Gay marriage debate about more than politics

gayweddingtopperThe Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded 52 years ago by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has been thrust into the gay marriage debate by its Los Angeles president, who last year campaigned against an amendment to the California constitution prohibiting gay marriage. The Atlanta-based organization is now trying to remove the Rev. Eric P. Lee, who took over the L.A. chapter two years ago. But SCLC chapters operate autonomously, and Lee has the full support of his board.

Anyway, the SCLC, like similar groups, is far from the institution it once was. And I imagine this split between shaft and branch would not have risen to the attention of The New York Times if it wasn't for the apparent irony of a civil rights organization punishing one of its leaders for standing up for gay rights.

The Times' L.A. bureau chief Jennifer Steinhauer explains Lee's burden this way:

While the Mormon Church raised a great deal of the money in support of the proposition, the role of African-American churches, and their voting parishioners, was not insignificant. The Edison/Mitofsky exit poll in California found that 70 percent of black voters backed the ban, which passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Mr. Lee said that his opposition to Proposition 8 had "created tension in my life I had never experienced with black clergy."

"But it was clear to me," he added, "that any time you deny one group of people the same right that other groups have, that is a clear violation of civil rights and I have to speak up on that."


Mr. Lee, the former pastor of In His Steps, an African-American Wesleyan church in Los Angeles that he described as "very conservative," said he saw failures both in the leadership of the conference ("Dr. King would be turning over in his grave right now," he said) and the largely white anti-Proposition 8 movement that did not more actively seek the support of church-going African-Americans.

"The black church played a significant role in Proposition 8 passing," Mr. Lee said. "The failure of the campaign was to presume that African-Americans would see this as a civil rights issue."

Let's excuse the way that people choose to exploit MLK in advancing their causes -- see: comparisons made between King and the late late-term abortion doctor George Tiller -- and why the Rev. Lee has run adrift of his national leadership.

GetReligion readers need no reminding that the Church isn't unanimous in its treatment of homosexuality. Denominations, congregations, even brothers, have been divided by this debate.

The SCLC is an ecumenical organization, but its Southern roots give it a certain Baptist flair. Might that have been a factor in the decision to come down on Lee?

I suspect it wasn't inconsequential.

But the NYT doesn't get into theology. This rift is presented strictly with a political perspective, and with Lee coming off as the martyr.

We never learn why blacks so strongly supported Prop. 8, why they were more likely to support putting the kibosh on gay marriage than white Protestants (65 percent) and white Catholics (64 percent). Might it have had something to do with the way they understand the Bible?

This Sacramento Bee article from last November suggests it did:

Ida Francis, 77, who worships at Kyle's Temple AME Zion Church in Sacramento, is an Obama supporter who voted for Proposition 8.

She grew up in segregated Arkansas, attending segregated schools and subjected to Jim Crow laws.

She said her church on 42nd Street doesn't tell people how to vote -- just to go and exercise that right. She based her decision to vote for Proposition 8 on her Christian upbringing and faith.

"If there are people in our society who wish to live together as a man and man, well, that's their own personal opinion," she said.

However, she said, "I don't believe God intended marriage to be between a man and a man, a woman and a woman.

"We're just trying to hold on to what people see in the Bible," she said. "The family, one man, one woman, children."

Beyond making a quick statistical reference, a comment like Francis' might have been worth mentioning.

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