Long before he was elected to represent Missouri’s 5th Congressional District or selected as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) was ministering to souls as a United Methodist pastor in Kansas City, Mo.
This weekend, Cleaver will need his seminary education to wrestle with theological as well as political questions from clergy across the country who will be in town for the annual Congressional Black Caucus Prayer Breakfast, part of the 42nd Congressional Black Caucus annual legislative conference, which began in the District on Wednesday.
While several thousand people are expected to attend the breakfast at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, there will be a much smaller meeting of African American pastors and members of Congress afterward.
Once again, there will be strategizing about how to turn out the black vote for President Obama. But unlike four years ago, Cleaver acknowledges, the CBC members will have the challenge of encouraging many pastors to support a president who holds views contrary to their own on the issue of same-sex marriage.
“I have traveled around the country, and I have run into ministers who strongly disagree with the president,” Cleaver said. But he added that despite the views expressed by some black Christians, sitting out the election should not be an option.
“Any person who decides to stay at home is voting for Mitt Romney, because it is the goal of the right wing to discourage people of color from voting, and we have too many people in graves who paved the way for us to vote to do that,” Cleaver said.
The Rev. Derek McCoy, chairman of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, plans to be at the prayer breakfast.
“How can we stand collectively as ministers of the gospel and debunk a basic tenet of theology in terms of marriage?” said McCoy, whose organization is working to defeat Maryland's same-sex marriage law, which is a referendum on the November ballot.
“If you want to vote for the president, vote for the president, but pastors should not be changing their theology just to give the president a pass on this issue,” McCoy said. “The breakdown of the family is a tragic reality in the black community, and you cannot separate the fundamental concept of the family being led by one man and one woman.”
But those who support same-sex marriage will be there to have their say, too.
The Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of the Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton and a supporter of same-sex marriage, will speak at the meeting along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. The event is being led by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). All of the men have expressed support for same-sex marriage.
Coates will appear at a news conference at the National Press Club on Friday to dispel what he calls a “myth that all African American pastors oppose the idea of marriage equality” and to encourage black voters to support Maryland’s same-sex marriage law.
“People have a right to their beliefs, but it establishes a dangerous precedent to base matters of public policy on one’s personal theology and preferences,” said Coates, who testified along with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in support of the Marriage Equality Bill.
“The issue of protecting all Americans under the law is an important civil right,” Coates said. “As a matter of the separation of church and state, we don’t have the right to impose our beliefs on others.”
Last week, Cleaver was supposed to debate Bishop Harry Jackson, a Bowie pastor who has traveled across the country opposing same-sex marriage legislation. The event at Howard University was going to be aired on Sirius XM radio and hosted by journalist Joe Madison, but Jackson canceled at the last minute because of what he called a scheduling conflict.
Jackson says he isn’t surprised that the ministers who support the Maryland bill are rallying. “After their defeat in North Carolina, they have something to prove,” Jackson said. In May, voters approved an amendment to that state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage.
But Cleaver said pastors such as Bishop Jackson need to consider whether their judgmental attitude is in keeping with the Bible’s teachings.
“Ministers are condemning President Obama for having made a statement, not policy,” Cleaver said. “He made a statement about how he feels about same-sex marriage. “
The Bible proclaims that all human beings are sinners, but “all of a sudden we want to categorize sin,” Cleaver said.