President Barack Obama unleashed a nationwide fury of protest and disapproval from ministers and pastors, many of them African Americans, with his public endorsement of same-sex marriage. Many encouraged their congregations to sit it out on Election Day and to ask family and friends to do the same.
On Tuesday, Ministers United for President Obama – a group of local ministers – pushed back, along with Congressman Steve Cohen. They endorsed the re-election of the President during an afternoon press conference at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) building at 485 Beale Street, in downtown Memphis.
"We are theologically opposed to gay marriage as Christian ministers," said Dr. James L. Netters Sr. "But right now, we are about the business of electing a president who has done an extraordinary job. More than 400 pastors of all races and denominations have joined our ranks, and others are quickly coming on board."
Dr. Netters, pastor, senior pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood, said "our community needs leadership regarding this matter." African-American pastors who denounced the president and encouraged parishioners to stay home on voting day have done this country "a great disservice," said Dr. Netters.
"I've been in civil rights all of my life. Back in 1963, when we marched right here in this city and sat at segregated lunch counters for racial equality, it is quite disheartening that pastors of any race or denomination would encourage people not to vote.
"Those before us gave their lives so that we could vote," he said. "This is the first African-American president, and he is worthy of our continued support. He cares about all people, and his decisions have been driven by seeking to improve the quality of life for all people, including the poor, the unemployed, returning veterans in need of mental healthcare and substance abuse rehabilitation, and seniors who depend on Medicare and Social Security. President Obama has proven that he's well qualified to continue leading our country. He deserves our support."
'All in this together'
An "Obama/Cohen" sign was displayed prominently as Congressman Cohen stood with the ministers. He touted President Obama's efforts to address the needs of families suffering in the present economy, as well as the President's desire to show concern for all people.
"I was proud to stand with pastors in support of our President," said Cohen. "As we launch a massive drive to get people registered, it is so important to understand how high the stakes are in this election. I encourage everyone to make sure they have the proper ID and exercise their constitutional right to vote.
"Get out and vote, make sure your family and friends are registered and have proper ID, and together we can keep President Obama in the White House. We are all in this together."
On balance, no comparison
"Too many of our forefathers paid the ultimate price in blood, sweat, tears and even their very lives to ensure that blacks could vote," said the Rev. Dwight Montgomery, pastor of Annesdale-Cherokee Baptist Church in Orange Mound. "We are aware that some ministers have withdrawn their support of our President because of his public endorsement of gay marriage.
"Now as a gospel preacher, I do not endorse gay marriage. We all want to make that very clear," said Montgomery. "But just imagine you a balance scale. On one side, you have gay marriage; on the other side you've got the healthcare bill for those who can't afford adequate medical care, millions of jobs created during his administration, and so many other strides made over the past four years. And when you look at that scale, positive overwhelmingly outweighs the negative – gay marriage. There is just no comparison."
'Withhold support until...'
While "Ministers United For President Obama" has quickly gained traction, Bishop William Owens and his wife, Dr. Deborah Owens, have created a stir on the national stage. Televised news interviews, including on Fox News and CNN, have extended the "Mandate for Marriage' message of the Memphis-based Coalition of African-American Pastors.
"The President's public endorsement of gay marriage goes against what we believe and what we preach as Christians," said Owens. "We believe in the Biblical standard of traditional marriage as set forth by God. That is, a union between one man and one woman. Nearly 100,000 across this nation stand with us in denouncing this position. We are asking President Obama to rethink his position and align his policies with the Biblical standard.
"People of all races are standing with us," said Owens. "We are not saying don't support the President, but we are asking people to simply withhold support until he meets with us. We have requested a meeting with him, but he has not responded."
'We must lead'
The ministers who stand with Dr. Netters as part of Ministers United for President Obama are doing so as individual ministers and private citizens, not as pastors or representatives or their individual churches.
While they uphold the "Biblical standard of marriage," Netters said the right-now focus in "to get our President re-elected....We're trying to get the estimated 100,000 voters in Shelby County to register and then get out and vote. We'll deal with him on gay marriage later."
Netters said the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba Gray, pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church, and the Rev. Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge, pastor of Thomas Chapel Baptist Church, have been "instrumental in launching this massive get-out-the-vote campaign for President Obama. We must lead our community and encourage everyone to exercise their right to vote – no matter what others are saying."