Talking about Obama’s leap of faith — again

It’s amazing how much news and information one misses when attempting to follow hot stories in the online versions of major newspapers.

Which is to say, I didn’t get to my dead-tree-pulp edition of The Washington Post until late in the afternoon yesterday, during my commuter train ride back to the south side of Baltimore. Early in the day, I was following the coverage on my work computer.

Thus, I didn’t see one of the key sidebars in the newspaper’s large “President Obama finally endorses gay marriage” package (or words to that effect). The online product didn’t have all of the URLs for the various pieces of the package attached to the main story.

As a result, I failed to see the A1 sidebar that included voices linked to religion and to race, the one that ran with the headline: “Obama decision on gay marriage divides local residents.” This story is also significant because it involved two members of the Post religion news team, as opposed to those who do religion commentary. I am referring to religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein and to multi-platform reporter Hamil Harris (whose work I often avoid mentioning here because he is a close friend of mine).

In my first post-Obama epiphany post, I made the following comment about the early coverage:

… Please help your GetReligionistas look for serious coverage of this rather predictable development, by which I mean coverage that moves beyond the simple rounding up of reaction quotes. In particular, I will be interested in comments from — of course — the religious left, especially liberal Catholics, Baptists and others aligned with the world of liberal Protestantism. The goal is to find coverage that takes the president’s statement seriously as a faith statement, not as an act of political chess.

However, much like The Charlotte Observer piece I praised the other day, this sidebar managed to cover some of the key points in this remarkably complex religion/political story.

The key is the way this issue — because of the element of religious doctrines and First Amendment rights — blurs many lines inside key religious, cultural, political and racial groups. Here’s the overture on this one:

Willie McMillan and Charlie Hudson are buddies, African American men who were thrilled beyond compare when they had the chance to help make Barack Obama the nation’s first black president. They both believe same-sex marriage is an affront against God, a sin that simply cannot be condoned. As of Wednesday evening, McMillan has switched sides and will vote for Mitt Romney for president, whereas Hudson is sticking with President Obama.

News that Obama had announced, after many months of hedging, that he supports same-sex marriage and believes it should be the law of the land was not exactly a shock; he had been signaling that he was moving in that direction — “evolving,” as he put it — for years. But on street corners, in bars, coffee shops and sports clubs, voters gay and straight parsed the president’s words, and, although they differed on whether the announcement would help or hurt his reelection chances, most concluded that his decision was based on conscience rather than political calculus.

Obama had to be acting from his heart, McMillan and Hudson agreed, because they couldn’t see how his position could win him any political edge. But that’s all they could agree on.

“I’m sorry, I was tickled and proud to see a black president, but I can’t vote for a man who goes against God,” said McMillan, 66, who lives in the Logan Circle area of Northwest. “I don’t believe in skin color more than I believe in God’s word. This president must be part atheist or something.”

“There’s more than one issue,” replied Hudson, 68. “This doesn’t make him a good or bad president; he just made a bad decision.”

Read it all. My hunch is that, once again, there is going to be a “pew gap” factor in this one. The more African-American believers attend church, the more likely they are to vote their doctrinal beliefs on this one.

But does this mean that they will vote against Obama, simply because his beliefs are more closely aligned with liberal, and largely white, Protestant churches than they are with the nation’s largest and most influential African-American churches? In other words, what will it take for doctrinally conservative African-American believers to do the unthinkable, to vote against Obama?

The Post story finds a crucial voice or two that attempt to evaluate Obama’s leap in this context:

“I don’t know what he believes,” said Cheryl Sanders, a pastor at the Third Street Church of God in the District’s Mount Vernon neighborhood and a professor of Christian ethics at Howard University’s divinity school. “But it’s okay to change your mind … and my sense is that he will probably gain more votes than lose votes.”

Sanders opposes same-sex marriage but says the president’s stance isn’t likely to diminish his support from black voters, just as his support for abortion rights hasn’t chased away blacks who oppose abortion on religious grounds.

By the way, why is this community leader identified as “Cheryl Sanders” instead of, following Associated Press style, “the Rev. Cheryl Sanders”? Is the Post somehow opposed to the ordination of women or, at least, African-American women?

Later on, there is this believer who leans the other way:

Although marriage wasn’t a factor for African Americans in Obama’s first campaign, it could be this time, said William Cabell, 49, of Upper Marlboro. Obama’s new stance “threw me for a curve. I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to support him now, because I don’t have the same belief.”

Cabell, a black Democrat, knows he will vote against same-sex marriage in Maryland’s referendum but can’t see casting another ballot for Obama.

“I’d love to be supportive to my president,” said Cabell, who works for the Montgomery County school system. “I have to be loyal to my God.”

There are more voices on each side and variations on all of these themes. However, what this story lacks — as do many of those being printed at this stage — is a strong voice on the religious left and, in this case, on the religious left in the context of an African-American congregation.

The result is a story that features a wide variety of religious and political perspectives, while leaving Obama standing alone as a liberal Protestant whose evolving views on the Bible and marriage have inspired him to take this leap away from centuries of Christian tradition.

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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.

  • David Rupert

    The one pastor said, “I don’t know what he believes.”

    What you hold in your heart comes out in your policy, in your politics.

    And voters are going to have to choose if they want to identify with someone who best matches their worldview of faith.

    The reporting on this issue has been interesting and the story you highlighted is good, in that it brought some real faith into the arguement. Most media simply chalk up opposition to the “Religious Right,” as if we were some fringe group.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Maybe the media are finding opinions that Obama honestly spoke from his conscience. But that does not mean it is also therefore not as a political maneuver. First of all, opinions are not necessarily truth. Secondly, it is not an either-or choice. It could be both. Why should the media portray it as either-or?

    Honestly, it is beyond belief to think he failed to calculate the political effect before he spoke. It is unthinkable that he would make a bombshell announcement about a nationally contentious issue without thinking about the effect of it first. Yeah, it may indeed reflect his conscience, but it also reflects political chess playing. The latter is certain. The former is a matter of conjecture.

    Given that it is a political maneuver, the media could do a way better job than talking about the effect on African-American voters. That is part of it, but only a small part. A powerful way this issue can help him is that supporters of his position will be able to lambaste his political opponents as hate-mongering homophobic bigots. They have already done an amazing job of controlling the conversation and vocabulary of this debate, to the point that lots of people are afraid to voice a contrary opinion to avoid getting slammed. Romney will be painted in those colors — not just about this issue but in terms of his overall character — unless he has some REALLY deft responses. Now while Romney gets lambasted, it won’t be just “we know he’s bad even if we don’t know Obama’s position” but rather “he’s bad and Obama’s good.” Frankly, it’s brilliant. In a divisive and machiavellian way. But brilliant.

    Conscience? Maybe, but irrelevant, really. Politics. Definitely.

  • tmatt

    That’s it. I’m done. No more complimenting major media!

    Not really.

  • John M.


    My pastor dislikes being called “Reverend.” (We are nondenominational and do not practice ordination in any meaningful sense.) if he were interviewed by a reporter and he requested that the reporter not refer to him as “Rev.” in copy, would that request be honored? Just curious.