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What Will Black Pastors Preach This Sunday?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, this is the month when we acknowledge the contributions of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders to the history and ongoing life of this country. We decided to observe it by speaking with people who have changed the game in their respective fields. Today, we are talking with Hikaru Nakamura. At the ripe old age of 24, he has already won the U.S. Championships twice and he's working on his third, as we speak. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more about President Obama's surprising, to some even shocking, announcement this week that he personally supports same-sex marriage. This, after years of saying he could support civil unions but was not ready to embrace marriage equality.

And what may have been equally surprising to some, the president cited his and the first lady's religious beliefs as part of the reason he does now support gay marriage. Here is a clip from his interview with ABC's Robin Roberts.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others. But, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule.

MARTIN: Although he didn't come right out and say it, some of what is implied in the president's remarks is what analysts and observers have been buzzing about ever since - whether Mr. Obama's statement will turn off African-Americans. And as a group, they count as both his strongest supporters and among the most skeptical voters when it comes to legalizing same-sex marriage.

Their support has been crucial when the president has faced opposition and is expected to be so again in what is assumed will be a close contest this November. And as most people also know, faith leaders have always played a critical role in the political and intellectual life of black America.

For all these reasons, we decided to invite a panel of prominent African-American faith leaders to speak with us more about the president's statements. Joining us now are Bishop Harry Jackson. He's the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. He's been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage. And in fact, right now, he is one of those leading a petition drive to force the issue onto the ballot in Maryland this fall where he hopes it will be defeated.

Also with us, the Reverend Michael Eric Dyson. He is a professor at Georgetown University, the author of many books, and a sought after commentator on political and social issues. Also with us, the Reverend Michael Waters. He is the founder and senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church in Dallas, Texas. I welcome you all to the program. Thank you all so much for joining us.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Thank you, Michel.


REVEREND MICHAEL WATERS: Very humbled. Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: I'm going to start with you, Bishop Jackson, because as we said, you've been a very vocal opponent of same-sex marriage. I wanted to know what was your reaction when you heard President Obama's remarks.

JACKSON: Well, I really wasn't shocked because in Jeremiah Wright's congregation for 20 years he has seen same-sex marriage committal services. So, I think the president had this in his heart all along, but it was private. And the real issue then becomes, why make it public now?

So, I and a couple of other folk, many other leaders, are really going to pull together some letters and just ask the president: Would you explain to us, does this mean you're going to begin to let your personal opinions about this affect the battle of Maryland? What you do?

Last year, Al Sharpton, others, and some rumored the administration, actually talked to people in Maryland about the same-sex marriage issue. So does it mean, hey, the gloves are off; I'm weighing in? Those are my real questions.

MARTIN: Well, you are a Democrat, although you are also a conservative.


MARTIN: And sometimes that does mean sort of straddling certain lines. I'm wondering...

JACKSON: It does.

MARTIN: ...how you're going to speak with your congregants about this. I mean, do you plan to talk with them about it?

JACKSON: Well...

MARTIN: I mean, I know you're not going to be - you're not going to be...


MARTIN: ...you know, giving political speeches from the pulpit. But I am interested, people do care about your view. So, what are you going to say about this?

JACKSON: Yeah. This Sunday, actually, I'll make a statement asking the following question: What did the president mean? What are the implications? And then I want to say to our folks, we also want to find out what the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, Mitt Romney, what does he think? Because on his watch, even though he's been saying he's for traditional marriage, gay marriage was passed in the great state of Massachusetts. They got a lot of issues.

So I think this is a moment for moral clarity. And if we have that, I will be happy. But I think, right now, a lot of people's heads are spinning and they're saying it's because of money, it's because of - but I think the president at his core simply is true to what he believes.

MARTIN: Reverend Dyson, a lot of people have been talking about whether the president's statement will turn off African-American voters. And you obviously speak to people in many venues about, you know, many different contexts. What's your take on this?

DYSON: Well, I think that many of them may be concerned, but I think once spoken to and once the issue is aired out, they'll be much more likely not to become obsessive about an issue that arguably should not be central to whether or not they determine that Mr. Obama deserves a second chance, a second term.

I think that many African-American people certainly are conservative on this issue, and certainly have a great deal of questions. But I think it's brave for the president to make his stance known.

Bishop Jackson indicated it was his personal view, so he wasn't surprised and I'm not either. But I think that, you know, we have to make a distinction between his personal views and what he holds in his faith view and its consequence on public policy.


DYSON: He's already indicated that he respects religious traditions that make decisions predicated upon their views. So, I think that you both can acknowledge that this is what he believes and then acknowledge that public policy won't change a great deal as a result of his views because, first of all, he's been for the equal rights of gay and lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual people who form unions and forge connections so that they should be legally protected.

This is more a question of faith, and ethics, and morality in relationship to same-sexual orientation. And I think that black people certainly should be pushed on this as other Christians. And I think one of the great ironies here is that black people don't understand the parallel position of their own bigotry in regard to same-sexual couples and the issue of homosexuality more broadly, and white Christians who use the Bible in their religious traditions to make their argument that God was against black people's equality, black people being married to white people or black people enjoying civil rights in America.

So there are tremendous parallels here that we are loathe to make, but that we ought to at least entertain.

MARTIN: We're speaking with a panel of prominent African-American faith leaders about President Obama's decision to come out publicly and say he personally supports same-sex marriage. I'm speaking with the Reverend Michael Eric Dyson - that's who was speaking just now - Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. of Hope Christian Church in Maryland, and also with us the Reverend Michael Waters, founder and senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church in Dallas, Texas.

Reverend Waters, you know, in his remarks with Robin Roberts, the president said that he believes that many of the people who oppose same-sex marriage are not being mean with it, but that they believe that this somehow undermines marriage. And that's a particular concern in the African-American community. Is that where you are?

WATERS: Personally, that is where I am. I do not find President Obama's stance on marriage to be - same-sex marriage to be compatible with Christian teaching, tradition, and authority. And I think that particularly amongst the African-American community, church community, this is largely a shared belief and understanding.

And so there is some concern, relationship to those grounds and what the president has espoused. Nonetheless, I believe that Professor Dyson is quite right in suggesting that this might not turn away individuals from the president's re-election bid. I believe that it will galvanize some voters towards his cause and surely it will turn other voters away. But I think that he, in large part, will still have the majority of the support of the African-American community, including those within the historic African-American church.

MARTIN: But what about you? What about you personally?

WATERS: Personally, once again, his stance, I don't believe bodes well with my understanding of Christian teaching, my understanding of Christian tradition and authority. But I do believe that, in my own personal opinion, that he is the best candidate for the position of the presidency.

And in fact, while same-sex marriage is a moral issue, there are moral issues of greater concern for me, as a voter, in relationship to his candidacy and why I would vote for him again.

I think that health care is a moral issue. And I think he's right on health care and, therefore, he has my support. I think that educational opportunities for all persons is a moral issue and, therefore, he has my support. And so, on many issues, I find myself siding with the president. I do not support his stance on same-sex marriage. But, nonetheless, I believe that he's right on enough moral questions, whereby my vote for him is secure.

MARTIN: What about you, Bishop Jackson? I've never known whether you supported the president or not in his previous election. So, what about you, personally?

JACKSON: Well, I'll come out today right here on the radio. I have not supported President Obama. I was not a person pushing the other side. I was really challenged with his opponent last time. And I find myself in a quandary right now.

I mean, we have a Mormon on one hand, whose views on marriage and other things we need to clarify, in my view. And we have a president, though, whose aggressiveness on this issue - and I call it aggressive - in the timing, politically oriented because he's had these views for 20 years.

So, I'm saying I probably cannot support the president. What will make a major difference in the election, but I may go into the voting box in a terrible quandary. My father suffered at the hand of whites in the Civil Rights Movement and I'm going to vote. But I don't know that that box of president - what I'm going to put there. So that's my issue.

But I believe that many, many people want to know what the president's going to do for real. And I think, if the Republicans were smart - and some say there are two parties, a party of corruption and a party of dumb. And sometimes, Republicans, they don't get it. So, if they were really wise, they would seize the moment, clarify their positions, talk to African-Americans. But that way can make a difference. If that's not done, no difference.

MARTIN: You know, Reverend Dyson, can I ask you about this? Bishop Jackson raised a question about what he called the president's aggressiveness on this. I mean, there are those in the African-American community who are progressive who feel that he hasn't used his political and moral capital enough to articulate issues of particular concern to African-Americans, like the Troy Davis case, for example, a man who was executed in Georgia - many people feel, wrongly - and the president didn't talk about that.

And I just wondered if you feel that way as a black progressive yourself, if you don't mind my saying. And I am going to need to interrupt you and I will come back to you after we take a short break. But if you would just - what do you think?

DYSON: Sure. Well, I think that, obviously, there are a lot of things that the president could have done and that he should be encouraged to address. I don't think it's an either-or. I think it's a both-and.

I think that this courage that he's displayed on marriage equality can be equally applied to issues of concern for African-American people and to make them American issues, not gay issues, not lesbian issues, not transgender or bisexual issues, not black issues, but American issues.

High unemployment among black people should be addressed directly. Concerns about...

MARTIN: Reverend Dyson, this is where I interrupt you and we will come right back to you. We need to take a short break. And in a moment, we'll continue this conversation with a group of African-American faith leaders about President Obama's support for gay marriage, his personal support for same-sex marriage. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Reverend Dyson, I'll be right back with you.


MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we will visit with Hikaru Nakamura. At 24, he's America's top ranked chess player. He's a game changer. We'll visit with him in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to continue our conversation about how President Obama's stated support now of same-sex marriage is resonating in the African-American faith community. We are visiting with three prominent African-American leaders to talk about that.

Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. is the founder and leader of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. He's actually become a prominent national opponent of same-sex marriage. The Reverend Michael Waters is founder and senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church in Dallas, Texas. And the Reverend Michael Eric Dyson is a writer and commentator and a professor at Georgetown University.

Reverend Dyson, if you would continue your thought, I was asking you about the views of some African-Americans that the president hasn't used enough of what they would like to see of his moral and political capital to articulate issues they think are of particular concern to African-Americans. That seems to be part of what is irritating some people here. Talk more about that.

DYSON: Sure. As I was saying that, you know, there are many issues that the president could address that happen to disproportionately affect African-American people, but which are American problems. And I think that it's right for, you know, black progressive and liberal folks to want to use their energy and their encouragement of the president to inspire him to address these issues more directly and to take similarly courageous stands on issues that are critical to African-American people while, at the same time, being mindful of the fact that there's a tremendous blow-back.

And let's be real here. The blow-back that the president may get from his stance on gay marriage would not - perhaps will not be as intense as the blow-back on him for speaking to issues of race. For instance, think about the Henry Louis Gates, you know, situation, the fiasco there in Cambridge when a white policeman arrested him in his own home and President Obama said that the police were acting stupidly. There was an enormous blow-back.

Even when he said Trayvon Martin would look like a son of his had he had one, there was tremendous blow-back. And the kind of vicious, animus and the kind of venomous directed at him when he speaks about race has made him, some would say, understandably cautious about speaking about race. But courage is about addressing situations that even though they make invoke or at least - excuse me - provoke some kind of response, he really still has to take a stance.

And I understand people who say that. And I don't think, again, it's an either-or. It's - let's use this situation of speaking out on gay marriage to even encourage more speaking out on critical issues to our community.

MARTIN: Yeah. Reverend Waters, on the other - to that end, you know, we reached out on Facebook in advance of this conversation just to see what some of our listeners had to say about this. I want to read you part of a response from Sandra Howell(ph) in North Carolina. And she said, you know, this is the main reason why I don't attend churches who don't believe in the gay lifestyle. I don't want - this is her words, not mine. She says, I don't want to be, quote, unquote, "under cover attending church services. However, that's how I feel when I enter other churches for various reasons. I attend a church that is, first of all, that will support, as well as respect me for whomever I choose to love."

And, you know, to this end, Reverend Waters, a lot of people say that the African-American church is kind of behind when it comes to acknowledging that people are here. They are part of the community and deserve the same level of respect and they draw the analogy to the civil rights struggle. And you say to that what?

WATERS: Well, there is a crisis that is taking place currently within the African-American church, and that crisis is largely generational. You have those who are tremendously of a - usually of the older generation that believe in the objective truths of scripture, the universality of scripture, and believe that those things that are contained there and authority of the Bible is something to be abided by.

Then you have a younger generation and particular individuals who would engage in social media to a large extent, this millennial generation, that deals with a more post-modern view of the Bible and scripture, where they reject objectives to project universality and really, in many ways, abide to truths that are more subjective, that are based upon their experience and what they consider to be right rather than some absolute truth that moves beyond just their experience or their desires. It speaks more to the truth revealed into time by God.

And so, that's an interesting crisis that is unfolding and, in fact, the African-American community lets young people today - what some people call the hip-hop generation, the hip-hop II generation - represent the most un-churched generations of African-Americans in American history.

So it's not surprising that you would have these type of statements taking place. I actually think it's a great opportunity for the church to speak out on issues of this great concern and do so in a proactive way. I believe that when individuals are suggesting that the church is behind as it relates to civil rights history and relates to the stance of the church today, I think you have to revisit that assessment of the church as it relates to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement was driven by a certain theology, understanding that God had created all persons in His image. And, thereby, on the basis of race, that all persons needed to be accepted and received in that regard.


WATERS: As it relates to maybe the matters of homosexuality, there's that question of whether it's nature, whether you're born homosexual, whether it's a choice. That gets a little bit challenging as you engage in that discussion.


WATERS: Nonetheless, I still believe that the church stands to articulate - or should articulate its stance on homosexuality with love for the individual, but likewise, addressing concerns based on biblical truth.

MARTIN: All right. Reverend Waters, we have to leave it there. Reverend Jackson, I'm sorry we didn't leave you any time to say anything much except a final - a very brief final word. I apologize.

JACKSON: Well, I want to hear more what the president's going to do with the bully pulpit and his power in light of this decision.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you. We'll leave it there for now. Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. leads the congregation of Hope Christian Church. He's been part of the national effort to stop legal recognition of same-sex marriage, and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

The Reverend Michael Waters is the pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church. He was with us from Dallas, Texas. And with us from New York, the Reverend Michael Eric Dyson, professor at Georgetown University. His latest book is "Can You Hear Me Now? The Inspiration, Wisdom and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson." Gentlemen, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

WATERS: Thank you for having us.

JACKSON: Very humbled. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.