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It will be tough to get black churches to embrace gay rights

That’s the message coming out so far at the two-day conference on homophobia in the black community, put on by the National Black Justice Coalition. It’s being held in Atlanta, and conservative pastors have not come forth to confront the issues for fear of losing parishioners. (NYT):

Though most black Christians are liberal on pocketbook issues, they are social conservatives, speakers at the conference said. Yet getting black churches to accept gay men and lesbians has gained particular urgency over the last two years, participants noted.

The high rate of H.I.V. infection among blacks stems in part, they said, from the unwillingness of black ministers to discuss sexuality. They contended that the Republican Party and white evangelical Christians attracted a small but significant number of black votes in the 2004 presidential election by arguing for a nationwide ban on same-sex marriage and appealing to their conservative mores.

Now I hear plenty of bleating from those on the right that because Bush only received 11 percent of the vote in 2004 (and that support would have dropped down to about zero if the election had been after Katrina), that this is somehow evidence that blacks have not bought into the Right Wing Fever.

This is crazy. What we are talking about is social conservatism; while there may be some drift to the GOP in small numbers, most will vote Dem. What the naysayers seem to forget is that even if someone casts a ballot for a Dem, if there’s a marriage amendment on the ballot, the chances are high that this core group of religious blacks will vote for the amendment too. In fact, at this point, it’s entirely possible if a Dem that is progressive on gay rights is on a ticket and a “family values” Republican who can cloak him/herself as otherwise moderate, the Repug could win. The issue for the GOP is that blacks have no use for most of the fringe candidates out there.

Conservative black ministers in Atlanta have so far not taken up invitations to discuss attitudes toward gay men and lesbians, said the Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of Victory Church in nearby Stone Mountain. Moreover, ministers who are willing to preach acceptance of gay men and lesbians stand to lose many parishioners, Dr. Samuel and others said.

… “This is a learning experience, and it has not been without costs,” the Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium, said of his decision to be host of the conference, organized by the National Black Justice Coalition, an advocacy group for gay men and lesbians based in Washington. “Have we gotten nasty phone calls? Yes. Do I have the marks to show for it? Yes. But I think Jesus took some unpopular stances, too.”

Through 2004 and early 2005, black evangelical ministers worked with their white counterparts to muster support for a ban on same-sex marriage. That campaign’s momentum may be flagging somewhat because of inaction by Congress and the president on a constitutional amendment to prohibit the unions, said Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a proponent of the ban and pastor of Hope Christian Church in College Park, Md.

Still, black preachers like Mr. Jackson are crisscrossing the country, trying to draw more black members of the clergy to their cause.

Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman is author of a six-point “Black Contract with America on Moral Values.” He believes that most black churches oppose same-sex marriage because of “the clear teaching of Scripture.” Oh, and he is a pastor who has received $824,000 of faith-based funds.

Some blacks are also loath to accept gay men and lesbians in their midst because the sexuality of African-Americans has been stereotyped as promiscuous and unhealthy, said Alton Pollard III, director of black church studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

“I don’t think that black people are more homophobic than anyone else,” Dr. Pollard said, “but blacks have been stigmatized for so long as sexual beings that any discussion of homosexuality causes even greater discomfort.”

Pollard’s point has not been discussed much in the media coverage of this topic, probably for good reason. How, then, are Dems going to be able to overcome the reticence of the conservative religious black community to think beyond that painful stigma and discuss and accept the reality that the discrimination they perpetuate upon gays and lesbians is wrong on many levels, particularly for the community itself. The explosion of HIV among black women is real — not frankly talking about sex and sexuality is deadly.

There’s not been a lot of success making white evangelicals see the light about civil equality; the ability to do so with socially conservative religious blacks seems doubly hard.

It is a given that, even in a progressive community like the Triangle area of NC, when issues surrounding gay rights are concerned, it’s representatives from the most socially conservative black churches that show up to protest and demonize, joining up with the white evangelicals.  Our local bigot that gets the most face-time is Patrick Wooden of the Upper Room Church in Raleigh.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding