Prop 8 and the Black Community

Gilbert H. Caldwell
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Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post wrote a powerful column about the recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker that overturned California's Proposition 8 law banning gay marriage: "He [Walker] frames gay marriage as a question involving the most basic, cherished rights that the Constitution guarantees to all Americans. In doing so, he raises the stakes sky-high: Are gays and lesbians full citizens of this country, or are they something else?"

The issue of the full citizenship of gays and lesbians ought to resonate with those of us who are black. The long journey of black people to full equality has revolved around the question of the legitimacy of our citizenship. Once upon a time in this country, I would have been described as being "three fifths of all other persons." Many of us observe that question still being raised as people question the birth certificate and citizenship of President Barack Obama. The conversations we're starting to hear about rescinding the 14th Amendment have a familiar ring to any student of history. I have often said, "The music of legal segregation may have ended, but the melody lingers on."


I have been distressed to read about young black men committing hate crimes against people whom they assume are gay. In the past, negative attitudes in many white Christian churches toward blacks precipitated the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. We must not allow negative attitudes about gays within the black church or elsewhere within our community to justify violence against them.

I say this as someone who has been an ordained United Methodist minister for 54 years and who has pastored black and white churches in five states. I was also one of the founders of the United Methodist Black Caucus, Black Methodists for Church Renewal and United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church. I am also an honorary member of the board of preachers of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College.

I have heard a number of arguments against gay marriage within the black church and larger African-American community, arguments that are all too reminiscent of another time and place — and struggle — in this country.

Biblical principle outweighs man-made law regarding gay rights: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a civil rights movement that focused on achieving Constitution-granted equality and equal access for black people. I believe that he was inspired by God to lead the nation to affirm human equality, because that was the intent of our founding documents. Regardless of our beliefs or interpretations of the respective holy books of our faith communities, as Americans we are expected to abide by the Constitution and not seek to impose those beliefs on others.


As a Christian, I do not believe in divorce, gambling, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking or capital punishment, but as a citizen I must recognize that not everyone shares my perspective. Some Christians believed — and some still do — that "Noah's Curse" (Genesis 9:25) justified less-than-full citizenship for people of African descent. Thankfully, though, in the U.S. our rights are determined by constitutional equality and not by biblical interpretation.

Black Christians must oppose same-sex marriage because it contradicts our traditional views of marriage and our moral values: Many of the religious arguments against same-sex marriage are similar to those made against racial integration. The culture of segregation was also supported and sustained by the "tradition" argument ("segregation is our way of life"). Those who condemned "race mixing" for moral reasons claimed that the Bible disapproves of mixed marriage. We in the black church and community are challenged to avoid using the same kinds of arguments against Constitution-granted marriage equality for same-sex couples that were used against us to oppose Constitution-granted racial equality.


As a Christian, I may not agree with what you believe and practice, but as a citizen of the U.S., I will defend your right to believe and practice as you do. This is the rationale for my support of same-sex marriage. In no way will it affect or tarnish my own marriage of 52 years; but if the right to marry is denied to others, not only do we tarnish the equality provisions of the Constitution, but we are saying that those who once denied blacks our constitutional rights because of their traditional moral values were justified.

As black people, we have our own unfinished quest for racial equality and justice to focus on: I understand that many black people have been cautious in their support of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) human rights movement because they feel it has plagiarized the civil rights movement. Of course, the long struggle of people of African descent for justice, and the civil rights movement that emerged from that struggle, are distinctively different from the struggles of others. Slavery and legal racial segregation of African Americans will always have a uniquely negative distinction that no one should deny. But we know the truth of Dr. King's words: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Recognition of the qualitative and quantitative differences between respective struggles for justice cannot offset the familiar ring of bias, bigotry, negative stereotyping and hatred of people and groups because they are "different."


The attention given to the LGBT community's struggle for same-sex marriage and human rights provides an opportunity for all of us to focus not only on heterosexism but also on sexism, racism and classism. We who have been the victims of any of these -isms have a chance to bring to life as never before the provisions in our state and national constitutions that guarantee due process and equal protection.

In his column, Eugene Robinson said of Judge Walker's "detailed and comprehensive ruling" against Proposition 8 that "Walker stepped up to the plate and swung for the fences. He hit a home run." My prayer is that the black church and the African-American community in general will step up to the plate and hit home runs for justice — not only for us but for all Americans.


The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is a retired United Methodist minister in Asbury Park, N.J.

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