The Black Church and Sexual Ethics
Professor of Ethics, Vanderbuilt University
Presented at Society of Christian Ethics (2000)
By comparison to Black Psychology, Sociology, and Cultural Studies, African American theologians and clergy are surprisingly silent on many of the topics related to sexual ethics. Topics include homosexuality, same sex unions, premarital sex, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (i.e. HIV/AIDS and resistant strains of herpes), pornography, prostitution (both male and female), and the like.
In a time when at the national level sexual misconduct and morality is the clamor of media discourse, both in politics and religion, only a few African American theologians and religious cultural critics have mentioned the impact of many of these issues on the black churches. Yet, I think that the future of the Black churches and their credibility as a mediating institution within the black community is severely threatened by the failure of the churches, clergy and African American theologians to take on directly and critically issues in sexual ethics.
In a recent study, conducted by Dr. Robert M. Franklin, President of Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA, and drawing on survey data from the Hampton University Ministers Conference in 1992, Franklin discusses black clergy responses to various moral issues. Among the issues on which the ministers were surveyed is sexuality. Of sermons preached on sexuality by the total respondents surveyed (600), 79.3% taught about or preached on sexuality; 85.3% preached against premarital sex. 77.1% preached on homosexuality while 79% indicating categorical opposition. On Roe v. Wade, almost half, 48.2%, opposed abortion in principle. 15.4% supported it categorically, while 27.7% supported it with qualifications.
The most surprising indicator among the clergy surveyed in the Hampton study is that 34.6% of the clergy regarded HIV/AIDS a divine curse. On the distribution of condoms in public schools, 75.8% indicated opposition. 86.8% indicated that they would dedicate a baby born out of wedlock. And 86.8% required some form of premarital counseling before performing a wedding.
Franklin concludes that on sexual practices ranging from abortion to homosexuality, black clergy tend to be overwhelmingly conservative and non-progressive. Franklin himself tries to reconcile this non-progressive tendency to what he believes is the characteristic progressive orientation of the black churches to social life by appealing to a theory of "preference falsification".
According to Franklin, "the church publicly condemns certain behaviors and orientations," but "it privately expresses toleration and acceptance of those involved". Franklin goes on to say that "Most pastors are acquainted with this complexity even as they go on record supporting the conservative values that are perceived as important for rebuilding the black family" (80).
Absent from Franklin’s account is the ways that the ministers surveyed justify their conservative tendency toward sexual conservatism. No doubt, religious beliefs about God’s divine commands, the orders of creation, human beings as the image of God, Biblical holiness, and, of course, Sin function in the justification of the black clergy’s attitudes toward sexual ethics. Therefore, theological beliefs function for the ministers as reasons, albeit religious ones, for why others—like themselves, Bible believing, evangelical Christians--are also warranted in agreeing with them on the correctness of their public opinions on sexual morality.
Franklin sees a correlation error in the opinions of the black clergy. In which case, the clergy’s "progressive Christianity" is at odds with their "conservative opinions" on sexuality. However, I think of the tension as resulting from the ministers’ attempts to hold competing loyalties between the public and private realms. On my view, even the preferences of typically progressive black Christian clergy may be conservative without being contradictory, given the religious reasons and social concerns that the clergy use for justifying their public opinions.
For example, while taking a progressive attitude toward housing discrimination based on race, black clergy may argue that the civil right of a person to occupy housing of which he or she meets the minimal economic requirement for ownership but is denied based on race directly insults the humanity of the person, violates a human right to move about and associate freely without undue interference, and that such a policy jeopardizes the possible of democratic citizenship and risks political peace.
Therefore, any policy that denigrates the natural esteem of a person based on race and prohibits the possibility of their human fulfillment, in this case, a human right to move about and associate freely, is not only politically and morally vicious but in theological; language is downright sin. The minister would then pursue a progressive disposition toward those programs or policies which supports their interests.
By contrast, the same minister whose regular disposition toward social life is progressive may on the topic of abortion appeal to a conservative attitude arguing that
(a) I believe that all human beings are created in the image of God;
(b) even if a fetus is not a person, it is still a developing human being;
(c) it is morally wrong and a sin to kill another human being without provocation of offense by an other in which case one may be warranted in killing another human being in self defense or war;
(d) killing another human being in either instance of (C) self defense or war, presupposes that human being an aggressor either individually or by membership in a political community on whose behalf that human being serves;
(e) barring medical or therapeutic license, the fetus does not meet such a standard of aggression, it cannot be counted a threat to any fully developed human being but must be counted innocent;
(f) It is therefore morally wrong and a violation of the sacredness of human life to kill a developing human being.
(g) And finally, such an act violates not only human dignity, and the sacred, but diminishes the vitality of the black community, robbing it of new life and new possibilities for its flourishing.
Now I admit that the case here is complex, and I have not even completed the argumentative steps between F and G; but the point is this. A black minister who normally take a progressive stance toward issues of public policy which affect the vitality of his or her community might extend the same concerns for her community—its vitality and flourishing—as reasons for opposing abortions . In which case there is no contradiction in the reasoning involved in the ministers’ progressive stance of affirmative action of housing discrimination and her or his conservative attitude toward abortion policy.
What is disturbing about the statistic that I cited above on the black ministers’ attitude on abortion is that almost half of the ministered surveyed (48%) opposed aborting categorically or in principle; while 27% approved with qualifications which may range from therapeutic license to family hardship.
My point is that Franklin sees a correlation problem between the minister’s progressive disposition and their conservative attitude on sexual ethics. However, their attitude might be not a fault in correlation but the result of the minister’s attempt to be consistent in their attitudes toward the dignity of all human beings, the sacredness of life, their beliefs that all human beings are created in the image of God; and their convictions that killing an innocent human being is murder and hence sin.
Therefore, it is quite conceivable that on some issues of public morality (civil rights, housing, employment, education) black clergy may be progressive liberals while also evoking liberal arguments in support of conservative attitudes on sexual morality.
The real tension in Franklin’s analysis results from what I regard as a distorted description of the Black Churches and the black clergy under black radicalism. In Black religion and Black Radicalism, Religious historian Gayraud Wilmore early defined the characteristic tendency of black religion in the United States as Black radicalism. Wilmore says:
An exceedingly elastic but tenacious thread binds together the contribution and developmental factors of black religion in the United States as one distinctive social phenomenon... It is the thread of what may be called, if properly defined, "black radicalism." Black religion has always concerned itself with the fascination of an incorrigibly religious people with the mystery of God, but it has been equally concerned with the yearning of a despised and subjugated people for freedom—freedom from religious, economic, social and political domination that whites have exercised over blacks since the beginning of the African slave trade. It is this radical thrust of blacks for human liberation expressed in black Christianity and black religion in the United States—from the preacher-led slave revolts to the Black Manifesto of James Forman and the Black Declaration of Independence of the National Committee of Black Churchmen (1973, p. x)
Here, Wilmore defines the Black church and clergy by radicalism in politics, economy, society, and religion. The black churches are consequently either understood by some as typically liberal and progressive—given its propensity toward social protest and action while others describe it as revolutionary, liberation movement for social change. This is a depiction that Franklin accepts as normative. However, sexual morality tests this depiction of African American religion in ways that racial, civil rights, and gender discourse does not.
Making either description determinative of the black churches and clergy of issues of public morality or sexual ethics distorts the complexity of black church ethics. For in ethics, whether sexual or political, morality is judged best by the case at hand than from the position of categorical judgments. Consistency in moral evaluation at all levels of discourse is a thing most hard to maintain.
To this point, in One More River to Cross (1996), Keith Boykin, national director of the Black gay and Lesbian Network in Washington DC, devotes an entire chapter to "Faith in the lives of Black Lesbians and Gays". He recognizes how powerful the black churches are in the black community, as a usually progressive agent in matters of civil rights, but in sexual ethics, particularly homosexuality, he puzzles over the black churches’ silence and denials.
Boykin comes to the conclusion that "Despite the widespread awareness of homosexuality in the black church, we still find ministers, deacons, ushers, choir members, music directors, organists, congregations, and homosexual themselves participating in an elaborate conspiracy of silence and denial" (127). In the end, his account of the intersection of black religion and homosexuality is less than optimistic, for the churches are less than progressive in their sexual ethics. I want to look briefly at the liberal tensions between progressivism and conservatism in light of an essay by Michael Eric Dyson.
Dyson, a religious critic by academic training, offers an account of the tensions in sexual ethics and the black church in Race Rules: Negotiating the Color Line (1996), particularly, in one chapter entitled, "When You Divide Body and Soul, Problems Multiply". Dyson rightly sees much of the sexual teachings and attitudes of the black churches as having been derived from dualistic assumptions about the body and soul of early Christian theologians which were disseminated through the white churches to blacks.
This dualism between body (matter) and Soul (spirit and eternal) is then reinscribed on black culture through the black churches. In their attitudes toward sexuality, Dyson traces the lack of moral leadership by black churches and clergy on sexual ethics to white sexual distortions which the black churches inherited from the homophobic practices of slavery. Consequently, the black churches are complicit in white Manichean sexual theologies in which the body is regarded as evil and the soul worthy of salvation.
By contrast, Dyson argues that in black, religious discourse the black body is exonerated in ecstatic and ejaculatory forms of worship, preaching, and enthusiasm for social justice. However, he also recognizes that the black churches have not developed a sexual theology, much less a theology of homoerotica or homosexuality that is compatible with its erotic qualities in worship. Rather, the white sexual theologies of the black churches, Dyson thinks, are at odds with the sexual interests and loves of their members. Again, Dyson traces the homophobic practices of the black churches to their conceptual dependence on white theology.
Therefore, in their legitimate, characteristic attempts to resist "myths of super black sexuality" in which black sexual appetites were regarded by the slave holding society as unquenchable, Dyson argues that blacks bought into "the split between mind and body that leads them to confusion about a black Christian theology of incarnation".
Dyson sees this dualism at work in the interplay between the black pulpit, the black preacher’s railings against homosexuality, Sunday after Sunday, and his or her use of gay members to play music and sing songs that will set the stage for his delivery and his or her hortatory ejaculations. He suggests that in this ritualized, erotic moment a certain irony occurs. The preacher renders his gay members complicit in acts of self-hatred, while the musical performances of gay members negate the gay bashing sermon just preached.
According to Dyson, the black churches’ sexual theologies suggest a fundamental contradiction between their liberationist orientations toward social justice and their refusal to "unlock the oppressive closet for gays and lesbians". He also extends these contradictions to homosexual members themselves who participate in acts of self-hatred in their denials and secrecy while they affirm the homophobia of their churches. Dyson’s point is that all of these homophobic practices can be seen as consequences of blacks’ endorsements of a white ideology of heterosexism that is rationalized under a body/soul dualism.
If the black churches are to be faithful to their essential nature as liberating, prophetic institutions which are fundamentally motivated toward social justice, according to Dyson, the churches must develop a black theology of sexuality and homoeroticism. He also calls for black gays and lesbians to come out of their sexual closets where "they can leave behind as well the destructive, erotic habits that threaten their lives". He asks the black churches to affirm healthy unions between gays and lesbians adults. And he asks the black churches to make certain their solidarity with the "despised members of our society."
The despised in this case are not the homeless, prostitutes, or crack heads, but black gays and lesbians. "Black Christians, who have been despised and oppressed for much of our existence," Dyson argues, "should be wary of extending that oppression to our lesbian sisters and gay brothers". He calls for the black churches to be centers of sexual healing: to be at the forefront of sexual justice, just as they have been at the forefront of "every major social, political, and moral movement in black culture".
Like Franklin and Boykin, he also seems perplexed that in their sexual ethics, the black clergy and churches appear less than progressive and liberationist. In their identities, he believes that the black churches are basically oriented toward liberating, prophetic, and avante garde practices. In all civil rights issues, he argues that they are impressive exemplars of social justice when compared to white institutions.
Rather, among the many cultural institutions and organizations responsible for the moral well-being of the black community and despite claims to the contrary, black churches remain a major institution that promotes forms of homophobia which keep black gays and lesbian silent and make them particular objects of the community’s disdain and violence. Dyson paints a picture of the black church and clergy its relation to sexuality that greatly distorts the experiences of black gays and lesbians in the churches. He exhibits a confidence in the black churches and clergy that, I suggest, many black gays and lesbians have good reasons to question.
Moreover, I think that Dyson answer to the apparent contradiction between the liberal progressivism of the black churches on civil right and race, and poverty and the conservatism of their sexual ethics is simply misguided. Dyson’s suggestion that the conservative sexual attitudes and homophobic activities of the black churches can be understood or explained in reference to African Americans’ acquiring a self-hating theological body/soul dualism is far too narrow a site for understanding their sexual ethics.
Homophobia is not the unique characteristic of European thought and culture. Rather, it develops in complex matrices of cultural experience which are experiential, social, and political. Therefore, homophobia cannot be reduced to any one matrix. Homophobia is related to social taboos, associations, and cultural conditions which cultivate both negative and positive effects throughout the culture.
Negatively, homophobic practices may be maintained for the purpose of "deterring" forms of human association, sexual and social, which some in the community, in this case, the black church and clergy, fear are threats to the moral cohesion of black culture. Positively, homophobic practices may "insure" the cultivation of moral behavior through socialization in proper sexual practices which the culture deems worthy of propagation.
The point is that the homophobia of the black churches ought not to be explained away simply by appealing to a genealogy of its European transmission. Such an explanation, it seems to me, doesn’t give much credence to Wilmore’s thesis of black radicalism, namely, that African American sexual ethics is not only reactive to the deformation of black culture in chattel slavery but are also the proactive the effects of blacks own initiatives in developing and guiding the moral universe of their culture.
Dyson’s analysis of homophobia in the black church treats it as a reactive consequence of whites’ actions on black cultural life and not a consequence of the black churches proactive intentions to establish African American cultural practices which are as likely as European cultural activities to produce in the black community homophobic activities, self-hating practices, and antigay discourses. For Dyson, "The black church has been at the forefront of every major social, political and moral movement in black culture. . . . It has the opportunity to lead again, by focusing the black erotic body in its loving, liberating lens" (108).
Dyson asks the black churches to be centers of sexual healing while maintaining a posture of black radicalism. However, he never questions whether the black churches can do all that he calls for in sexual ethics and still remain characteristically black churches—a powerful, moral force in the community whose family values and sexual teachings are conservative.
The black church is complex, but not unusually more complex that other churches. After all, it is a human community, a social organization. It exists as a mediating institution among other institutions competing for the loyalties of African Americans and for legitimacy in the black community. But it is a mistake to treat it as a monolith as in C. Eric Lincoln's and Lawrence H. Mamiya's The Black Church in the African American Experience (1990). These sociologists treat those who belong to the "Black Church" generically as "any black Christian person . . . if he or she is a member of a black congregation."
Effectively excluded are those blacks who hold memberships in "white denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Roman Catholic Church among others: so much for Black Christians of the South Atlantic basin, whether of Caribbean or afro-Brazilian origins. Rather, the Black Church means for them blacks who hold memberships in the seven major "independent, historic, and totally black controlled denominations" represented by the seven major black denominations which claims 80% of black church memberships. They see the black church as guardians of a "black sacred cosmos or the religious world view of African Americans".
The black sacred cosmos is a socially constructed life-world "created [by] [blacks'] own unique and distinctive forms of culture and world views as parallels rather than replications of the culture in which they were involuntary guests." The idea of parallel universes, then, is their attempt to grant to the black churches an alternative community to white religious institutions and marked by certain key themes in Western Christian humanism, themes such as incarnational and resurrection triumphantism, and universal egalitarianism and freedom; and in worship, religious immediacy frames black religious experience.
Wherever black people were gathered in significant enough numbers, the distinct quality of a shared Afro-Christian religious world view and faith was felt. Even in predominantly white denominations with a million or more black members like the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church, the surge and eruptions of the black sacred cosmos were constant and influential. A qualitatively different cultural form of expressing Christianity is found in most black churches, regardless of denomination, to this day.
Wherever African-Americans locate themselves among various cultural spaces, the black sacred cosmos is also determinative in those spaces. Whether one locates one's practices in terms of "freedom, justice, equality, and African heritage, and racial parity at all levels of human intercourse," such as occur in "militant, nationalistic, and non-Christian movements," even these cultural spaces owe their success in black culture, to their historical links with the black church. For "many aspects of black cultural practices and some major institutions had religious origins; they were given birth and nurtured in the womb of the Black Church."
Sexual ethics tests the cogency of this description of the black churches. For where black clergy have tended toward liberal progressivism in civil right and other areas of social justice, in sexual morality their family values differ little in any significant ways from that of the religious right. Franklin, Boykin, Dyson and others ought not to be surprised by this. Rather, the task is to understand what are the real interests, the reasons, the desires, the benefits, and the ends black clergy seek to fulfill in their conservative preferences in sexual ethics.
To be sure, some believe that the vitality of the black community is at stake in the issue if abortion. Others see the moral cohesion of the black family at stake in issues of homosexuality and teenage pregnancy. And others see nothing short of a distinctive black alternative moral culture to the white, perverse morality of the dominant culture by insisting on traditional sexual morality rooted in Biblical holiness.
The theological beliefs and the clergy’s understanding of Biblical holiness function as justifying reasons for their conservative sexual ethics. Cheryl Sanders has been most at the forefront of developing this position. For her, the task of Black theological reflection and Christian ethics is to provide a mediating institution capable of empowering the whole black community. It ought not to be sidetracked by focusing on isolated pockets of interests groups within the community to the expense of the whole community. For Sanders, Black Christian empowerment ethics has to be distributable throughout the widest range of interests within the community.
Insofar as it is Christian ethics, it is always a particular ethics, or the ethics of a particular community. For her, the Holiness/Pentecostal movement and churches provide adequate resources for directing black moral life in ways that promote the furtherance of progressivism in civil and human right. However, they also maintain a conservative agenda in the private realms of family and sexuality. As Sanders develops her empowerment ethics out of the Black Holiness/Pentecostal tradition, she suggest that black churches have good warrants for supporting progressive policies oriented toward eradicating forms of oppression and discrimination toward persons who seek fulfillment of civil rights having widespread agreement such as housing, education, health, and welfare.
This is especially the case where such forms of oppression and discrimination are based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. But with the private realm of marriage, family and sexual practices, Sanders suggests that the path of biblical holiness easily joins black empowerment ethics to protect, enhance, and support the whole Black community. In the private realm, this may require Black clergy and theologians not to affirm the good of homosexual sex and same sex unions in the black community.
I don’t have time to work out here all the details of Sanders argument, but it is clear that depending on how she construes the public/private distinction, her support for progressive policies in civil and human rights on some issues and her commitment to the biblical teachings of her church on sexuality does not require a theory of preference falsification to explain her conservatism on sexual ethics. Her commitment to her church’s teaching on sexuality provides the warrants and reasons for her judgments.
However, these reasons are not likely to be as persuasive on a youth culture growing increasingly alienated from the church. These reasons are not likely to be persuasive on an expanding black middle middle-class of educated elite. And these kinds of reasons are not likely to be persuasive for academic theologians who have alienated themselves by their training in critical theology.
Black clergy need to develop a sexual ethics that connects its members not only to heaven’s gate (not the cult) but also connecting them to the real world of complex, hard choices about abortion, teenage pregnancy, same sex unions, pornography, and the like. I am not suggesting that the future of the black church will depend upon their developing a viable sexual ethics. They will get along just fine in the world as it has while holding a conservative, traditional disposition toward sexuality.
However, I am suggesting that the credibility of these churches as centers of pastoral care and moral leadership in the black community is at stake as long as black church leaders blind themselves to problems in sexual practices that affect the moral development of blacks. As I said in an essay referred to above, for many of us, the black churches are no safe sexual havens. For in the name of black radicalism, they deny to some the sexual freedoms that creation itself is creating as the old order of things passes away and the new emerges.
We need theological reasons from the black churches in sexual ethics, but what we need are better ones than those that now justify the conservative sexual ethics of the black churches. Developing such a sexual ethics is an ongoing work between the black churches, the black theological academy, and the whole black community.