October 26th, 2007
04:20 PM ET
15 years ago

Gospel concert controversy tests Obama's message

Obama spoke at an evangelical church in Greenville, South Carolina earlier this month.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) - Sen. Barack Obama's campaign is kicking off a series of Gospel concerts in Charleston tonight, meant to boost Obama's support among black voters in South Carolina. But what started as a local outreach project that would otherwise fly under the national radar has turned into a major headache for the Obama campaign.

The controversy also highlights the fact that Obama's desire to unite disparate voting blocs - especially religious voters - under his umbrella of "change" is not without some serious pitfalls for a Democratic presidential candidate.

When the campaign announced the lineups for the three-city "Embrace the Change!" Gospel tour last week, one name stood out to gay bloggers: Donnie McClurkin. The Grammy-award winning singer/preacher is on record as saying homosexuality is a choice, and that he himself was "once involved with those desires and those thoughts," but was able to get past them through prayer. To say the least, neither of those arguments are very popular in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

John Aravosis, a prominent gay blogger and co-founder of the web site AmericaBlog, led the charge against the Obama campaign, writing that the Illinois Democrat was "sucking up to anti-gay bigots" and "giving them a stage."

Once the story bubbled up into the mainstream media, the Obama campaign was taken by surprise. In competing to win over African-American voters in South Carolina against Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's efforts in the Palmetto State have been overwhelmingly targeted at African-American churchgoers.

The campaign here has vigorously promoted the candidate's faith, launching an effort in late September called "40 Days of Faith and Family," which used Bible study groups to tap into the black electorate. They have run three radio ads, one of which called Obama a “Christian family man,” all distributed on Gospel stations across the state.

Earlier this month, Obama appeared and spoke at an evangelical church in the traditionally conservative city of Greenville, where he demonstrated a casual familiarity with Christian vocabulary, telling the crowd to much applause that, "I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth."

After that appearance, the Obama campaign told CNN that Republicans no longer had a choke hold on issues of faith and values.

"I think that what you're seeing is a breaking down of the sharp divisions that existed maybe during the '90s," Obama said. "At least in politics, the perception was that the Democrats were fearful of talking about faith, and on the other hand you had the Republicans who had a particular brand of faith that oftentimes seemed intolerant or pushed people away."

But on Tuesday, Obama was forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that some Christians and gays are a little more than just strange bedfellows, especially among blacks.

Obama issued a statement saying, "I strongly disagree with Reverend McClurkin's views and will continue to fight for these rights as president of the United States," but he argued that it is important to confront homophobia in the African-American religious community.

A September poll of African-Americans in South Carolina by Winthrop University and ETV showed that 62 percent of those surveyed said that "sex between two adults of the same sex" is "strongly unacceptable."

Obama held a conference call Wednesday with Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, and announced that Rev. Andy Sidden, an openly gay South Carolina pastor, will appear at the same event as McClurkin on Sunday in Columbia.

Solmonese was not completely assuaged.

"I spoke with Sen. Barack Obama today and expressed to him our community's disappointment for his decision to continue to remain associated with Rev. McClurkin, an anti-gay preacher who states the need to 'break the curse of homosexuality,'" he said in a statement. "There is no gospel in Donnie McClurkin's message for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. That's a message that certainly doesn’t belong on any Presidential candidate's stage."

The State newspaper in Columbia also reported Friday that Obama organized a conference call Thursday night with gay and lesbian leaders. After the call, the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement announced they will hold a protest vigil outside Sunday's concert here.

Privately, Obama aides say they believe Obama is a candidate of real, transformational change, and that uproars like the McClurkin controversy are necessary speed bumps on the road to bringing people with opposing viewpoints together to air their differences.

Will Obama's refusal to kick McClurkin off the concert bill hurt him? Like many political squabbles, despite the national story, it depends how much the controversy resonates with voters in those crucial early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

And in South Carolina, where African-Americans make up about half of Democratic primary-goers, voters might not have that much of a problem with McClurkin at all.

- CNN South Carolina Producer Peter Hamby

soundoff (171 Responses)
  1. Laura - Tulsa OK

    He and Hillary keep touting "change". Yet neither of them has executive experience that is required for the Presidency. Neither has governed or run a budget. I wish people wouldn't look at the charisma of politicians and focus instead on qualifications.

    October 26, 2007 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  2. Bob, Seattle, WA

    This is only a sign of things to come if Obama succeeds in his odyssey. He is a very confused man. Comes to very confusing conclusions. Mis-reads sincere criticisms and his 'pandering' serves only to continue his conflicts with the folks. Heaven help should he have to 'act' on a global stage.

    October 26, 2007 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  3. Jolien, Dayton, OH

    "My sense of Barack Obama is that he is someone with the capacity to bridge gaps, keep lines of communications open, and ultimately change hearts and minds. How he navigates this one will be a test of how good he is at this often incredibly difficult task."

    October 26, 2007 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  4. David, New York, NY

    Well, I guess he lost my primary vote.

    October 26, 2007 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  5. JR Dallas, TX

    On Myspace, there is a page for GLBT Barack Obama supporters. It still has over 1,200 friends, despite this "controversy."

    That is because Barack has a stronger record on gay equality than Hillary Clinton.

    Barack opposed the anti-gay DOMA law of 1996. Mrs. Clinton approves of it and her husband signed it into law.

    Barack talks about gay equality in front of mostly-straight audiences. Mrs. Clinton NEVER mentions gay rights unless she is talking to a gay audience.

    Racism in the gay community has been well-documented. There's no doubt that anti-black gay people are rallying around Mrs. Clinton.

    October 26, 2007 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  6. Rodney Dallas TX

    Laura, Tulsa, OK:

    Hillary was on the Board of Directors for Wal-Mart. That seems to be quite a bit of executive experience in my opinion. Wal-Mart is the #1 retail business in the world. Board of Directors have quite a bit to do with the way a company is ran, especially running a budget. Check your facts before you post on here.

    October 26, 2007 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  7. roger, conway sc

    I am afraid Obama is going to extreme measures in trying to capture votes...black or white...shows that he is really in need of knowledge & experience...by having gospel sings to attract the black vote is silly. I am white but my black friends are not impressed with this method.

    October 26, 2007 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  8. Jason, Omaha NE

    One of the only reasons that I'm not a republican is because of the Republican party's sucking up to the far right evangelicals. Now that Obama is doing the same, looks like pretty soon I'll have to quit the Democratic party as well.

    October 26, 2007 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  9. Ace, Grand Rapids, MI

    I must say! I find it appauling how homophobic many African Americans can be. You would think that after all of the hatred and bigotry that they themselves have delt with for hundreds of years that they would have a different perspective. There are times when you would have Black religous leaders say things about gays, jews, hispanics exc exc that didnt sould all that different that what you would hear from a White neo-nazi.

    October 26, 2007 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  10. Rev. Chuck Currie, Portland, Oregon

    Senator Obama has the kind of values we need in the White House. I'm proud of him for inviting Rev. Andy Sidden to appear at the concerts.

    Rev. Chuck Currie

    October 26, 2007 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  11. Sue Madison, Wisconsin

    Obama is doing the right thing. It is not something that the gospel singer said wrong, it is the problem with those who are gays. They can't stand any other people to make an oppion about something they have personally experenced. It is sad.

    October 26, 2007 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  12. Eric

    We talk about wanting change – a different kind of politics – but we refuse to let it happen. Heaven forbid we allow a political official to let anybody in his/her midsts who disagrees with that politicians rhetoric. Here we have a guy willing to engage the other side in dialog and we trounce on him for associating with the other side. This is exactly what is wrong with US politics. We only accept those who surround themselves with "yes men" and then we wonder why the fight continues. Good for Barack for listening to anti-gay reasoning even though he disagrees with the rational.

    October 26, 2007 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  13. Bubba, Swainsboro GA

    Too harsh – he probably just told someone to sign up some gospel singers and had no idea one of them had issues.

    October 26, 2007 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  14. Robert, Clayton, NC

    Sure seems queer to me that the gays seem to think it is okay to discriminate against everyone except the gays. I wish Obama had stood up to them instead of pandering. Obama may not think it is okay to discriminate against the gays, but if he is a professing Chistian, then he has taken a stance that homosexuality is a sin. The Bible is very clear. Stand tall or sit down.

    October 26, 2007 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  15. Larry B. Orlando Florida

    I heard on the radio that the Obama campaign has decided to balance this controversy out by allowing a gay minister to speak. To me this is unimaginable. That is like inviting a nazi and saying you are balancing it out by inviting a Rabi or a KKK member and balancing it out with a NAACP member. Can't anyone see the illogic in this? If this is how this man thinks I don't think he is qualified for my vote.

    October 26, 2007 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  16. HH, Pittsburgh, PA

    Nothing is nastier than biting a hand offered in friendship. Now who's the bigots?

    October 26, 2007 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  17. Connie, Tn.

    This is an example of what happens when you try to be tolerant of all people. Obama would have the best chance of bringing people together than any other candidate. This is much more important than whether he has ever meet a payroll or run a budget. Our current "leader" knows nothing about balancing a budget.

    October 26, 2007 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  18. Steve , Sumter, SC

    Laura in Tulsa,

    They keeep spouting about change because after their tax and spend ideas, that is all you will have left in your pocket!

    October 26, 2007 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  19. Ace, Grand Rapids, MI

    Plus as a gay male myself trust me! You cannot change your orientation. You can choose to deny it and to live in the closet but ultimately its something your born with. Its part of your genetics. I would not be surprised if Rev McClurkin ended up in a Rev Ted Haggard like scandal.

    October 26, 2007 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  20. Sarah

    Let's see a story about the support that Hillary has from the anti-gay religious leaders in her camp and on her payroll.

    Maybe you could do a story about South Carolina Senator Darrell Jackson, who denounces homosexuality and is paid $10 K per month to consult on the Clinton campaign.

    Or maybe you could do a story about Reverend Mayberry of California, who endorsed Hillary, but also compares homosexuality to "thievery".

    Maybe we could ignore the fact that the Obama campaign is working with leaders in both the religious and LGBT communities, in hopes to bring them together and begin to resolve the huge divide that has stood between them forever.

    A president who brings people together to resolve longstanding differences and diffuse hate? What a novel idea.

    October 26, 2007 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  21. Spencer Priest, San Diego, CA

    Why should Obama kick McClurkin off the tour? Any person he might pick to play would have some views that differentiated from that of the Obama campaign; does that mean that anyone who doesn't completely fall in line with Obama's political views should be isolated?

    Also–it's important to note that McClurkin does not possess the "homophobia" to which Obama refers. Homophobia is "fear or antipathy" towards homosexuals. McClurkin, himself once a homosexual, is not afraid or hostile toward homosexuals; he simply has convictions that differ from those of homosexuals and is entitled to have them.

    October 26, 2007 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  22. Ren, Orlando,Fl

    Experience is overated. How many great presidents had loads of experience? How many horrible ones have had loads of experience? Great leaders are great leaders. Period. Everyone will mis-step...its how they recover that's worth watching as a true judge of their leadership ability and potential. Let's see how Obama fares in this one....

    October 26, 2007 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  23. Jack Baltimore, Maryland

    ...bigotry is bigotry...Mr. Obama great political leaders stand up for what is right...Mr. McClurkin's views are not supported in fact or science and they are divisive...they are not, in fact, what the Democratic Party stands for...

    October 26, 2007 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  24. Jim Bob South Carolina

    Them gay atheists needs to go to the land of fire and brimstone, where they belong. I believe gays were sent by the Devil to test the piety of men. Every time you vote democrat, you lose a part of your soul to satan, and every time you say it is ok to be gay, you are just giving into the lies of demons.

    October 26, 2007 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  25. hmmm...OKLAHOMA

    I think that Barack keeping Donnie in the line-up proves that he is not your typical politician that will "say anything" to get elected. Despite criticism from the gay community (which he hopes to win their votes), he is keeping someone opposed to homosexuality in the concert. On the other hand, he has added someone who is not only is an advocate of homosexuality...but openly participates in it. I believe that these are necessary steps to unite a divided America in order for us to stand and unanimously face our attackers who have manifested on the outside.

    I was waiting for his response as soon as this issue came to light, and I am certainly happy that he is taking the high road on this one. Good call by the Obama campaign.

    October 26, 2007 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
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