Guest Blogger

Barack Obama and Post-Homophobic Models of Black Leadership

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 12, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: African-American, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, bell hooks, black homophobia, black leadership, Cornel West, James Baldwin, James Cone, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, theology, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Bill Lindsey is a theologian and writer who expends time and energy trying to keep the churches (and himself) honest. In a career of several decades, he taught and did academic administrative work at a number of church-affiliated colleges, including three historically black colleges/universities (HBCUs). His most recent position was Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Bethune-Cookman University. Bill blogs at Bilgrimage.

BillLindsey.JPGUnlike many other African-American leaders, Barack Obama has been willing to confront the homophobia of many African Americans (especially African-American churchgoers) head on. In my view, any political assessment of Barack Obama by the LGBT community should begin with this recognition: how some leaders of the African-American community have treated gay issues (and gay human beings) in recent years is a litmus test of leadership. The homophobia of many contemporary African-American leaders, both of the left and the right, has profoundly negative consequences for the black community and the nation as a whole.

It is time for a new generation of African-American leaders. One of the most significant ways in which Mr. Obama can illustrate his new paradigm of leadership is by fostering within the African-American community a new paradigm of inclusion and justice for LGBT persons that transcends the ugly injustice towards gay folks currently practiced by not a few African-American leaders.

I realize that in saying what I have just said, I am treading close to a line guarded by many African Americans--and for historically understandable reasons. I'm a white man--in fact, the descendant of slaveholders. I may well have no business intruding into the inner affairs of the African-American community.

African-American Leadership in Participatory Democracy

And yet I live in a society that professes to value participatory democracy. In a participatory democracy, no community is or can be completely shut off from other communities. It is our willingness to interact, to share the unique gifts of our particular community, to learn from the experiences of communities other than ours, that makes for vibrant participatory democracy.

And no one belongs to a single community. I'm a white male (and a white Southern one at that). I'm also a gay male. And that fact makes all the difference to many of my fellow citizens. It automatically places me within a community from which I see the world differently than do many other white males. My experience of being gay gives me an optic on oppression that opens my eyes to other forms of oppression.

The African-American community is also not monolithic. It comprises churched and unchurched folks, as well as gay and straight ones. All of our communities have ties binding us to other communities, ties that cross the affiliative lines within a single community and link us to other communities. I may not be black, but my experience intersects with (even as it differs sharply from) that of black men who also happen to be gay.

We become a healthy participatory democracy to the extent to which we entertain free discourse across the boundary lines of our communities of origin and of choice. I offer the following perspective on the promise of Mr. Obama to revive models of leadership--post-homophobic leadership--in the African-American community, as an outsider to that community.

But I offer these perspectives, as well, from the vantage point of someone who has had the opportunity to study at close range a number of significant contemporary African-American leaders, particularly in the world of higher education, in the two decades in which I taught and did administrative work in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). My life journey has been decisively shaped by my choice at the outset of my teaching career to work in an HBCU, by my interaction with African-American colleagues and the wealth of cultural riches they freely shared with me--and, unfortunately, by scarring experiences with several homophobic African-American women whose injustice to me and my partner has disrupted and burdened our lives.

Resurgence of Black Evangelical Theology That Highlights Justice and Inclusion

Now to get to the heart of the matter: recently, Rev. James Dobson lambasted Barack Obama for what Rev. Dobson calls his "fruitcake interpretation" of scripture and the constitution. Dobson accuses Obama of "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter" and "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology."

In the past, when leaders of the Christian right such as Dobson have pontificated about the bible and gays, African-American church leaders have frequently risen to the defense of their white evangelical colleagues.

But not this time. Soon after Rev. Dobson issued his declaration about owning the correct interpretation of the bible (which is to say, owning the bible and God), key African-American religious leaders quickly distanced themselves from what he said.

In a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper following the Dobson blast, Rev. Al Sharpton noted that though we bring our personal convictions to the public square, in the public square of a pluralistic democratic society no one has a right to impose his/her personal convictions on others in a way that oppresses them. As Rev. Sharpton observed, he may not agree with how Mr. Cooper lives his personal life and may believe Mr. Cooper is headed to hell. But he defends Mr. Cooper's right to choose to go to hell.

Two radically different visions of democratic society are at work in Dobson's and Sharpton's comments. One is theocratic: churches led by the Dobsons of the world should dominate the public square, interpret the scriptures for all of us, and impose their particular religious and moral views on the rest of us. The other is, well, democratic and pluralistic: let each hold her or his views, including religious views; but let us choose to live together harmoniously, respecting each other's rights, including the right to make different choices insofar as these do not destroy the body politic.

Another noteworthy development following Dobson's fulminations with important implications for the African-American community and its churches: a coalition of pastors led by African-American United Methodist minister Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell set up a website to counter Dobson's claim to own the bible.

The theology promoted by this website is in marked contrast to that of Rev. Dobson. It stresses social justice rather than personal pelvic morality. It underscores the obligation of Christians to build a just and inclusive society, not one in which those driven by hatred police the personal lives of others when this behavior poses no threat to their own pursuit of liberty and happiness.

It is, in key respects, a black evangelical rather than a white evangelical statement of core evangelical values. Just as Mr. Obama's own interpretation of scripture is. In short, what we are seeing in the rise of critiques of white religious right leaders by black evangelical leaders is the resurgence of a black evangelical theology that exposes the theology of the religious right as biblically unsound and driven by animosity towards targeted wedge groups rather than by a vision of the common good that welcomes everyone.

This is a development that deserves encouragement. It does so because the willingness of far too many African-American political, educational, and church leaders to cave in to the religious right in the past several decades has been noxious not merely for the nation as a whole, but for the black community as well.

Toxic Effects of Sell-Out to the Religious Right among African-American Leaders

The homophobic injustice in which too many African-American leaders have been willing to participate deprives the African-American community of good leadership. When it comes to the lives of gay human beings, far too many leaders of the black community in the recent past have been willing to sell out the agenda of human rights that is at the very heart of the struggle for black civil rights. And in doing so, they have brought shame to themselves and undermined their claim to be effective transformative leaders.

I place primary blame for this sell-out not on the African-American community itself, or even on its churches and church institutions (including many church-affiliated HBCUs). I place primary blame on neo-conservative politicians (including key representatives of the religious right), who have cynically sought to exploit divisions between the black and gay communities to gain power within the African-American community.

Some courageous African-American ministers, theologians, and scholars have outspokenly named this game for what it is: a divide-and-conquer game that is all about consolidating the power of neo-conservatives, not about assisting the African-American community to overcome oppression. These black leaders have seen and been willing to decry the negative effects of the moral sell-out of homophobic black leaders to the "values" of the religious right. They note, for instance, that the massive transfer of federal and state-level social services to faith-based institutions, which has been eagerly promoted by many black ministers, has resulted in a deprivation of services to minority communities.

Though money trickles into faith-based institutions through faith-based programs, it is entirely inadequate to meet the social needs these institutions are now asked to address--needs the government previously met and should continue to meet. In some faith-based institutions, the faith-based seed money that has been trickling in benefits the community's leaders far more than those to whom it is ostensibly directed.

Too many leaders of African-American institutions have been willing in recent years to play an immoral political game in order to receive faith-based funding. Their choice to play the game has harmed their community, both in a moral sense (we cannot justifiably demand rights for ourselves that we forbid to others), as well as in a material sense: the pitiful prizes the right wing has been handing out for the allegiance of the black community are inadequate to the real needs of the community. And those prizes have gone disproportionately to those willing to play homophobic games in the name of religion, rather than to populations in need: the prizes have been trinkets for good behavior that have ensnared and corrupted not a few African-American leaders.

Ultimately, the choice to bloody their hands by unjust treatment of gay persons has harmed, most of all, African-American leaders who have participated in such injustice. When we turn a deaf ear to the cries of other hurting human beings for justice and fair treatment; when we actually participate in the injustice that causes those cries to become louder: we hurt ourselves. We dehumanize ourselves. We totally undercut our claim to leadership, because leadership always has a moral component.

History will look back, I am afraid, at the generation of African-American educational, political, and religious leaders who have been willing to trade for a mess of pottage the birthright of powerful African-American thinkers of the past, with their strong commitment to justice for all, and of concern for the least among us. Regarding this generation of African-American leaders, historians will ask how anyone seeking human rights for themselves could possibly justify denying human rights to other oppressed human beings. Historians will be interested in the self-deception and willingness to collude with immoral politicians that lies beneath this sell-out of the prophetic social justice heritage of the African-American community.

New Models of Post-Homophobic Black Leadership

In conclusion, I certainly do hope--and strongly so--that Mr. Obama represents a new model of leadership not merely for the nation as a whole, but for the African-American community as well. That model is sorely needed. It has everything to do with a resurgence of the black church's commitment to justice for all and uplifting the least among us, protecting those whose rights are trampled on, defending the powerless, and speaking truth to power.

I have a vested interest in this resurgence not only as a gay man, but as someone whose life has been immeasurably enriched by African-American culture. What would I be--or who would I be, is the better question--without the witness and daunting intellectual insight of Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Mary McLeod Bethune, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, James Cone, Cornel West, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde? What theologian worth her salt in the U.S. could do adequate theology today, without reading and re-reading these canonical authors?

I have a vested interest as a theologian and a plain human being in seeing the African-American community repudiate leaders who have been all too willing to sell out the profoundly transformative social-justice tradition of those prophetic thinkers and of the black church at its best for the mess of homophobic pottage.

I certainly do hope that Mr. Obama will keep leading the way to a different future, for America as a whole and for the African-American community in particular. The contributions of African-American culture and thought to American society are too significant to be endangered by leaders whose claim to leadership is vitiated by their willingness to practice injustice and exclusion towards gay human beings.

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Bravo! Had this posting been a speech (and it easily could be one) I would be joining in to a certain standing ovation!

In the author's list, third paragraph to last, I'd like to see a few additional inclusions: Out of history, educator W.E.B. duBois, theologian Howard Thurman, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, arguably America's first towering African-American intellectual. Thurgood Marshall also deserves inclusion. And in the current public arena, I'd nominate Michael Eric Dyson, not so much due to the impact of his intellectual contribution as his advocacy of GLBT acceptance in both the political and religious spheres.

OTOH, the difficulty of making up such a list without glaring omissions only underscores the author's point: 150 years after emancipation, the intellectual contributions made by African-Americans is already monumental.

New leadership is so often, if not always, generational. In the fullness of time, I believe the tide in attitudes that the author points out will be nothing short of a sea change. The African-American population is evolving toward social sophistication at a breakneck pace, so much so that there is enormous tension between generations: between the last Jim Crow generation and the Civil Rights generation (go re-view Look Whose Coming To Dinner and take note of how the shirtless Sydney Poitier lectures his father), and now between the CR generation and the current one (Jesse Jackson's recent candid-camera gaffe resulted in his politician son issuing a reprimand remarkably similar to Poitier's).

Clearly, the Obama campaign marks a new African-American generation coming into its own --- and in dominant perspective, that new generation will be GLBT-accepting. The summit of the mountain draws nigh, and we, too, can glimpse the Promised Land.

Church, say "Hallelujah!"

William D. Lindsey William D. Lindsey | July 12, 2008 3:24 PM

A.J., I appreciate the positive assessment. And yes, the list of names of African-American thinkers who have had profound influence on American culture could go on for pages. All the names you add are ones I'd certainly want to see represented in any complete list like this.

I agree with you that the recent remark of Jesse Jackson, and his son's response, indicates a generational movement that may, in the end, help us reframe some of the questions that have had us stuck for so long. Jackson's comment perturbs me not only because it could have come right out of the slave days (emasculation is what the slave system did to refractory black men), but because it continues playing the gender stereotype game that has gotten us nowhere in our political life.

And as all this goes on, the generation of rabid racist and homophobic Southern politicians who were stuck in the Jim Crow era is passing on, too--leaving, I hope, room for some new leaders and new ideas to come along.

It's ironic he mentions Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, because my Houston homeboy, although he has never to my knowledge made any public homophobic statements from his Windsor Village Methodist Church (a local megachurch in H-town) pulpit, he was, however an enthusiastic enabler of the Bush misadministration. He gave the benediction at Bush's 2001 inaguration.

Rev. Caldwell was also silent, along with TD Jakes in Dallas when the GOP-controlled Texas legislature was merrily shoving through the anti-marriage equality amendment to the Texas Constitution in 2005. It was an amendment, the Texas GOP bragged at the time to my disgust that got higher support from African-American and Latino populations than their traditional base.

It's sad when a Texas state rep (Senfronia Thompson) had more guts to speak out against the injustice of this situation than two nationally prominent African-American megachurch ministers in Houston and Dallas.

William D. Lindsey William D. Lindsey | July 12, 2008 7:21 PM

Monica, your points are good ones. I agree with them, in fact.

I'm hoping that the decision Kirbyjon Caldwell made to set up this website (not too long after he married Bush's daughter) indicates a turn that's going on among some African-American pastors--a turn that's spurred by Obama's candidacy.

Even as I hope, though, I'm aware of Rev. Caldwell's past. And I'm also aware that the denomination of which he's a pastor, the United Methodist Church, which remains dominated by powerful white men, has once again chosen to hold the line against inclusion of gay members, at its most recent General Conference. I hope that the prophetic witness of African-American ministers in the UMC such as Gil Caldwell, who keeps noting the connections between the church's historic racism and its current homophobia, will point to a different future.

Two radically different visions of democratic society are at work in Dobson's and Sharpton's comments. One is theocratic: churches led by the Dobsons of the world should dominate the public square, interpret the scriptures for all of us, and impose their particular religious and moral views on the rest of us. The other is, well, democratic and pluralistic: let each hold her or his views, including religious views; but let us choose to live together harmoniously, respecting each other's rights, including the right to make different choices insofar as these do not destroy the body politic.

I failed to say that, in the above paragraph and the ones that lead up to it, Bill Lindsey supplies all the ammunition necessary to explain why James Dobson doesn't belong in the Radio Hall of Fame.

And since I didn't say it directly before: Thank you, Bill, for a post that's outstanding in both content and composition.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 12, 2008 10:24 PM

Mr. Lindsay thank you for this posting. In few words you have summed up the essential relationship between responsibility, the use of "aggrievement" as an argument for irresponsibility, and the compromises of hypocrisy.

It is not lost on me that the Shah of Iran came to wear an uneasy crown when he ceased making "contributions" to the mullahs.

What a great way to introduce yourself to our readers, Bill. Thanks for joining the discussion.

William D. Lindsey William D. Lindsey | July 13, 2008 2:40 PM

A.J., Robert, and Bil, I hope you won't my mind posting a single note of thanks to all three of you for your encouraging responses.

Interesting article in today's Boston Globe. It's by Joseph Williams and is entitled "A Clash of Generations in Black Community." It's commenting on the critical response of Jesse Jackson's son of the same name to what Jesse Jackson said on FOX.

It's that hope for generational movement that I'm trying to capture in my posting. Above and beyond the personalities in the movements making the future--each of which is flawed, as I'm flawed--I see some hope for a gradual progressive change, insofar as the generation now taking responsibility to build the future reaches beyond the walls of its own ghettoized communities.

I'm arguing, essentially, that it's been key to neocon strategy to ghettoize us--to set our marginalized communities one against the other. It's always difficult to talk beyond community boundaries, because each community has a discourse unique to itself, and has memories and grievances (many of them authentic ones) unique to that community.

Yet if we don't seize the opportunity in this election to do just that, I think we're lost, as a democracy. We should have been talking up a storm for some time now across boundaries that divide us racially, by gender, and by sexual orientation (among other dividing lines).

Unfortunately, those of us trying to build progressive coalitions have chosen to do this now in the context of the current election--or perhaps progressives have been doing this all along, and it's classic liberals who are just now willing to try to talk about these issues.

The election debates have thrown us into the midst of these discussions, and I think we have no choice except to engage in them, itchy and uncomfortable as they are, and touchy as we all are about our own turf. If we don't reach across the boundaries, we can be sure the neocons will keep exploiting the divisions, until we find ourselves fragmented into minority communities in a post-democratic society, with no means to build consensus for progressive change.

I keep on hearing about how it's the fault of the larger, whiter Religious Right movement that there are many black megachurch leaders who are homophobic. Are there any specific examples of how that influence works? What are these "prizes" that are being given to those leaders?

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | July 14, 2008 6:12 AM

The prizes are grants to superstition based charities. Half a billion dollars was set aside in a scheme endorsed by Hillary Clinton, Obama, McCain and Bush to bribe cult leaders. These cheap panderers evidently think the money would have been wasted on education, health care, levee repair, free distribution of condoms, etc.

In 2006 the congressional elections unfolded in the framework of tumbling living standards, the failure of oil piracy in Iraq, and eye-openers like Katrina. The Republicans, desperate, returned to their gay bashing campaign, raising the question of same-sex marriage to distract voters. They promised to reward the cults in exchange for none too subtle political endorsements. That, not ‘religious freedom’, explains why the cults are currently on a campaign to get the right to interfere in politics and keep their tax exemptions. “Follow the money.”, as Deepthroat so wisely said.

The cults got their thirty pieces of silver in the form of a law legalizing discrimination against lesbians and gays in hiring and firing practices for their superstition-based ‘charities’, which pay their bloated salaries. They got a bigger reward beginning in February of 2006 when Bush put his signature on a law giving 500 million dollars to superstition-based groups. Hallelujah! (As usual with reactionary laws this won passed with Democratic (sic) votes.

The bishops and preachers said it was a miracle, manna from heaven. (Bush totally dumbfounded the nation by saying it was part of a deficit reduction scheme.) The Reverend Kenneth Samuel, a Georgia pastor and NAACP official said many African American pastors oppose gay marriage because they've been "bought out" with faith-based initiative money. For instance, Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, coincidentally a leader of the Traditional Marriage Coalition, and like McCain and Obama, a pigheaded opponent of same sex marriage got a tax free hand-out of $1,400,000.00. Hallelujah!

The cultists know that if retail sales of toothpicks whittled from the One True Cross, Forgiveness of Sins, or hankies dipped in the River Jordan take a dive, they can congregate with Bush, Obama, McCain or Clinton and Lo, The Most High doth rain down Shekels upon them what believeth. Plus Mercedes, Mansions, and Really Fat Bank Accounts. Hallelujah!

"I will say this much for our noble rulers: that, tyrannical and morally rotten as they were, they were enthusiastically religious." Mark Twain
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion… “ First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States