The Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) was launched in the Spring of 2013, building upon five years of research, analysis, network development and strategic planning, to address major shifts within society at large—and black communities, in particular—that have taken place during the same period of time.
The earliest stage of this work began in with an Arcus Foundation-funded study of black churches— which polled over 100 members of black churches, clergy and lay, women and men, across the nation—in the wake of the 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California. Subsequently, the process that led to the Center’s launch unfolded in four distinct stages of work: 1) A public forum at Union Theological Seminary followed by a day-long dialogue (both collaboratively sponsored by Arcus and Columbia University in July of 2010) featuring an interdisciplinary roster of fifteen scholars, each of whom is contributing to an anthology in the works, tentatively titled, The Sexual Politics of Black Churches. 2) A six-month planning stage to design and recruit participants for a roundtable of black clergy, scholars and community leaders (“Roundtable on the Sexual Politics of Black Churches”), 3) Three convenings of the Roundtable over a period of eighteen months, during which a comprehensive review of “the field” (including both organizational/activist work and academic/popular literature and debates) was produced.
Across these stages, almost fifty different people formally contributed to a document that maps trajectories for advancing more generative conversations about sexuality within, and in relationship to, black religious institutions and the communities they serve. In every stage the project has modeled its commitment to the diversity and difference (i.e. race, class, sexual orientation/gender identity and expression, age, clergy/lay, Academy/Church/Community; as well as denominations, theologies, regions, etc.) that is apparent within black church traditions. This process of collaborative deliberation was unique in that it included, in addition to scholars and activists, a network of black church leaders (i.e. the Roundtable) who spanned the historic black denominations, the Protestant mainline, and black LGBTQ faith communities that have long been on the front lines working for healing and justice for black LGBTQ people, within both black churches and communities and majority white LGBTQ churches, as well as in the broader society. CARSS embraces the particular opportunities presented by recent developments at the same as it recognizes, honors and seeks to learn from the sacrifices that continue to be made by a longer tradition of pro-LGBTQ black church activism that has helped to achieve many of the gains evident in the contemporary context. Indeed, the conversational and collaborative model that is the core of the CARSS’s work is based on a commitment to dialogues that purposefully span the diversity of black church traditions, and specifically place in conversation “straight” and LGBTQ black religious and community leaders (clergy and lay). This model both informed the design of the Roundtable, took deeper form during its deliberations, and it will remain central both to CARSS’s organizational infrastructure and programmatic work.
During the same window of time that the Black Church Strategy was produced, the nation witnessed marriage equality achieved in several states, including Washington, D.C. (2009) and Maryland (2012). In both of these cases a small number of black clergy played a decisive leadership role. Along the way the Obama administration ended “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” in the military, and determined that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. Moreover, within the span of a couple of days in May of 2012, President Obama affirmed same-sex marriage (which was seen to have a major impact on African American opinions on the issue) and voters passed Amendment One in North Carolina. Additionally, a number of prominent black LGBTQ activists questioned whether marriage was the most pressing issue in the communities they represent and serve.
Indeed, the highs and lows in recent struggles for the full inclusion and civil protection of LGBTQ persons and communities in American society highlight progress made even as they reveal the complexities of the challenges that remain. For instance, the participation of African American churches (clergy, in particular) in these contests helps to clarify opportunities for future work in both black churches and the communities they serve, more broadly. While a few prominent black clergy stepped up to affirm civil marriage as a legal right for same-sex couples, most stopped short of endorsing LGBTQ equality on theological or moral grounds. One might ask, in this case, how are the relationships between religious belief and practice, public deliberations and political participation to be understood? As the Supreme Court has recently ruled against DOMA and Proposition Eight— even as it supported undoing parts of the Voting Rights Act and raised questions about the relevance of race-based affirmative action—debates about the connections between LGBTQ equality and racial justice in the present moment both confirm the significance of, and set the stage for, the agenda of research, education and public engagement that CARSS will advance.
The developments of the past four years present a major opportunity for engaging with churches and communities, as many Americans—including black Christians (clergy and lay)—are seeking to make sense of an evolving social order that appears to be moving to more fully embrace diverse sexualities. Of course, there is no single solution or one simple way forward. However, CARSS is well positioned to play a leadership role within academia and with black churches and communities (and in American public life, more generally) in a number of ways. CARSS will do this by advancing cutting edge research and writing, developing more nuanced narratives on sexuality, establishing collaborative networks, and facilitating safe, generative and inclusive conversations. All of these efforts will provide language and structures for black churches and communities to grow and change as they sort through a shifting cultural landscape, at the same time that they position CARSS to contribute in novel ways to current scholarly debates.