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Theology Thursdays: Black Churches Can Play Pivotal Role In Culture War by William McKenzie

If we're going to have a cultural war, let's at least identify the players.

To me, there's no more pivotal force than the black church. African-American churchgoers from evangelicals to Baptists to Methodists to Pentecostals to Catholics could steer us through the storm we're flying into on gay marriage, Hollywood's movies, the role of judges and the war in Iraq. They could temper the debate so we don't blow ourselves up. Amen to that.

The black church has clout because it can move between the Jerry Falwells and Al Frankens. In so doing, the church can move the nation down the road.

Take the issue of gay marriage and the constitutional amendment seeking to ban it. The way in which the black church resolves this issue can instruct the rest of us.

Polling data show that most African-Americans are uncomfortable with homosexuality. In fact, their polling numbers come close to white evangelicals on the subject.

A poll last fall by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life revealed that 62 percent of blacks have an unfavorable opinion of homosexuality. Sixty-nine percent of white evangelicals view homosexuality as unfavorable.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Professor Rodney Cooper, an African-American, agrees with that assessment. He says that most black churchgoers he comes across see this as a biblical issue and that they aren't changing. In fact, leaders from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ participated in drafting the ban against same-sex marriages.

But there also is a tradition within the black church that looks at the move to stop gays and lesbians from marrying as contrary to the ideal of social justice. The Rev. Gerald Britt of the New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Dallas opposes gay marriages, but he thinks the black church can't say "justice applies to blacks only."

The Rev. Britt says churches, communities and individuals need to resolve this locally. "The struggle comes in working this out in our personal lives," he reasons.

As these two forces within the black church struggle with this issue, they can help the rest of us. They can show the nation how to balance traditional views of a fundamental institution like marriage with concerns about rights and justice for all Americans.

Or at least I hope they can. The cultural battle over gay marriage must be worked out in our homes and our communities before we can come up with a consensus. We have to take our moral values and personal experiences and wrestle with them. We don't need to leave this matter to those Republicans and Democrats who would love nothing better than a rip-snortin' culture war.

There are other ways the African-American church can smooth out the rougher edges of our cultural divisions. The black pew, as Mr. Cooper calls it, has standing with white evangelicals because it takes the Bible seriously. Most black churchgoers read it at church, at work and at home. That makes it hard for white conservative evangelicals to dismiss them. You can't out-Scripture them. This isn't like dealing with some liberal Protestant churches, where the Bible isn't taken as literally.

As a result, the voice from the black pew counts when its members say the movies that Hollywood produces aren't the central problem in our national life. That's exactly what Professor Cooper from Boston and the Rev. Britt from Dallas said in separate interviews last week. "How we engage the culture war depends on the issue," Mr. Cooper says.

That's a great place to stand. The various parts of the black church can go between the opposing sides on the big issues that divide Americans. They can strike alliances with conservatives on some issues and liberals on others.

We need these kinds of mediating institutions. They cool down hot-button matters like the role of judges in our society.

And heaven only knows we need to temper our cultural debates. Let's wrestle with the issues that divide us. But let's not tear ourselves apart.

As I read it, the various elements of the black church can help us avoid that end.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News, where this article first appeared. His e-mail address is

Thursday, March 25, 2004

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