Sexual Politics of Black Churches: Thought Leaders Tackle Tough LGBT Questions at Arcus Roundtable

October 29, 2010

There’s an old saying that says you should never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. Race and sex are probably good topics to avoid as well.

Arcus’ Religion & Values program disagrees. In fact, those four issues, and their intersections, were the chosen topics of a two-day conversation among progressive thought leaders in theology, ethics, African American studies, history, psychology, social thought, biblical studies and more, who came together at the Arcus Roundtable on the Sexual Politics of Black Churches. The convening was held in conjunction with Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life and its Institute for Research in African American Studies in New York in June 2010.

The scholars were invited to share their perspectives on race, gender and sexuality in American culture, specifically in the black church tradition, which has historically condemned homosexuality or ignored its reality. “The convening was a way for the participants to give voice to their views, to form mutual relationships, and to begin to create a common language so that the conversation can continue,” says Fred Davie, senior program director for Social Justice and LGBT programs, acting interim executive director at Arcus, and a key  convening organizer.

Another principal coordinator, Josef Sorett, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Religion and the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia, says the time was ripe for this dialogue to take place. “We discovered that there is a growing critical mass of leaders, as well as laypersons, who are eager to have the conversation. While being respectful of the important role church has played in many lives, they also recognize its limitations and see that there is room to change,” he says.

To widen the discussion, the convening included a public forum on “Religion, Race and Sexuality in American Culture.” More than 100 people attended this panel discussion, which was moderated by Sorett and Arcus board member Cathy Cohen, author of “The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics” and professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

A Call for Common Ground
Like most Roundtable participants Melynda Price, JD, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, grew up in the black church tradition. A scholar of religion, politics and law, her scholarship focuses on how race and religion influence African American public opinion about the death penalty.

In her presentation, Price explored the relationship between black LGBT individuals and black churches, the relationship between black churches and the LGBT community at large, and the need for “the hard work of finding common ground.” She discussed how “other”-ing has historically led to violence against black men and women, and today makes legal execution acceptable. She argued that if a convincing parallel is drawn between the exclusion of and violence against African Americans and the “other”-ing of gays and lesbians, a powerful basis for coalition building can be found within and among black churches and the LGBT community.

“Once separated from the larger community, it leaves those who are the ‘others’ open to violence – spiritual, physical, political and/or verbal,” she concluded. “Inclusion as an anti-violence measure, as a Christian precept of loving thy neighbor, has to be something [to which] even the most conservative of black religious institutions can commit.”

Price’s ideas, and those presented by the other Roundtable participants, will become a series of chapters in a book to be published by Columbia University Press as part of its Religion, Culture and Public Life series.

The Arcus Foundation’s Religion & Values program works to achieve moral equality for LGBT people.