Thursday, June 26, 2008

Barack Obama and Post-Homophobic Models of Black Leadership

Unlike many other African-American leaders, Mr. Obama has been willing to confront the ugly homophobia of many African Americans (especially African-American churchgoers) head on.

In the posting I just made on Barack Obama and the LGBT community, I chose to highlight the preceding statement for the following reason: the way in which many 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—and thus by modeling a form of leadership that transcends the ugly exclusion and injustice currently practiced by not a few African-American “leaders” whose claim to leadership is totally vitiated by their willingness to practice injustice and exclusion towards gay human beings.

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

And yet I live in a democratic society that professes to be moving towards participatory democracy. No community in a participatory democracy 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 call each other to accountability, to learn from one another and the particular experiences of other communities, that makes for vibrant and strong participatory democracy.

And no one belongs to a single community. I am a white male (and a white Southern one at that), but I am also a gay male. And that fact makes all the difference in the world to many of my fellow citizens. It automatically places me within a community from which I see the world in a different way than do many other white males—and many other white Southern males, in particular. It 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 dominant affiliative line of a single community to link us to other communities. I may not be black, but my experience intersects with (and 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 affiliative boundary lines of our communities of origin and communities 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 almost two decades in which I taught and did administrative work in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). As I have noted on this blog, 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.

I speak out of my experience in HBCUs. I speak as an outsider who was, despite my skin color and historical background, invited “inside” for some years—and then expelled not because of my skin color or gender, but because of my sexual orientation.

Now to get to the heart of the matter: as my previous posting notes, earlier this week, Rev. James Dobson, founder of the homophobic Focus on the Family organization, lambasted Barack Obama for what Rev. Dobson calls his “fruitcake interpretation” of scripture and the constitution (see AP release at 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 Rev. 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), several key African-American religious leaders quickly distanced themselves from what Rev. Dobson said.

For instance, 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, within 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 observes, 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, if he so desires (a clip of the interview is at

Well. This is a start. The underlying vision of democratic society reflected in Rev. Sharpton’s comments is far healthier (and far more traditionally American) than is that of Rev. Dobson.

One understanding of society 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 own 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 has just set up a website to counter Dobson’s claim to own the bible. The website is at

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 and theology is. In short, what we are seeing in the rise of critiques of white religious right leaders by black evangelical leaders who have previously been silent about the shortcomings of their white colleagues 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 (many of whom already suffer marginalization and exclusion), rather than by a vision of the common good that includes 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.

The homophobic injustice in which too many African-American leaders have been willing to participate in recent years 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 have 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 and their religious right backers, who have cynically sought to exploit divisions between the black and the gay community to try to gain power within the African-American community.

I know quite a few African-American ministers, theologians, and scholars who have known perfectly well the name of the divide-and-conquer game neo-conservatives and the religious right have been playing with the black community. These African-American leaders have courageously named the game for what it is. They have often suffered marginalization within their own community as a result, particularly in communities dominated by the black church (as well as by white churches promoting homophobia).

I know a number of African-American leaders who have seen first-hand, as I have done, some of the extremely negative effects of the moral sell-out of homophobic black leaders to the “values” of the religious right. These leaders note, as I do, 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 churches and church-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 churches and church-based institutions (let’s be brutally honest), the faith-based seed money that has been trickling in benefits the pastor and a select group of his supporters, or the church-based institutions' leaders, far more than it benefits those to whom it is ostensibly directed.

In far too many cases, the price that African-American churches and church-based institutions pay for their political alliance with neo-conservative political leaders is a moral price: these churches and institutions are asked and expected to discriminate against gay persons as part of the price for receiving faith-based funding.

Too many African-American leaders have been willing in recent years to play this immoral political game. Their choice to do so 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 playing the homophobia game, in any case, rather than to the communities themselves: the prizes have been trinkets for good behavior that have ensnared and corrupted not a few African-American leaders.

Ultimately, their 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 the birthright of powerful African-American thinkers promoting social justice for the mess of pottage of faith-based homophobia. Historians will ask, regarding this generation of African-American leaders, how anyone seeking human rights for herself or himself could possibly justify denying human rights to other oppressed human beings. Historians will be interested in the blindness and self-deception, the willingness to collude with oppressive ideologies and oppressive and immoral politicians and church leaders, that lies beneath this sell-out.

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 Christian, a theologian, and a plain old 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 . . . .

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