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.
Unlike 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.