Church hunting in a war zone

obama-at-pulpitIn a strange kind of way, a team of reporters at the Washington Post metro desk (including my long-time friend Hamil Harris) has written a fitting sequel for that recent news feature about the First Family's struggle to find a church home, one that fits them in terms of political realities and the liberal Christian beliefs that drive the heads of the household. This may not be what the reporters set out to do, but that is what they have done -- if one reads between the lines a bit. Click here, if you wish to catch up by reading my recent post on that topic: "Obama seeking right church on left." Or, here is its thesis statement about the president:

I have always argued that ... he is what he has said he is -- a sincere, liberal, mainline Protestant whose approach to faith is built on a modernist, non-literal approach to scripture. But this creates an awkward situation here in Washington, where the most powerful, high-profile African-American churches may or may not be able to affirm that Obama approach to faith, morality and doctrine. Clearly, they want to embrace the president and his family, but, well, certain subjects could cause trouble.

That brings us to the new story in the Post, which ran with the headline, "Uproar in D.C. as Same-Sex Marriage Gains." Here's the lede:

The D.C. Council overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, in a vote that followed a sharp exchange between an openly gay member and a civil rights champion and set off shouts of reproach from local ministers.

The council passed the measure by a vote of 12 to 1. During the debate, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) accused Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who cast the dissenting vote, of having taken a "bigoted" position. After the vote, enraged African American ministers stormed the hallway outside the council chambers and vowed that they will work to oust the members who supported the bill, which was sponsored by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). They caused such an uproar that security officers and D.C. police were called in to clear the hallway.

Ironically, Barry's stance on this issue appears be the same as that professed by President Barack Obama -- pro gay rights, pro civil unions, but opposed to same-sex marriage.

Next up is the actual bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the nation's capital.

Barry ... warned after the vote that the District could erupt if the council does not proceed slowly on same-sex marriage.

"All hell is going to break lose," Barry said. "We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this."

The shock waves could also reach the U.S. Congress, of course. But that is not what interests me in this story.

The Post team clearly understood that the roots of this conflict are in the African-American church itself and, especially, inside at least some of the mainstream black congregations in the city.

Here is a lengthy passage that contains the emotional heart of the story, as Barry clashes with gay activists.

... (T)he emotional debate that took place yesterday at the Wilson Building suggests that the issue could be divisive in a city with a long history of racial tension in politics. Barry, a prominent figure during the civil rights movement, said that he "agonized" over whether to oppose the bill but that he decided to stand with the "ministers who stand on the moral compass of God."

"I am representing my constituents," said Barry, who later told reporters that "98 percent of my constituents are black, and we don't have but a handful of openly gay residents."

Civic activist Philip Pannell, who is openly gay and lives in Ward 8, called Barry's remarks offensive. "He of all people, coming out of the civil rights movement, should understand the need to fight for the rights of all minorities to be protected," Pannell said.

Catania and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) are the two openly gay members of the council, and Catania made it clear that he took offense at Barry's stance.

"This issue is whether or not our colleagues, on a personal level, view me and Jim Graham as your equals," Catania said, "if we are permitted the same rights and responsibilities and obligations as our colleagues. So this is personal. This is acknowledging our families as much as we acknowledge yours."

Barry, visibly upset, fired back that he has been a supporter of gay rights since the 1970s.

"I understand this is personal to you and Mr. Graham. I understand because I have been discriminated against," Barry said. "... I resent Mr. Catania saying either you are a bigot or against bigotry, as though this particular legislation represents all of that."

Catania replied: "Your position is bigoted. I don't think you are."

gay-new-blackmidSo, where does the story go next?

This report noted that more than 100 black ministers recently signed a letter to the mayor opposing efforts to approve same-sex marriage. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington also released a statement after this first vote, saying that it revealed a "lack of understanding of the true meaning of marriage." And on the left, there was this:

Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) accused some of the black ministers of questioning her religious commitment and threatening to unseat council members who supported the bill. "The ministers have really upset me to a point they have questioned my Christianity, they have questioned my morality," Alexander said.

Actually, they are questioning her doctrine and this is one of those issues on which it is impossible to take a stand -- on left or right -- without saying that believers on the other side of the church aisle are reading the Bible incorrectly.

So here's my question about that list of 100 black ministers. Are there any names on that list from churches that are still being considered by the Obamas? Probably not. But are there many mainstream black pastors who have signed on to pray, preach and lobby on behalf of the gay-marriage coalition? Probably not.

Now, do you see the political puzzle that the First Family is trying to solve as it tries to find a church home?

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