(The Root) — On day 2 of the national meeting of the Conference of National Black Churches (day 1, in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus, focused solely on voting matters), black church leaders explored a range of issues: economic inequity, technology and the black church and how faith leaders can foster healthier communities. But Thursday's hottest topic was covered on the spirited panel about same-sex marriage.
Coincidentally, the forum kicked off several hours after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, declaring it unconstitutional. Not so coincidentally, it came a few weeks after President Obama endorsed marriage equality.
W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, who moderated the conversation between theologians and ministers throughout the room, said, "The CNBC felt this was too important of an issue to have a two-day conference and simply say nothing about it." While he pointed out that all nine denominations that comprise CNBC officially oppose same-sex marriage, he also acknowledged that black Christians are pluralistic on the issue.
That diversity of thought was evident throughout the two-hour discussion, with support expressed for all sides represented (through utterances of "Amen" and "Preach," as well as hollers and claps). Before opening up the forum, which included much debate over specific biblical passages, Richardson said, "We must never be in a place where we can't discuss what we disagree with."
The Bible in Historical Context
Biblical scholar Obery Hendricks, of Columbia University's religion department, framed the discussion from a nuanced look at what the Bible says (and does not say) about homosexuality. Analyzing Old and New Testament passages from the political and cultural contexts in which they were written — including verses from the books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Romans and Corinthians, often used to support anti-gay sentiment — he concluded that they actually offer no consensus on homosexuality at all.
"What I think is problematic is that the black church — and a lot of it has to do with preachers — don't get into the text deeply enough. They'll take a verse and act like that's the entirety of it," said Hendricks. "I just want to present the complexity of it … and ultimately we go with our own consciences. But we cannot demonize anybody. We have to remember that gay people are people. They're just people who want the same things that we want, and we have to stop treating them as just 'gays,' as 'the other.' "
A Contradiction of Creation
Based on his reading of the Bible, John Hurst Adams, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and founder of the Conference of National Black Churches, voiced his opposition to same-sex marriage. "I love the president, but I don't think he's got nothing to do with that," he said, adding that he will continue to support President Obama politically.
"I love all homosexual brothers and sisters, but my discipline says I can't marry them," Adams went on to say, explaining that nowhere in the Bible has he found approval of same-sex marriage. "Same-sex marriage should not be approved by the Christian community because it is a contradiction of creation … I have measured it by all the theories of creation, and they all come out to the same place: The species continues by the interaction of male and female."
Separating Civil Rights From Religious Rites
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau (and former policy program director to the United Methodist Church's social justice advocacy agency), clarified that support for same-sex marriage as a civil right is not a push for churches to marry gay couples in their religious rites. Those two issues are separate.
"As we talk it about it in that legal construct, marriage is a combination of insurance policy options; it is being able to share in economic liabilities; it is a commitment to take care of each other during times of sickness; it provides the power of attorney and child custody; it speaks to whether or not someone can have hospital visitation rights and whether someone can make decisions if you're incapacitated; and the right to inheritance," Shelton said. "The discussion, then, has to be: Should we as a nation stand in the way of two people of the same gender being able to enter into this contractual construct, into the rights and privileges to make these decisions?"
The Political Wedge Issue
Amos Brown, a Baptist minister who is also a member of the NAACP board, explained that in accordance with his Baptist tradition, he will not perform same-sex marriages — but he will also not be tricked into politicizing the issue.
"I will never tell everybody in the United States of America, 'You've got to bow the way I bow,' for this is a free country — a democracy and not a theocracy," said Brown, going on to deplore the use of gay marriage as a wedge issue in the 2004 presidential election, a tactic that helped President Bush receive 11 percent of the black vote nationwide. He also cited 2009 memos from the National Organization for Marriage, which detailed a political strategy to pit African Americans against same-sex marriage.
Brown concluded: "Are we going to be subjected to that Christianity that came from our slave masters, or are we going to be free thinkers and see God for ourselves?"
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.