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. Tito

    Now anyone who disagrees with the gay life style is a bigot. I love how the liberal media continues to perpetuate the notion that being against sinful behavior makes one a homo-phobe. I guess that makes lots of people murder-phobes and stealing-phobes too.

    October 26, 2007 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  2. pat huntington ny

    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.

    Posted By Jim Bob South Carolina : October 26, 2007 2:22 pm
    Hey Jim Bob, if your for real with that post, it must be way hot down there with all that fire and brim stone! Get a life! Gays are a creation of God, and a blessing to this Earth...for without us, there'd be no arts, fashion, and good sense.

    October 26, 2007 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  3. Jim McElwain, Kansas City, Missouri

    It sounds to me like McClurkin speaks for himself. All Obama has to do is state how his own views differ from McClurkin and that should be the end of it.

    It's unfortunate that politics often devolves these days into purging and purification rituals. People just need to state their views and move on - no need to kick people out in order to make your point.

    October 26, 2007 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  4. Chris, FL

    I don't know about from the devil, but I can't understand how homosexual guys think guys are sexy. What is it about a dude that makes a homosexual dude turned on?

    October 26, 2007 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  5. Jim Bremer

    Barack Hussein Obama and homosexuality.

    Wonder what the Koran has to say about it.

    October 26, 2007 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  6. J.Icea

    Obama is a politician first second and third. You can't serve two masters. You will love one and hate the other. He will have to give an account for his compromise of the truth of God and that is like all of us sinners - gays need redemption from their sexual immorality and perversion.

    October 26, 2007 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  7. Jim Dallas Texas

    As a gay person, Obama has just ensured that Hillary will get my vote. I don't understand how Obama can say homosexuality is not a choice and then have Donnie McClurkin stump for him. Who's going to stump for him next, the KKK?

    October 26, 2007 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  8. Seam, Philly PA

    Hey David, New York, NY: Obama never had your vote. It amazes me how some people flip flop their support of candidates. If this issue changed your mind about voting for someone, then I guess you will not be voting for anyone.

    October 26, 2007 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  9. Dave, Cheverly, MD

    Listen up folks!

    You can please Some of the people Some of the time, but you can’t please ALL of the people All of the time”. Obama is CORRECT in attempting to allow his event to bring folks who do not think the same way on a top. To the LGBT Community. There is a time to fight issues, BUT this is not the time. This is an opportunity for the LGBT Community to practice what IT Preaches, TOLERANCE for individuals who have different views. The LGBT Community cannot require other Groups, Political Parties or individuals to allow the LGBT Community to have a seat at the table. But yet the LGBT Community wishes to deny others that same right. ALL should go and maybe get something spiritual and positive out of the event.

    October 26, 2007 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  10. josh

    You mean Obama in Anti-gay? Now I might vote for him!

    October 26, 2007 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  11. T. Richard Los Angeles, CA

    40+ years & Nothing Has Changed

    I was stationed in Montgomery, AL during MLK's bus rides. The feeling then among the whites was "If God wanted us to ...(whatever).. with colored people, He'd would have made us the same color"

    We're now in another century & We're still proclaiming to know God's
    thoughts and using it to discriminate against another minority group.

    the difference this time is that the "Discriminatees" of the 20th Century are the "Discriminators" of 21st.

    October 26, 2007 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  12. David, Dallas Tx

    The last thing we need is another president who sees a complex world in simplistic, black and white terms.

    Black and white thinking is a sign of unexceptional intelligence. Highly intelligent people can grasp complex concepts and tend to have more complex world-views.

    I'm glad Barak sees opportunities to bring disparate groups together, rather than having a simplistic one-or-the-other view. Only a person with that type of thinking has any chance of bringing real change to Washington.

    October 26, 2007 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  13. Concerned

    Hey Ace:

    You must so stupid to say something like "all african americans are homophobic against gays..."

    You're a complete nutter. But I must say that I am not surprised. I've heard this before from the white gay community. Y'all never change; straight or gay. Your hate for people of all color is immense. It's palpable...one can almost taste it.

    October 26, 2007 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  14. Rob Hartford CT

    Jim, i think you need to seek therapy

    October 26, 2007 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  15. Lance Los Angeles, CA

    Here in lies the biggest problem with our society today. Everyone must be labeled some how. Also, if you are not for me you are against me. There is no way any candidate can appeal to every special interest group. People need to decide what is best for the majority and not their own special interests. They also need to quit condemning those who do not think like them. I think that is what this country was founded on. The last 40 years of politics STINK.

    October 26, 2007 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  16. Monte Brown, New York, NY

    As a black man, I am insulted by Obama’s attempt to woo black people by going to black churches and preaching about change. Obama is playing politics. A black American who understands the change we NEED would not play politics with black Americans. A black American who speaks of change would know that whenever the reactionaries are in power, the black poor lose the most. Black people have 7.7 percent unemployed, which is higher than the national percentage. We are no more prone to criminal behavior than whites yet we get harsher penalties and the police just can’t stay out of our faces. No, we are all not poor, but in the eyes of law enforcement it just doesn’t matter. We need radical change, and a brother who wants our votes better be like W.E.B. Dubois and not like Booker T. Washington. A brother who wants the black vote better talk about how a conservative, right wing Supreme Court is only to our detriment. A brother who wants the black vote should sound radical in my opinion for as Malcolm once said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

    The change we NEED is within our reach. We must be smart at achieving the right change. We must first BEAT THE REPUBLICANS who smile in our faces and stab us in the backs. We then should teach our children to be tolerant of others and that being smart and learning science is not gay. Many poor black kids know the lyrics to rap music more than they know the English language. If Obama was more radical I might have considered supporting him. I’ll stick with Hillary Clinton because her candidacy has already been deemed radical by design. The right wingers are firing at Hillary because they see the end of their ideology fast approaching. That is the change we NEED. When Hillary speaks to black people she does not pander to them with false promises and she tells them of the perils that face them and what government can do to help.

    Eventually we will see the day when the education gap is closed. We will see the day when jobs are more abundant and institutional racism is gone. We will see the day when there are more minority police officers in minority communities and the prison population will not consist of mostly black men, and when a brother don’t have to cop a plea. I don’t see this happening in an Obama Administration. Let's just stick with Hillary.

    October 26, 2007 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  17. Wesley, Dallas, TX

    Mr. Obama is not confused and I don't believe he is "sucking up" to far right evangelicals. He stands up for the things he believes in. The problem with politics today is that most Republicans alienate themselves from anyone who isn't Christian and Democrats act like religion isn't a real issue and are afraid of confronting it as such and therefore alienate themselves from people of faith. I don't believe in abortion, but after watching some of Barack's speeches, for the first time I understand why someone with faith like Barack would vote for the right to chose. Associating himself with Mr. McClurkin isn't alienating Mr. Obama from gay rights activists because he associates himself with them too. He is just proving once more to me that he is not afraid of bringing two groups of people with two extremely different ideas into dialogue with each other to actually get things accomplished in this country.

    October 26, 2007 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  18. Les, Chesapeake, VA

    Mr. McClurkin spoke from his heart in stating what he believes was true. Personally, I disagree with that blanket statement however, I do believe that that is one of however many reasons (e.g., medical, anatomical, mental, etc.). He never once pronounced his view on homosexuality as emperical evidence. Yet, here we stand, a fractured unity of people all because of ones beliefs or viewpoint. For anyone to come out and call McClurkin an 'anti-gay bigot' is truly misguided and hateful. We are not all going to get along; that's a given. However, everyone should have the opportunity to express what they believe however uncomfortable it may be. I don't profess to know much about Mr. Obama, but it does seem that he truly cares about people. I have seen and been witness to the political lies that have overwhelmed our great nation; and to this day, people don't seem to remember the past, nor do their research into the present. Politicians, for the most part, are stage actors. They play to the theatre, avoiding controversy at all costs. I would rather walk a path knowing who is in front, beside and behind me, rather than amongst those who only tell you what you want to hear just for their own devious and manipulating agenda; your vote. As a people, Americans need to get their act together. The divisiveness in this country is unforgiving. We need to pray for our leaders and future leaders that they may have the courage, knowledge, commitment and discipline to confront and purge the evil that permeates this land.

    October 26, 2007 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  19. Sam, Lincoln, Nebraska

    It seems to me that every special interest group has this "all or nothing" mentality these days when it comes to political campaigns. The gay community is upset with Barack Obama because one person, Donnie McClurkin, is on record as denouncing homosexuality. Similarly, the evangelicals have their panties in a bunch because none of the Republican presidential hopefuls are completely in lockstep with their myopic world view.

    There used to be this thing called concensus building and people like Barack Obama apparently still believe in it. It's unfortunate that the various gay and Christian activist groups haven't figured that out yet.

    October 26, 2007 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  20. Mike S., New Orleans, Louisiana

    I think the lesson every candidate learned from the two Bush presidential campaigns is this:
    "Must pander to religious fanatics...
    Must pander to religious fanatics...
    Must pander to religious fanatics...
    Must pander to religious fanatics..."

    October 26, 2007 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  21. Leah, Indianapolis, IN

    Wow... for a country that tries to promote tolerance, why can't we let someone who has a different opinion than us speak? If I were gay and wanting to live in a more tolerant society, where freedom was embraced, I would be HAPPY that someone was questioning what I believed. We only grow when we are questioned, and as long as no one is being harmed in this matter, who cares?
    I know plenty of women and men who have been gay and then decided that their faith path led them away from that lifestyle and some became celibate and other went straight. You each live your own life.... Obama will never please everyone, if he did... he would be a flip-flopping fish of a man that I would never vote for.

    October 26, 2007 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  22. Kate, Aurora CO

    Change for me involves taking religion out of politics. I am so sick of politians touting religion as part of their political career. Don't tell me what God you pray to, tell me what you plan on doing about the mess in Iraq. Don't tell me what church you go to, tell me you will be there when a national emergency such as Katrina hits our nation. Don't tell me about your family values, tell me what you plan on doing about the public education system in this country or the number of children in welfare homes. Don't tell me about your praying to God before going to war, tell me you will NEVER go to war unless all intelligence has been cleared and it is the last possible solution. Leave religion out of it.

    October 26, 2007 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  23. Yvette, Atlanta GA

    In reading some of the comments I'm at a loss. I don't understand what one man's testimony and belief system–that homosexuality is a choice translates into he hates gays. I'm sure he doesn't hate gays–acknowledging that he in fact was involved with homosexuality I would think he has a deeper understanding of the lifestyle than most. He just doesn't believe you are born that way. Does he not have the right to feel that way any more than a gay person has the right to claim it isn't a choice but a circumstance of birth. How can you silence a gospel singer without fairly silencing the GLBT community? Its this constant ridiculous battle of "I don't want to hear your views" NO–"I want to take away your right to have a view." I feel the GLBT community is hypocritical. They march and state thier views, villify anyone who disagrees. What is that?

    October 26, 2007 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  24. Uby, New York, NY

    I wonder what the fuss is about Donnie McClurkin's comments. The last time I checked he was an American with the right to free speech. If he believes that Homosexuality is a choice then so be it! – That's his opinion, and so what??? If some tells me that being Hetersexual is a choice, I wouldn't care the least.

    October 26, 2007 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  25. Anna, Rockwall, TX

    I hope Barak doesn't cower under the pressure. Tolerance for the gay agenda is what is sending our country down the tubes morally. If someone like Rev. McClurkin doesn't speak out about what God clearly says, he's doing a grave disservice to his fellow man.

    October 26, 2007 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
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