According to data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 23 percent of Mississippians belong to historically black, Protestant churches. The pastors talked about the tension between political liberalism and social conservatism among black Christians, and about Obama's stance on hot-button social issues like homosexuality and abortion.
Four of those pastors reconvened recently to reflect upon Obama's first three-plus months in office as well as to discuss broader topics involving race, politics and Christian teaching.
Obama's prowess as a speaker helped vault him to victory in November and in the first months of his administration there's been much ado about what he has said or is going to say in public.
Speaking in Turkey in early April, Obama said unequivocally that the United States is not at war with Islam. While moderates across the political and theological spectrum have applauded Obama's words, some on the right feel that he seemed to be apologizing for the Bush administration's handling of the subject. They've pointed out that the U.S. never claimed to be at war with Islam, a point that Bush stated repeatedly, and therefore Obama's comments were unnecessary and confusing.
Bishop Clarence Parks of Temple of Compassion and Deliverance in Tupelo said the president was simply clarifying a misconception that, right or wrong, is widespread.
"I think that a lot of the world, particularly a lot of the Muslim world, does think that we're at war with Islam," said Parks.
The Rev. Robert Jamison, pastor of People's Community Baptist Church in Tupelo and president of the Lee County NAACP, said he's encouraged by the president's conciliatory tone and believes it's consistent with Christian faith.
"I really feel the man is following what the gospel says," said Jamison. "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
The Rev. Jimmy Barnes, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Tupelo, said he's glad to see Obama following through with his campaign promise to favor dialogue over inflexibility, even when the other party holds a radically different belief.
"He's letting them know this is not a holy war," said Barnes. "The world is made up of people of other religions and we have to come to terms with that. If we're going to be a force and a leader in the world we're going to have to learn to relate."
The Rev. James Hull, a former Muslim and now a Baptist minister, added, "Jesus sat down with everybody, man. Obama is just trying to follow the Christian ethos and that's about the love walk. The love walk has to be inclusive, not exclusive."
Hard-liners on both sides have claimed that because Christianity and Islam make absolute claims on the truth, the two religions can't have equal, authentic dialogue. Hull said that's untrue.
"Somebody might say that an authentic Christian can't enter into dialogue with Islam," said Hull. "But, the four of us - we - maintain that only an authentic Christian can enter into dialogue with Islam. We have to."
Since March, Christian conservatives, including a number of Catholic bishops, have voiced their objection to the University of Notre Dame inviting Obama to speak at its May commencement and awarding him an honorary degree. They've objected to what they see as an inherent contradiction between a pro-choice figure being honored by a college whose founding religion categorically condemns abortion. Obama has loosened federal funds for abortion and stem-cell research and has vowed to sign into law the Freedom of Choice Act.
However, Barnes, Hull, Jamison and Parks are all convinced that abortion isn't the real issue. "I'm not going to bite my tongue on this one," said Hull. "This is about race, pure and simple."
"Didn't they invite Bush to speak?" Parks asked, referring to the fact that President George W. Bush became the fifth sitting president to speak at Notre Dame's commencement in 2001.
"Doesn't the Catholic Church oppose the death penalty?" Hull asked. "And, where was the outcry against Bush speaking then?" As governor of Texas Bush oversaw 131 executions, far more than any other state.
"Jesus said 'I came that ye might have life,'" said Hull. "The black church believes in life, man. You can't do the New Testament here and the Old Testament there. We should be about preserving and honoring life. Taking life is taking life, whether it be an abortion, or executing a criminal, or on the fields of Baghdad."
Welcoming the marginalized
The presidential election highlighted a curious tension within the black church, namely that blacks tend to be politically liberal but socially conservative. The fact that black voters helped defeat proposed legislation legalizing gay marriage in four states made national headlines. President Obama's United Church of Christ blesses homosexual unions yet, like the president, stops short of endorsing gay marriage.
The pastors pointed out that blacks tend not to indoctrinate their social views in their religion.
"In the '50s and '60s the word you'd hear in the black community for homosexuals was 'sissy,'" said Hull. "You know where the sissies went to church? With us. With black folk, because we didn't ostracize them. We may not have agreed with what they were doing, but we never made them feel unwelcome."
Hull added, "And, do you know that to this day the sissies have a way of coming to the black church, listening to us preach against homosexuality, and still saying 'Preach it, preacher!' You know what I mean? It's just a dynamic of inclusion, man - love the sinner, hate the sin."
"It's difficult for a black person to ostracize someone else because we've been ostracized throughout our history," said Barnes.
As evidenced by nationwide "tea parties" like the one in Tupelo on April 15, many conservatives feel the U.S. government has embarked upon a path of exorbitant spending and taxation. Since Obama took office Congress passed a nearly $800 billion stimulus package and many see the president's promise to push for universal health care as harbinger of the dreaded big government welfare state.
However, the pastors said Obama's proposed reforms aren't welfare but the fruit of his Christian faith.
"Christians should be about the business of caring for the poor," said Hull. "Words like 'welfare state' are code words for saying, 'He's going to take care of black folk.'"
The issue of poverty takes on particular urgency among African-Americans since, according to Pew, 47 percent of the members of historically black churches make less than $30,000 per year.
Citing Jesus' teaching to his disciples in Matt 26: 11, Hull said, "Jesus was showing his disciples that they had to broaden their concern, they had to be about the business of helping the less fortunate."
"That's our harvest," said Parks. "Jesus fed people first, then preached. How can a Christian not be about the business of helping the poor?"
Barnes said that the black church unapologetically preaches a social gospel with emphasis on building the kingdom of God on earth. "It's the church's mission to go out and pull people up," said Barnes. "That's where Obama is coming from."
Hull, along with the other pastors attends Mission Mississippi meetings, an organization that promotes unity in the body of Christ across racial lines. He pointed out that black and white Christians often presume that they can agree on who Jesus was and what he stood for, but that isn't always the case.
"A lot of white Christians see Jesus as the portal to eternal life, to the hereafter," said Hull. Parks added, "We see Jesus as a justifier, as a friend of the oppressed."
"From my pulpit I'm preaching justice and equality, and that tells me we sometimes do have a different perspective on Jesus," said Hull.
Jamison added, "I don't think you've got a life in the hereafter if you don't lead a godly life here, if you're not hungry for justice, if you're not building up the poor. I hear those sermons about heaven. That's fine, but I also hear Job."
The pastors said they're concerned Obama might be taking on too much too fast. "He's not God so we don't need to give him a pass on everything he does," said Hull.
Jamison, however, didn't mind hanging a biblical moniker on the new president. "We really believe that this man is bringing in a new era of American history," said Jamison. "I hear him called Moses Obama, and I know God has often used a man to bring about godly change."
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org