Gay marriage and the black church: Recent events fuel intensified public debate
Carolyn Luke knew at age 8. She preferred physical intimacy with other girls, then later decided to suppress her feelings and marry a man. That choice led to alcohol and marijuana use in an effort to dull the disappointment and contravening desire.
Broad declines in opposition to gay marriage
The Pew Research Center conducted telephone interviews April 4-15 with 3,008 adults. The results show that over the past eight years, opposition to gay marriage has declined across the board.
Groups 2004 2008 April 2012
Total (by percent) 60 51 43
White 61 51 43
Black 67 63 49
Republican 78 73 68
Democrat 50 42 31
Independent 53 45 38
Protestant 69 62 56
Catholic 55 46 42
Unaffiliated 30 29 18
Source: Pew Research Center
Vina Scott knew for certain when she was 14. She developed a crush on her Spanish teacher, but invented a boyfriend to satisfy her family’s hopes. Even before that, though, Scott understood she was different.
Three marriages, two children and many years later, the two women found each other through an online dating service and settled in together in North Charleston. It was love at first sight, they said. Luke was 56 and Scott 50.
On Jan. 7, five years after they first met, Luke and Scott were married by a pastor in a private local ceremony, jumping the broom before 115 guests. It might not have been a legally recognized union in South Carolina, but it was a meaningful one.
“We wanted to be able to celebrate our love and commitment to each other in front of family and friends,” Scott said.
Scott and Luke tied the knot during a period of volatile debate in the U.S. and elsewhere over gay marriage. Perhaps nowhere has the issue been more hotly discussed than in the black community, where pastors and others have been forced to consider recent high-profile developments.
On May 9, President Barack Obama said in a television interview that he thought gay marriage should be legal. “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he said.
On May 19, the NAACP declared its support for gay marriage, drawing a connection between gay rights and civil rights. “We support marriage equality consistent with equal protection under the law provided under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution,” the NAACP said in a statement.
And on June 20, the Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1845 after a split from Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery, passed a resolution denying that gay marriage was a civil right, one day after electing its first black president, Fred Luter.
“(We) oppose any attempt to frame ‘same-sex marriage’ as a civil rights issue,” the resolution states. “We deny that the effort to legalize ‘same-sex marriage’ qualifies as a civil rights issue since homosexuality does not qualify as a class meriting special protections, like race and gender.”
These developments have led local faith leaders to address the issue. On May 11, the Rev. Joseph Darby, senior pastor of Morris Brown AME Church, wrote an open letter to his congregation explaining that the church “does not endorse same-sex marriage because there is no Scriptural support for (it).”
He went on to describe a gap between church law and practice, suggesting that change is possible in time and affirming “God’s greatest mandates ... that we love God with every fiber of our being and love others as we love ourselves.”
Meanwhile, several church bodies, including the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church, all have grappled with the issue, causing strain and some disaffection.
On May 9, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, who is black, posted a video on YouTube defending gay marriage. On June 7, a video of a sermon by black Baptist minister Frederick D. Haynes III of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Texas was posted to YouTube. In it, Haynes defends Obama and gay marriage.
The debate within the black church appears to be centered on the question of whether gay marriage is a strictly biblical issue, a civil right or both. Several local pastors said the issue is fundamentally biblical, though some conceded a civil rights component that took a back seat to theology.
The Rev. Jimmy Gallant, vicar of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Orangeburg, said the Bible, beginning with Genesis and Adam and Eve, is clear about sexual relations and marriage. The purpose, he said, is procreation. Since Eve was made from Adam’s rib, therefore “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
For Gallant, homosexuality is a sin because the Bible says so.
“Human beings are so smart we challenge everything that comes before us,” he said. “There’s no finality on what God has created and the way he’s created (it). We want to do whatever we want to do, and we don’t want to be accountable for it.”
Gays and lesbians might have certain civil rights, he said, but morality cannot be legislated and, ultimately, the sinner must come to terms with his God.
“Either you believe the word of the Lord, or you don’t.”
The Rev. Chris Collins, a Charleston County School Board member and pastor of Healing Ministries Baptist Church in North Charleston, said there is a distinction between religious and civil laws, and that “everyone has the right to get married in general.”
But marriage is holy, ordained by God and sanctified for the purpose of having children. Collins said he’s worried that gay marriage can damage the institution of marriage, comparing it to poison: Pour six glasses of something to drink. “If someone comes from behind and puts ammonia across the whole thing, it corrupts and defiles the whole thing and God rejects it.”
He said he would like to see government uphold biblical principles.
“What are we teaching the children? That the sanctity of marriage can be defiled with impunity? What the gay movement is trying to do is say it’s OK to be gay, and I sternly resist that move. People have the power to stop this.”
Vina Scott, who is now 55, said it’s absurd to suggest that homosexuality is poisonous or corrupting. People don’t become gay because they are exposed to gay people, she said. “Gay people are raised in heterosexual homes; it didn’t make us heterosexual.”
For two years during high school, she pretended she had a boyfriend to appease her family. Finally, a girlfriend introduced her to an ex-boyfriend, and Scott began to date him. They never had sex. When he tried one night, she kicked him out of the house and ended the relationship.
At 17, she struck up another relationship with a man and had two daughters. But sex was a rare occurrence and never enjoyable, she said. At 30, she told him about her sexuality.
“He was relieved. He said, ‘I thought it was me!’ ”
Carolyn Luke, 61, said she was always considered the risk-taker in the family, the adventurer willing to experience new things. So her sexuality was quietly tolerated, though never spoken about. She married twice and turned to alcohol for solace. She suspects her mother, who died in 1996, knew she was gay.
“Moms always know,” Luke said. “They sense it.”
But since she’s moved in with Scott, she hasn’t heard much from her family, she said.
During her years living in Montgomery, Ala., and in Atlanta, she rarely encountered anti-gay sentiment in church, she said. It’s only since she’s been in Charleston that the subject of homosexuality has come up all the time. She wondered if perhaps Charleston’s pastors are more conservative? Perhaps their sermons reflect a public discourse increasingly influenced by the debate over gay rights?
In any case, she said, those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
“It’s the ones that holler loudest about gays sinning and going to hell that are hiding their own sin,” Luke said.
Taught not to talk
The Rev. Robert Arrington, pastor of Unity Fellowship Church in North Charleston, said his interpretation of Scripture leads him to believe that homosexuality is not a sin, and that gay marriage as it’s defined today is nowhere prohibited.
In fact, he said, the Bible’s passages about sexual relations refer more to a covenant with God or to unwanted activities such as prostitution than to love and commitment between people.
For blacks, the topic of sexuality is fraught with uncomfortable connotations, making it especially difficult to discuss, Arrington said.
Partly because of slavery and its legacy, “anything out of the norm is hard to understand,” he said, and black pastors who condemn homosexuality aren’t helping matters. “We as black people have been taught not to talk about sex and sexuality,” he said.
During slavery, the master could take one’s wife with impunity; philandering by slave-husbands was tolerated; black men were emasculated and humiliated. This caused a community-wide sexual dysfunction the remnants of which persist today, he said. “Throughout the years, we have kept the same mind-set.”
Furthermore, the risks of opening a door to rational debate about gay marriage are large, Arrington said.
“If blacks say OK, it’s ordained by God, then that means the Bible can be thrown out the window, it means we have to question God. It’s a fear. There is a deeply rooted fear of accepting same-sex people. And I really don’t understand what it is. Especially when we say (gays and lesbians) are tearing down traditional marriage, yet heterosexual marriage is in very bad shape.”
The Rev. Dr. Clinton Brantley, pastor of St. Matthew Baptist Church in North Charleston, said, “People have a right to do as they choose,” but he does not endorse gay marriage for biblical reasons.
“God created man in his image and with free will,” he said.
While he is guided by biblical principles, Brantley acknowledges that what people do outside of church often is determined by civil rules.
“Gay marriage wouldn’t affect me as a Christian minister,” he said. “Give Caesar what’s due to Caesar; I can deal with that.” Though to argue that it is a civil right is “a political ploy,” he added.
Ed Bryant, director of the NAACP’s North Charleston branch, said he disagrees with his organization’s position on marriage equality. For Bryant, it’s a biblical issue, and he questioned whether any rights were being denied gay couples.
“The Constitution is founded on biblical principles,” he said. “In order for you to have a right, there has to be something you were denied. ... What right is it that you’re being denied? Employment? Voting?”
According to the Human Rights Campaign, “There are 1,138 benefits, rights and protections provided on the basis of marital status in Federal law” that are denied to gay couples “because the Defense of Marriage Act defines ‘marriage’ as only a legal union between one man and one woman.”
These rights and benefits include surviving child and parent benefits provided by Social Security; tax inequities concerning health care benefits, children, income and property; and medical leave rights, according to the campaign.
State Rep. David Mack, a North Charleston Democrat, said he thinks the debate over gay marriage is “much ado about nothing, a nonissue.”
Marriage is made legal by civil authorities, not pastors, he said. And churches need not change their views on the definition of marriage. If a pastor opposes gay marriage, he has every right not to preside over it. If Christians think homosexuality is a sin, they have every right to condemn it. But their views must not determine civil law, he said. That’s the domain of society as a whole, which is diverse and includes a variety of views on the subject.
Talking about love
These days, Scott and Luke have a found a home at Arrington’s Unity Fellowship Church, whose congregation includes a number of gays and lesbians.
Earlier this year, they married, fulfilling a long-desired dream to formalize their union in the eyes of family, friends and God.
Arrington presided. Scott’s mother was there. One of her daughters gave the bride away. They jumped the broom, a tradition in the black church (and elsewhere) symbolizing the formalization of a love commitment.
Perhaps not everyone in attendance liked the idea of gay marriage, the women said, but no one complained. They could see firsthand the love Scott and Luke shared and they were happy for them.
Many who attended left with a better understanding of what was at stake, Scott said.
“We’re talking about love,” Luke added. “There are more serious things (for people) to worry about than that.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.