A small church in Pike County, Kentucky, bans interracial couples from membership and participating in select worship activities. Ancient history from the pre-Civil Rights era, right?
No, it happened about four months ago. “I do not believe in interracial marriages,” said Melvin Thompson, the retired pastor who argued the ban would make his church community more cohesive and later said he was dismayed to be portrayed as racist and bigoted.
The story made me think about how religion, more than race, is the best way to understand opposition to marriage equality. The distinction is important because of the recent passage of legislation making Maryland the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage – a decision that will almost certainly be challenged in a divisive referendum battle this year.
The opposition has been framed as African-American resistance to same-sex marriage, a perception furthered by public opinion surveys. A recent Washington Post poll found that among Maryland Democrats, 71% of white respondents support same-sex marriage compared to only 41% of African-Americans. Overall, 50% of Marylanders support same-sex marriage, while 44% oppose it.
When You Mix Religion With Race
So are Marylanders racially divided on the issue? Yes, but it could also be a question of religiosity.
Religion plays a significant role in the lives of African-Americans; I should know, I’m one of the less than one-half percent of African-Americans who self-identify as atheist, compared with 1.6% of the general population, according to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey.
It’s complete with data that confirms what an outlier I am. Pew found that 88% of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71% of the general population.
Asked if religion is a very important part of their lives, nearly 80% of African-Americans said yes, while only 56% of the general American population said so. And while approximately 40% of Americans told Pew they attend weekly religious services, more than 50% of African-Americans said they do so.
I haven’t seen similar polls on religion for Maryland, I suspect they’d reflect national trends. As for me, though, I can’t recall the last time I stepped inside of a church aside from marriage ceremonies.
Looking Closer at the Numbers
Pew has also documented the deep influence of religion on the same-sex marriage debate. According to a recent Pew Center poll on religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage, 58% of Protestants and only 37% of Catholics oppose same-sex marriage. (While overall Catholic opposition has lessened over the past year, Protestant opposition has been stubbornly persistent.)
Examining the racial disparities among religious respondents adds another dimension. Pew found White Evangelical opposition was 74%, compared to 62% for Black Protestants. White mainline Protestants were more favorable to same-sex marriage, with only 35% in opposition. If there’s anything to glean from these figures, it’s that religious people can be moved to support same-sex marriage.
Civil rights leader Julian Bond is correct to say that “black people, of all people, should not oppose equality. It does not matter the rationale – religious, cultural, pseudo-scientific. No people of good will should oppose marriage equality.”
After all, marriage equality is a civil right. But not everyone sees it as such, particularly some religious factions who protest that marriage equality is a cultural war against traditional marriage and family. Legalizing same-sex marriage, for some, is just one more step toward the secularization of a Judeo-Christian nation and a continued attack on religion.
Admittedly, it’s disappointing to see African-Americans oppose marriage equality for any reason. But the African-American community has always been a splintered community. Immigration rights and reproductive rights continue to be “wedge” issues. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a revered hero today only because the equality narrative he represented emerged victorious among other competing narratives in the African-American community.
And while popular memory has forgotten this history, not every African-American or African-American institution supported desegregation. Same-sex marriage would not be the first time that many African-Americans stood on the wrong side of history.
– Rodney Foxworth, a Brew contributor, writes about race, politics and culture. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore City Paper, and Urbanite magazine, among other publications. Rodney can be followed on Twitter @rdfoxworth.