary,” Lowery says. “The Democratic Party can take credit, but the Democrats didn’t do it. God did it. God was in the plan. Nobody else could have gotten these white folks to vote for a Negro named Barack Obama.”

Strong words that would, on several levels, raise eyebrows in many pews and in the power corridors of Washington, D.C.

What does Lowery mean by that? How does his faith in Obama line up with his faith in Jesus Christ? What are the doctrinal differences between this elderly lion of the pulpit and, let’s say, a certain retired preacher from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago?

Well, you’ll need to read some other story for that information. This story comes close to painting Lowery as a glorified political activist.

However, you will learn, of course, where he stands on the issue that matters most today, which is the Rev. Rick Warren’s beliefs on sexuality. Only, even there this story balks and fails to follow the logic of Lowery’s words to the end. Try to follow this:

Lowery, who supports civil unions, has already spoken out about Obama’s controversial selection of the Rev. Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation, which has been protested by gay rights groups because of disparaging comments Warren has made about gays and his support of the California proposition to ban same-sex marriage.

“I understand the protesters and I disagree vehemently with some of the nasty things Brother Warren said about gay people. I support civil rights for all citizens. I don’t think you can fragment civil rights,” Lowery says. “I have also said to gay groups, ‘If y’all can stop talking about marriage and start talking about civil unions it would change things.’ The concept of marriage is so embedded in my soul as being between a man and a woman.”

Now, there is some evidence that Warren also supports civil unions for gays and lesbians or, at least, is willing to discuss that compromise tactic — with definitions of marriage remaining where they have been for age of ages, amen.

It seems that Lowery, too, wants to avoid that fight. So what, precisely, is the nature of this conflict? So be defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, but it is wrong to publicly defend that? The story does not tell us.

But, I will give the Post credit. This feature story does end with one of the most charming preacher anecdotes I have read in a long, long time. Enjoy.

Lowery has been working his inaugural prayer over in his mind. But he had not yet put pen to paper when he got a call two weeks ago from Obama’s religious affairs director, Joshua DuBois, to tell him he will have two minutes on the inaugural stage.

Lowery asked first how long Warren would get. DuBois said the opening prayer has also been allotted two minutes. When Lowery hung up the phone and told his secretary, they both burst out laughing.

“Have you ever said a prayer in two minutes?” she asked.

“I’ve never tried,” Lowery said, smiling, “but they can’t turn the mike off on me.”

You see, my father was a preacher. I know where this man is coming from.

Photo: Obama and Lowery on the campaign trail in Georgia.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    My Dad, too.

  • Jerry

    It’s going to be a fun ceremony: no doubt analyzed and blogged about until the cows come home. I’ll be amazed if any media “leopards” change their “spots” with their coverage but we’ll see.

    God did it. God was in the plan. Nobody else could have gotten these white folks to vote for a Negro named Barack Obama.”

    What does Lowery mean by that?

    The meaning to me is clear – he meant what he said when he said that: God’s winds of change are sweeping through the world and changing things overnight from a historical perspective.

    How does his faith in Obama line up with his faith in Jesus Christ?

    I don’t understand that question – to me he’s talking about a black man being elected President. Where does his “faith” in Obama compared to “Christ” enter into that?

    What are the doctrinal differences…

  • Jerry

    hit submit too fast – I was about to add:

    What are the doctrinal differences…

    That is a more interesting question to me. I can find nothing very much about what his theology really is.

  • str1977

    “How does his faith in Obama line up with his faith in Jesus Christ?”

    It is not just that. To give a sermon on these supposed “Four Fathers” (and Obama is yet totally out of place in that group) shows that the man preaches Americanism, not Christianity.

  • Dave

    So what, precisely, is the nature of this conflict?

    Warren compares same-sex couples to incest. Lowery doesn’t. You can start from there.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVE:

    In other words, Warren believes that homosexual acts are sin, as maintained in traditional Christianity through the ages. He believes that all sexual acts outside of marriage are equally sinful.

    Now, this is a doctrinal point. Has Lowery dropped that doctrine?

    That would be a great question and a perfect example of why I wrote the post. Again, it’s the doctrine.

    Try to forget the politics, for the moment. This is an issue of two preachers disagreeing with one another.

    Does Lowery believe that sexual acts outside of marriage are sin? If the Post had asked that question, it would have helped make sense out of the clash with Warren.

    We are, of course, in tmatt trio territory again.

  • steve

    Terry, re your headline “Words from a Christian radical”
    Why the descriptive “radical”? To differentiate from a “regular” Christian? What would that be? Aren’t all Christians by definition supposed to be radicals in a secular world? Peace, Steve

  • dalea

    Now, there is some evidence that Warren also supports civil unions for gays and lesbians or, at least, is willing to discuss that compromise tactic — with definitions of marriage remaining where they have been for age of ages, amen.

    It seems that Lowery, too, wants to avoid that fight. So what, precisely, is the nature of this conflict? So be defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, but it is wrong to publicly defend that? The story does not tell us.

    It appears that the issue is that when faced with competing moral and ethical claims, he is conflicted and has not yet reached a comfortable place. Many liberal religionists are in the same place. One can acknowlege that for a long time, Abrahamic religions have defined marriage as being between one man and some arbitrary number of women. And also acknowlege that lesbian and gay claims to equality are morally and religiously just. With marriage as the sticking point where it is difficult to reconcile opposing viewpoints. …

  • Dave

    Terry, assuming everyone involved has thought through their positions carefully, your analytical grid suggests that Lowery is expanding the ambit of tmattQ#3 to include civil unions as legitimate settings for gay sex.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Actually, it suggests that he believes the STATE should accept civil unions, without having to ask churches to accept doctrinal changes redefining marriage or doctrines related to sexual ethics.

    In other words, live and let live. It sounds like he is willing to seek compromise in the secular arena.

  • Ann

    Since at least 2000, Rev Lowery has fought for gay rights. He has given speeches at UMC conferences in support of allowing gay pastors, which would be a change in UMC doctrine.

    “How could the church, because of a person’s sexual orientation, deny ministry to those whom God has call?” May 4, 2000 General Conference.

    Recently, I heard Lowery compare gay issues to the discrimination of African-Americans. Because of his own experiences, he would never exclude a specific group of people.

    The UMC wrote a letter of apology to African-Americans for their part in the many years of active discrimination. Although the UMC is open to gays, the official policy regards their lifestyle to be a sin. Some churches are very open to gays, such as the Foundry in D.C.

    I pray that someday in the near future the UMC will write a letter of apology to gays.

    The UMC has been fighting internally for many years over gays. There are many pastors and church members that support gay rights, including marriage or something with a different name that allows a ceremony in the church.

    Most people posting on this site do not seem to appreciate the trauma most churches cause gays and others by classifying them as people that should burn in hell. I will never believe that God would allow someone to be born that would not be accepted in his kingdom. For some people a gay lifestyle may be a choice; however, some men that have female mannerisms were born that way. People are born with male and female body parts. They are all God’s children and deserve to be treated that way by all people, especially by Christians. They already have full rights under the Constitution.

  • Dave

    Terry (#10), you are saying you think Lowery believes the state should institutionalize secularly something Lowery believes to be a sin comparable to incest morally. Does he contradict himself that seriously on other issues?

    Ann (#11) said:

    They already have full rights under the Constitution.

    They don’t have full rights under law. You can’t be fired for being black or female. You can be fired, in most places, for being gay.


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