What the Rev. Jesse Jackson Has To Say About Gay Marriage

TIME talks to the Reverend Jesse Jackson about politics, religion and why blacks should support marriage equality

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Yui Mok / PA via AP

Veteran civil rights campaigner the Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks outside the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest at St Paul's Cathedral in London, Dec. 15, 2011.

Some religious leaders are struggling with President Obama’s support for gay marriage but not the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In a statement released shortly after Obama’s announcement Jackson said, “If Dr. King and our civil rights movement have taught us anything, it’s the fundamental principle that all people deserve equal protection under the law. LGBT people deserve equal rights — including marriage equality. Discrimination against one group of people is discrimination against all of us. The State — and the Courts — should not sanction discrimination. We must be consistent in upholding human rights for all human beings.” I spoke to the Reverend about the impact of Obama’s announcement among blacks and the wider community of the faithful.

What do you think about the President taking a progressive stance on marriage equality when some of us are ready to roll with him and some of us are not?

I think the first thing is that the gap between theology and practice is not just in the black community. The issue has failed in 29 states because of the white church. The black church did not alone bear the cultural cross of this tension and transition. Some insist this has been primarily on the backs of black churches, but there are states where hardly any blacks live voting against the amendment.

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The second point is that we live in our faith, whatever our faith beliefs may be, but we live under the law and we can’t have two sets of laws and one set of citizens. We are fighting for equal protection under the law. This decision is gonna free some people, it’s gonna expose the contradictions in other people. We accept the medical treatment of gay doctors. Legal representation of gay lawyers. Judgments of gay judges. The performance of gay and lesbian athletes. We accept the sermon of gay preachers. We accept the bloodshed on the battlefield of gay soldiers. We accept family members who are gay. We can’t have whereas, whereas, whereas.

It’s a matter of a cultural adjustment. I think people are going to look at the president in perspective. I mean, Cheney supports gay marriage because his daughter is a lesbian. So both parties have a fair amount of people in support of gay marriage. They’ve eased up and are offering civil unions as an alternative, but civil unions leave people so unprotected by law from insurance to inheritance to sick care, a whole range of legal protections. So it’s like the president has broken the bar. And I think it’s irreversible, really.

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What do we say to those who say the Bible says marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman?

The definition of marriage has evolved over the years. We’ve had several variations of the institution of marriage. Saul had many wives and many concubines. Romney’s great-grandfather had five wives or something like that. The fact is, the Bible says teach love and fidelity.

Do you have a fundamental problem with using the Bible to try to define law?

No. I think that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. I understand that law. You are judged by how you treat the least of these. How you treat the most vulnerable. I understand that. Now people try to make the Bible toxic by trying to justify the oppression of women, which is just like those who sought to justify slavery by use of selective scriptures. For those who abuse the scriptures it won’t stand the test of love and justice. But abusing the scriptures won’t stand the test of love and justice.

I struggle with why some blacks are homophobic and supportive of legalized discrimination when we know what that’s like and how painful that is.

It’s deeply felt so we live out of what we’re taught. We’re taught that being gay is a sin to be overcome through conversion. Without that you go to Hell. If your theology is rooted in that view then there’s not much room to grow. But we engage with gay people every day as we should. I can’t help but say this is the front of the bus. If you get on the bus you have the right to not sit down, you don’t have the right to make me get up. You have the right to not engage in a same-sex relationship. You can get married to someone else, under the law. Your faith may forbid you, which is your right. We live in our faith under the law. The law affords us equal and adequate protection.

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I like that you keep analogizing issues from the civil rights movement to what gays are going through. For some black people that is a very controversial point and they don’t want to have that connection ever made.

Well as far as I understand, we don’t have a monopoly on the principle of civil rights but we have a deep and spiritual example. We have been slaves. You cannot compare the gay struggle with the struggle to end slavery after 246 years. There were some gay slavemasters. Being gay does not get you categorized as three-fifths of a human being. You did not have to march for the right to vote because of laws on the books. But having said that, comparing degrees of pain does not address the logic of the matter. One need not compare slavery with other atrocities. That’s just a different set of issues. Expanding the big tent to include everybody and leave nobody out is the historic struggle.

There’s definitely a hypocrisy in that we accept the gay individuals we know in our lives but don’t want gays as a group to have equal rights.

That’s no different than some of my best friends are black, but blacks, they ain’t quite like us. We’ve seen this before. That’s the gap between theology and practice.

Do you think black ministers will support Obama like they did before? 

I think they will, I hope they will, because if we judge political leaders by the box score, it’s not the home run in one inning that affects the chance to win an election. They have to look at the box score. After all, the battle troops are home from Iraq. He brought the automobile industry back from the brink. There are more people who are cared for insurance-wise than there were before. Gonna have to judge him by his box score. People have to look at his record and look at his opposition.

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