Rev. Otis Moss III on Gay Marriage
'We Should Support the Rights of All'
The Rev. Otis Moss III speaks at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (2008 photo).
SPIEGEL: When President Obama recently declared his support for gay marriage, there was an outcry within the black community. Some black pastors, amongst them pastors from the Baptist Convention, heavily criticized Obama. You took a strong stance in defense of the president's decision and wrote a letter criticizing the black pastors that had attacked Obama. What made you take a stand?
Moss: Well, firstly, the position that I am taking was in response to the ministers who specifically said that they were not going to support the president. I was really responding to a certain group of ministers who were going to pull back and encourage people not to vote. I was saying that we should be supportive of the president and supportive of rights of all in a pluralistic democracy that we're called to love. And we live our faith; we don't legislate our faith. The second factor was my belief that the president should be the president of the United States, not necessarily the president of the Baptist Convention.
SPIEGEL: Is there anything in scripture that guided you to supporting gay marriage?
Moss: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish." (Editor's note: John 3:16)
SPIEGEL: What kind of a reaction did your letter evoke from your community and from other pastors?
Moss: Extreme support from the church. I've been flooded with letters, saying things like: "We are proud of you. Thank you for articulating what I could not articulate." My primary job was to give people language, so that when they are approached by people, they could say that there is a different spelling between "rights" and "rites" -- in other words, civic legislators and ecclesiastical councils have different responsibilities -- and that it is not same-gender relationships that are destroying marriage. What is actually destroying marriage is high unemployment, incarceration, a lack of education and ministers living in contradiction where they speak about holiness on one side but yet are living in adultery on the other.
SPIEGEL: How much does religion influence the black vote?
Moss: I think it has an influence. Ever since the civil rights movement, the black church has always encouraged people to utilize their voting right, which is a right that was fought for. And the primary statement that Jesus makes is that the spirit has to preach the good news to the poor. So that statement has always resonated within the hearts of the black church to say that we are called to speak up for the poor, for those who are oppressed.
SPIEGEL: But now they have an issue with gay marriage. If religion and the teachings of the Bible are so important to blacks, why don't they vote Republican more often?
Moss: Part of the reason is that there are really only two positions the Republican Party has taken that the more conservative clergy have picked up, those being the issues of gay marriage and abortion. But when you look at the Republican agenda, it's an agenda that is anti-education, anti-union, anti-environment, anti-prison reform and anti-economic reform. Many people are very sophisticated, and they say, "Well, wait a minute. You want us to focus on very personal issues, whether someone receives an abortion or whether someone chooses to get married, which has no effect on someone economically. It has no effect on the school system. It has no effect on the environment." And so many African Americans are saying, "Wait a minute. I know the policies of the Republican Party affect my school system. They affect my job. They affect the environment. They affect the corporations that are allowed to literally get away with robbery." These other issues of abortion and gay marriage pale in comparison to what Enron did in wiping out thousands of jobs or what Wall Street did in putting 50 million people out of work.
SPIEGEL: Given the fact that so many African Americans are still struggling economically, how is it possible that the largest outcry in the black community thus far in Obama's four years in office was in response to this gay marriage issue?
Moss: It wasn't an outcry in the community. It was an outcry among pastors. The congregation didn't have an outcry.
SPIEGEL: But the word of their pastor counts. And there is a reason why you reacted to their criticism so forcefully. What is their problem with gay marriage?
Moss: Many black pastors have been educated in evangelical schools. Their schooling taught them that you have to stand up against this particular position. The congregations, however, kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, "We're going to go out there and support. Why are you taking that position?" Many people in the pews are saying, "Wait a minute. I have a child who is gay. I know someone who died of HIV, which has ravaged our community," and so you have a greater sophistication in the pew than you do in the pulpit.
SPIEGEL: Blacks appear to have a bigger problem with homosexuality than white Americans. Why?
Moss: I know that there's some homophobia within our community, but there's some strong homophobia throughout the whole of American society as well, particularly throughout the South to a degree, whether white or black. And since many of us migrated from the South, that could be a strong connection along those lines, but I don't have any scholarship to support that. But I would not say that we are necessarily more homophobic than any other community. I think that questions about the survival of the black community come about because of the context in America where we are constantly vocal about things such as fatherhood, about reproduction, about the continuation of the community. It becomes very sensitive because of the historical context.