The Gospel According to Obama

During a stop in Tennessee last year, Barack Obama met with a group of black ministers. Among the topics they discussed: gay marriage, which Obama opposes, like most of his audience that day. But Obama challenged the preachers to stop exploiting the issue as a political wedge. "If there's a pastor here who can point out a marriage that has been broken up as a consequence of seeing two men or two women holding hands, then you should tell me," Obama said, "because I haven't seen any evidence of it."

Obama recounted the story in August at a Los Angeles debate on gay and lesbian issues, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign. But it did him little good last week as the HRC and several bloggers blasted him for inviting gospel singer Donnie McClurkin to headline a campaign event in South Carolina, where Obama is engaged in a close fight with Hillary Clinton for black voters. McClurkin sang at Bill Clinton's 1992 convention and President Bush's in 2004. But he's also reviled in the gay community for his belief that homosexuality can be conquered with faith.

The dispute highlights the tension between two powerful groups inside the Democratic Party: African-American churches and gay-rights groups. Below the radar, Clinton officials tried to spin the McClurkin fight as a gaffe by Obama—even though Clinton has also received support from black preachers who oppose homosexuality and gay marriage, including Oakland, Calif., minister the Rev. Harold Mayberry, who has compared homosexuality to "thievery." Obama tried to defuse the issue by inviting an openly gay pastor from South Carolina, Andy Sidden, to speak at the gospel concert. Reverend Sidden, though, is also white.