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. Moe, NY

    This religious BS does not belong in politics. Politicans have no right to bring religion into politics...separation of church and state at all costs. Politicans need to stop pandering to religious sects in this country...people need to vote as individuals, not as religious brainwashed robots.

    October 26, 2007 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  2. Brittany New Orleans, LA

    Since when was uniting people who should be voting together because they are universally denied the same civil rights given to straight, white Americans a bad thing? Calling Barak Obama "confused" is ridiculous when all he is trying to do is allow an open forum for various ideas (albeit some are much better than others). Why do the political parties in this country insist on pigeon-holing its populace into a set of prescribed ideas that often have nothing to do with how this government actually operates? I don't know who I'm voting for, but I do know that it's nice to see someone who is trying to unite voters instead of divide them.

    October 26, 2007 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  3. Ryan, Provo, UT

    I think Obama made the ideal choice by balancing the perspective rather than breaking ties with McClurkin. I personally don't agree with McClurkin's statements, but this idea that we should fight to keep people with viewpoints different from ours from expressing themselves is really terrible and needs to stop.

    I mean, he's probably not even going to be speaking on gay issues. What, just because he once made a statement that these groups don't personally agree with means that he should never have a public voice again? We have to be very careful to not let our penchant for progressivism and political correctness become fascism.

    We can't heal the divide and the hatred in this country until we have dialog and understanding. Obama seems to me to be the only candidate right now whose really promoting that.

    October 26, 2007 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  4. Becky, Euless, TX

    This is the Problem with Americans, They preach freedon of speach, but are not ready to deal when that freedom is excercised, if america needs to retains its long lost Glory, then Obama is the Man,for the Job, otherwise Please Hurry up and Get Mrs Clinton in Office and it will be 10 yrs a go re-lived all over again, my 2cents

    October 26, 2007 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  5. MarcAnthony, Monroe, GA

    I wish people wouldn't look at the charisma of politicians and focus instead on qualifications.
    Posted By Laura – Tulsa OK : October 26, 2007 1:58 pm

    Oh really Laura; like the current occupant in the White House? And please, don't give me that nonsense that he was a Governor of a large state (Texas). Everyone knows that the executive there is legislatively 'weak', as set up by their state constitution.

    Was Bob Dole ever an 'executive'?

    October 26, 2007 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  6. seth, Minneapolis, MN

    So he tries to do something positive and open up dialogue about some of these issues like religion, tolerance, and sexual orientation, and everyone jumps on him. The special interest groups in both parties are what's making politics such a mess. Obama is making progress for tolerance and faith, but they aren't happy unless he aligns exactly with their agenda. Well if I wanted more of the same old democrat I'd just vote for Hillary or Edwards.

    October 26, 2007 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  7. Jon Heron, Union Beach, NJ

    I am gay, and I am deeply disappointed that the "gay community", such as it is, is fighting this fight. Is there any question that Obama as president would be a friend to GLBT people? Do we think that he can only be OUR friend and nobody else's?

    October 26, 2007 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  8. Ace, Grand Rapids, MI

    (Rolls eyes at Jim Bob's wacked out and laughable comments!)

    October 26, 2007 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  9. Jon Heron, Union Beach, NJ

    I am gay, and I am deeply disappointed that the "gay community", such as it is, is fighting this fight. Is there any question that Obama as president would be a friend to GLBT people? Do we think that he can only be OUR friend and nobody else's? What will his friendship mean to us if he doesn't become President? And what will it mean to him if we make it every more difficult for him to achieve the office.

    You may say that the time has come to stop pandering to the bigots, but as a 60 year old, I have seen more progress in the last 20 years than ever before. Keep moving forward and we will get our rights, but not by making it harder for our friends.

    October 26, 2007 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  10. Atlanta

    Jim Bob from South Carolina ,

    Oh my god, you vote!? that's a very scary thought – if you want to live in a religous state, move to Iran Jimmy boy!


    October 26, 2007 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  11. Wade, Fayetteville, AR

    Due to the nature of our system, hardly any President has entered office qualified to run such a huge and complex government. If change is truly needed, it will never come from a Washington insider, and must come from a relatively less 'experienced' politician. Governing a State is not comparable to the US Governemt. Our only MBA President seems to best the worst ever in terms of budgeting. To enjoy change, new blood is required.

    October 26, 2007 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  12. Karen

    Obama was going to get my vote. But allowing Donnie McClurkin to perform with him. DON'T THINK SO!


    October 26, 2007 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  13. Lynda West Chester, PA

    Is this Jim Bob from South Carolina for real? I hope that comment is a joke. If it is, it's pretty funny. If not, it's really scary that there are still such hateful, unforgiving people , oh, I mean, good christians, in this world.

    October 26, 2007 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  14. Jon, Plantation, FL

    McClurkin's bold testimony is admirable, especially in light of Obama's unwillingness to make clear their stand on issues such as gay rights. This is a very simple matter for Obama – take a stand (like a true leader would) and either cow-tow to the gay rights advocates (and risk losing conservative support) or stand with those who believe that homosexuality is sexual sin (and risk losing the support of gay advocates). To lead sometimes means making an UN-popular decision... even a child knows that! The only thing that makes this difficult is if Obama has no real stand on the issue, and is wrestling with which scenario would cost him the most voters. This is leadership material? I think NOT.

    October 26, 2007 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  15. Ryan, Provo, UT

    See Larry in Orlando, this kind of wild hyperbole and irrational hatred is exactly what needs to stop.

    I mean equating this guy with the nazis or the KKK just because he personally believes homosexuality is a choice is ludicrous. He claims her personally changed his sexual orientation through religious devotion. Who are we to say he didn't? I don't think that means all homosexuality is a choice but you can certainly see why, from McClurkin's perspective, that would seem reasonable.

    He's not executing people, he's not calling for genocide, he's not calling for persecution, I'm not sure he's even fighting homosexuality politically. He's only expressing his opinion. And you feel that because that opinion is different from yours (and mine) it shouldn't be heard by anyone and its not worth listening to or understanding. Whose the nazi again?

    October 26, 2007 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  16. Larry B. Orlando Florida

    People can refer to the bible all they want but the fact of the matter is we are not a theocracy but have a very clear separation of church and state, so bible arguments won't work in promoting their discrimination. This country is made up of people from many different backgrounds some are religious and some aren't. Those that aren't or believe in a different type of religion should not be forced by law to live under a fundamentalist Christians beliefs. I suggest if people want to live somewhere their government is based on religion then move to Iran. Most would last there for about a day and come running back.

    October 26, 2007 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  17. Julie - Santa Fe, New Mexico

    Obama here, Obama there, Obama everywhere......what does he truely believe in?

    October 26, 2007 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  18. Steve, Indianapolis, IN

    This is ridiculous. The left wing is full of people who love diversity, except for the diversity they disagree with. Makes them no better than the gay-haters. Obama is better than that, and he's showing it here. He says he's inclusive and he means it. Keep it up Obama!

    October 26, 2007 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  19. aaron, rockford

    McClurkin has a commonly held viewpoint that homosexuality isn't genetic, but is rather social. This is the same point of view Freud had, and there are studies that show a correlation between family background and homosexuality. Regardless of whether this is right or wrong, his message is one of faith, reconciliation, and responsible living. He doesn't preach intolerance or hatred; he teaches love, support and kindness. To paint him as a bigot is wrong and narrow, but for a political candidate to try and force him to be quiet goes against the very ideals of free speech and religion.

    October 26, 2007 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  20. Sarah, Oxford, MS

    I think those of us pushing for equal rights should be affronted by this – not just that he has someone who pushes a hateful message participating in his campaign, but that Obama expects us to bow our heads to that hate for the sake of "unity."

    I'm kind of amused at all the comments – both here and elsewhere – disparaging people like Aravosis for calling Obama out on this, as if it wasn't an issue for poor confused Obama until suddenly the rabid gays attacked. It's a story that was told many years ago down here in Mississippi – we didn't have a civil rights or race problem until those "uppity negroes" and Yankee students started causing havoc.

    October 26, 2007 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  21. Tracy P, San Francisco, CA

    What disgusts me is the false outrage. The singer is not "anti-gay" he is just a proponent of one of the two theories of causes of homosexuality. Neither of them have any credibility whatsoever, so the most logical of the two is actually that it is a choice. Until there is genetic evidence that it is not, these drama queens need to focus on really important things, like the guy was man enough to admit his own confusion about his sexuality. Fascism goes both ways, kids.

    October 26, 2007 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  22. Marcus Williams, Kansas City,KS

    More Political Pandering.

    October 26, 2007 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  23. RightyTighty

    If the biased Clinton reporting from CNN doesn't highlight a need to change the back seat approach Democrats have to black issues, nothing will..

    Less Government = More Freedom.
    Vote policy, not personality. Vote Republican 08..

    October 26, 2007 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  24. Josh, Pittsburgh PA

    Interesting story. Horrible writing.

    October 26, 2007 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  25. Kevin H., Honolulu, HI

    As Mr. Obama was raised in Hawaii, a state symbolized by cultural diversity and tolerance, I am shocked that he would associate with someone like Donnie McClurkin who preaches intolerance and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

    October 26, 2007 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
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