Church hunting in a war zone

obama-at-pulpitIn a strange kind of way, a team of reporters at the Washington Post metro desk (including my long-time friend Hamil Harris) has written a fitting sequel for that recent news feature about the First Family’s struggle to find a church home, one that fits them in terms of political realities and the liberal Christian beliefs that drive the heads of the household.

This may not be what the reporters set out to do, but that is what they have done — if one reads between the lines a bit. Click here, if you wish to catch up by reading my recent post on that topic: “Obama seeking right church on left.” Or, here is its thesis statement about the president:

I have always argued that … he is what he has said he is — a sincere, liberal, mainline Protestant whose approach to faith is built on a modernist, non-literal approach to scripture. But this creates an awkward situation here in Washington, where the most powerful, high-profile African-American churches may or may not be able to affirm that Obama approach to faith, morality and doctrine. Clearly, they want to embrace the president and his family, but, well, certain subjects could cause trouble.

That brings us to the new story in the Post, which ran with the headline, “Uproar in D.C. as Same-Sex Marriage Gains.” Here’s the lede:

The D.C. Council overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, in a vote that followed a sharp exchange between an openly gay member and a civil rights champion and set off shouts of reproach from local ministers.

The council passed the measure by a vote of 12 to 1. During the debate, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) accused Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who cast the dissenting vote, of having taken a “bigoted” position. After the vote, enraged African American ministers stormed the hallway outside the council chambers and vowed that they will work to oust the members who supported the bill, which was sponsored by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). They caused such an uproar that security officers and D.C. police were called in to clear the hallway.

Ironically, Barry’s stance on this issue appears be the same as that professed by President Barack Obama — pro gay rights, pro civil unions, but opposed to same-sex marriage.

Next up is the actual bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the nation’s capital.

Barry … warned after the vote that the District could erupt if the council does not proceed slowly on same-sex marriage.

“All hell is going to break lose,” Barry said. “We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this.”

The shock waves could also reach the U.S. Congress, of course. But that is not what interests me in this story.

The Post team clearly understood that the roots of this conflict are in the African-American church itself and, especially, inside at least some of the mainstream black congregations in the city.

Here is a lengthy passage that contains the emotional heart of the story, as Barry clashes with gay activists.

… (T)he emotional debate that took place yesterday at the Wilson Building suggests that the issue could be divisive in a city with a long history of racial tension in politics. Barry, a prominent figure during the civil rights movement, said that he “agonized” over whether to oppose the bill but that he decided to stand with the “ministers who stand on the moral compass of God.”

“I am representing my constituents,” said Barry, who later told reporters that “98 percent of my constituents are black, and we don’t have but a handful of openly gay residents.”

Civic activist Philip Pannell, who is openly gay and lives in Ward 8, called Barry’s remarks offensive. “He of all people, coming out of the civil rights movement, should understand the need to fight for the rights of all minorities to be protected,” Pannell said.

Catania and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) are the two openly gay members of the council, and Catania made it clear that he took offense at Barry’s stance.

“This issue is whether or not our colleagues, on a personal level, view me and Jim Graham as your equals,” Catania said, “if we are permitted the same rights and responsibilities and obligations as our colleagues. So this is personal. This is acknowledging our families as much as we acknowledge yours.”

Barry, visibly upset, fired back that he has been a supporter of gay rights since the 1970s.

“I understand this is personal to you and Mr. Graham. I understand because I have been discriminated against,” Barry said. “… I resent Mr. Catania saying either you are a bigot or against bigotry, as though this particular legislation represents all of that.”

Catania replied: “Your position is bigoted. I don’t think you are.”

gay-new-blackmidSo, where does the story go next?

This report noted that more than 100 black ministers recently signed a letter to the mayor opposing efforts to approve same-sex marriage. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington also released a statement after this first vote, saying that it revealed a “lack of understanding of the true meaning of marriage.” And on the left, there was this:

Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) accused some of the black ministers of questioning her religious commitment and threatening to unseat council members who supported the bill. “The ministers have really upset me to a point they have questioned my Christianity, they have questioned my morality,” Alexander said.

Actually, they are questioning her doctrine and this is one of those issues on which it is impossible to take a stand — on left or right — without saying that believers on the other side of the church aisle are reading the Bible incorrectly.

So here’s my question about that list of 100 black ministers. Are there any names on that list from churches that are still being considered by the Obamas? Probably not. But are there many mainstream black pastors who have signed on to pray, preach and lobby on behalf of the gay-marriage coalition? Probably not.

Now, do you see the political puzzle that the First Family is trying to solve as it tries to find a church home?

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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.

  • AskYourPreacher

    They definitely are in a pickle. President Obama’s race was a big factor in his election (whether they want to admit it or not) and so was his liberal campaign platform. In this circumstance, those two pieces of his political puzzle stand in juxtaposition to each other. So what will it be?

    1) Stand by the black community, his heritage, and his fan base.
    2) Stand by the gays and his political party.

    I’m deeply curious to see what his decision will be.

  • Ben

    Obama is against gay marriage, so this particular issue may be less difficult for him to find common ground on with the black churches in DC. But, point taken, the black churches in DC may be more conservative theologically than Obama, making it tricky to pick one. Having recently moved to India, I can commiserate. I wonder if that’s why Americans switch religions so much — we move homes so much too.

  • Julia

    Kind of like the dilemma of Catholic Democrats.

  • dalea

    The Gay Press on the subject, somewhat different approach:

    The missing element here is the nexus of the Black Church, AA politicians and the GLBT community. This is post Prop8 all over again. Interesting that no one made that connection.

    As a group, Black elected officials are strong supporters of GL rights. They are our most reliable allies, as the press coverage of the voting here shows. In turn, we have supported them with votes, activism and money for decades. The marriage vote shows a strong commitment to each other.

    The Post never bothered to ask anyone why they voted for Gay Marriage when all their churches were saying vote no. They didn’t ask the church leaders either. Just noted what was going on. Very odd and superficial.

  • dalea

    Obama’s dilema:

    1) Stand by the black community, his heritage, and his fan base.
    2) Stand by the gays and his political party.

    There are Black Churches that support GL marriage. About 40% of the Black vote on Prop8 was in favor of Gay marriage. So, it is very likely he can find a Church that meets his requirements. The idea that the AA community is overwhelmingly anti-gay is simply false.

    This may be a teachable moment for Obama to address the Black Church on GLTB’s as he has done before.

    One of the Blade commentors made an interesting point. In DC, over 70% of Black births are out of wedlock. This is the threat to traditional marriage, not us.

  • Jerry

    we don’t have but a handful of openly gay residents.”

    That sounds like bragging that black gays are staying in the closet to avoid persecution and perhaps violence.

    Since Barack Obama has stated that he’s not in favor of gay marriage, I don’t see there being any issue on this particular point as others have mentioned.

    Meanwhile, it looks very possible that all of New England will have gay marriages legalized in the next year or two. It’s not guaranteed, to be sure, but the winds are blowing in that direction.

  • Jay

    Ben says:
    Obama is against gay marriage

    I don’t think that’s quite right. A more accurate statement is “Obama is afraid to openly support gay marriage.” If he gets re-elected, I predict we will see him move swiftly to do everything he can to help promote it. (E.g. benefits for “married” Federal workers).

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  • Dan Trabue

    My friend, Michael, has outlined here several likely choices for the Obamas, which are both multi-racial AND progressive. He has options…

  • str1977


    The idea that the AA community is overwhelmingly anti-gay is simply false.

    It is also a strawman set up by you as no one has ever argued that.

  • str1977

    And actually I don’t think stories about the “First Family” not newsworthy at all.

  • H. E. Baber

    It would be interesting if Obama simply didn’t join any church.

    Media speculation about which church he’ll join is at best a minor theme and will soon die down. He’s been very clever about conciliating “faith communities” so there’s a good chance that the public simply won’t notice if the Obamas just don’t go to church or, at most, make occasional showings at various churches for ceremonial occasions. If however they affiliate with a church it will attract media attention and whichever church he joins someone will be offended, some group will be alienated.

    What I find interesting is how Obama’s bow to “people of faith” has been spun in the media as his conciliation of yet another special-interest group who needs to be represented, “given voice” and, if possible, placated. And this may be an accurate reflection of the Obama administration’s policy. Secularism is represented as the default; religious believers are a special interest group, like ethnic minorities. Moreover in the picture the media portrays, which reflects Obama’s policy, evangelicals are represented as the paradigm religious believers. The guys Obama has selected to represent “people of faith” are “moderate,” i.e. tame, housebroken evangelicals, who he hopes will represent that constituency without scaring the secular liberals who are his base.

    In addition to evangelicals, the media pay some attention to conservative Catholics and traditionally black churches, but largely ignore mainline Protestants–either because they think there aren’t enough of them to matter, or because they don’t see them as representing a religious constituency, or because they’ve simply forgotten that they exist. This is indicative of the “hollowing out” of religion in America, with evangelical churches still growing, the unchurched growing even faster and the mainline denominations largely invisible and shrinking. It’s interesting that when the media reports on the “religious left” it almost invariably focuses on the relatively few politically leftish evangelicals rather than political liberals in mainline denominations.

    It’s also interesting that for all the talk of post-racialism, the all but universal assumption is that Obama will, or maybe should, join a black church. There may be 2 things going on here. First, while Americans want Obama to be “post-racial” in the sense of rejecting the rhetoric of black liberation theology and any form of black separatism, they want him to do ethnicity lite. Could he have been elected if he were married to a white woman I wonder? Secondly, I suspect that media pundits who speculate about which black church Obama will join assume that churches which aren’t specifically black are all white rather than multiracial.

  • Chip Smith

    str1977 wrote:


    The idea that the AA community is overwhelmingly anti-gay is simply false


    It is also a strawman set up by you as no one has ever argued that.

    str1977, see the first comment in this thread.

  • str1977

    Chip Smith,

    I have read the first comment again and see nothing “anti-gay” in there.

    The problem is that those of a certain opinion like to portray anyone who disagrees with them as anti-…

    I for my part disagree with that totalitarian approach.