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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Published on: 04/04/2004, by Cynthia Tucker
You'd think black Americans -- still struggling against a lingering, if diminished, racism -- would occupy the front lines in the battle against bigotry.
But a knee-jerk antipathy toward gays and lesbians is rampant in black America, nowhere more evident than in the black church. Black ministers often overlook more commonplace sins -- lying, gossiping, fornicating -- to denounce homosexuality from the pulpit, casting Christianity as a harsh and narrow religion of exclusion.
As sins go, it's safe enough to denounce homosexuality. If gays and lesbians are no more than 10 percent of the population, their numbers in any congregation are likely to be small -- too small to threaten the preacher's paycheck. But lying, gossiping, fornicating -- denouncing those sins may besmirch large numbers of church folk, right up into the pulpit itself.
Several of Georgia's black clergy took their distorted Christianity into the public square last month, urging the Legislature to endorse a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Their last-minute lobbying paid off; while most black House members voted against the amendment, the ministers persuaded a handful of wavering black legislators to support it, giving the ban a narrow victory. (The measure will go before Georgia voters in November.)
The anti-gay activism is hardly the black church's finest hour. By using the Bible to defend bigotry, those black ministers joined the tradition of white Southern ministers who used Scripture to endorse slavery. (Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ. Ephesians 6:5).
Like other conservative Christians, many black ministers blithely declare that human civilization has always recognized marriage as the union of one man and one woman, as sanctified by God. Their history is as wrongheaded as their theology. In "A History of the Wife," Stanford University scholar Marilyn Yalom writes: "In biblical days, a Hebrew husband was allowed to have more than one wife. For each, he had to give his father-in-law a sum of money," a practice that underscored the assumption that a wife was property.
Indeed, a sober reading of Leviticus -- where homosexuality is declared an "abomination" -- makes that clear. The proscription against adultery is meant to prohibit a man from having sex with another man's wife, his property. Sexual relations with his slaves (but not another man's slaves) were sanctioned. (If a man has sexual relations with a woman who is a slave, designated for another man . . . an inquiry shall be held. They shall not be put to death, since she has not been freed; but he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord. Leviticus 19:20)
It is disappointing to see black ministers -- several of whom are old enough to remember the lash of Jim Crow -- brandishing the Bible against gays the same way Bull Connor wielded a billy club against civil rights marchers. Of course, they adamantly resist comparisons of the crusade for gay rights to the movement for civil rights. In a statement opposing same-sex unions, several black ministers wrote: "To equate a lifestyle choice to racism demeans the work of the entire civil rights movement."
But U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who faced down billy clubs and firehoses, begs to differ. Supporting gay rights before a U.S. Senate committee, Lewis said, "We have been down this road before in this country. The right to liberty and happiness belongs to each of us and on the same terms, without regard to either skin color or sexual orientation."
So does Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking at a gay pride rally in Atlanta several years ago, she said, "I wanted . . . to reaffirm my wholehearted support of freedom from discrimination for lesbian and gay people. I do so because I believe that all forms of persecution are wrong.
"As my husband said, 'I have fought too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns. Justice is indivisible.' "