Q & A with Rev. Delman Coates, Senior Pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church
The Rev. Delman Coates is Senior Pastor at Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland and shepherd to a flock some 8,000 strong. He is also one of eight African-American faith leaders who President Obama called after declaring his support for same-sex marriage. Rev. Coates talked with Odyssey about what the President said on that call, what impact Obama’s announcement will have in the African-American faith community and about his own personal views on same-sex marriage.
A short audio excerpt is above and the full interview is transcribed here:
ODYSSEY NETWORKS: You were on a call with seven other pastors shortly after President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. Just what did he say to you on that call?
REV. DELMAN COATES: The purpose of the conference call was to explain to pastors how President Obama had arrived at his personal decision to express support for civil marriage protection for gay and lesbian couples. It was clear to those on the call that President Obama had arrived at this conclusion after a great deal of soul-searching and introspection and dialog and conversation with family members and friends.
And so, that’s how the call began – to really help us to understand how he had arrived at this conclusion. President Obama also mentioned that he was sensitive to the fact that there are different religious and theological views about this issue. And talked about our ability to differ without being disagreeable. That we can differ and be respectful of our differences at the same time. This was not a political call, but was merely an opportunity for the President to explain how he had arrived at this decision.
ODYSSEY NETWORKS: African-American faith leaders have been extremely important for President Obama’s campaign, both in 2008 and in the upcoming election. Will black pastors turn away from the political process as a result of Obama’s expression of support for same-sex marriage?
REV. DELMAN COATES: I don’t think so at all. I’m actually encouraged by the responses that I’m hearing from pastors around the country who understand that our call and our challenge is to live in our faith, not to legislate. And the reality is, is that people don’t vote based solely or primarily on theology. People based upon public policy.
And I’m hearing from pastors who are saying, you know, “I may have a personal theological difference on this issue, but I support the broader policy issues that President Obama has advocated for and that President Obama stands for.” And so, I believe that those who are attempting to use this issue for political gain, who view this as a wedge issue – I think they’re making the wrong political calculation.
I mean, when you think about it, in 2008 African-American pastors and Christians turned out in record numbers to support President Obama, even though he stood for, let’s say, a woman’s right to choose – abortion. And they may have personal and theological differences with that policy stance on abortion and yet, they came out in record numbers to support this president. People have done it before. Wedge issue politics don’t work.
And what I’m encouraged about is that I’m hearing from a lot of people who are saying they are highly offended by the notion that African-Americans are a one-issue people. We’re not. African-Americans are concerned about bread and butter issues that all Americans are concerned about. They’re concerned about the economy, decent jobs, health care, preserving social security and Medicare, the right for workers to organize and a whole host of other issues.
So, this is actually going to mobilize in a way that I think is going to put President Obama over the top. I really believe that President Obama has more to gain than anything that he stands to lose.
ODYSSEY NETWORKS: In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 67 percent of people surveyed said they believed Obama’s announcement was made “mostly for political reasons.” Do you think that’s why he did it?
REV. DELMAN COATES: I don’t think that at all because, you know, the political calculus on the surface would suggest don’t touch this issue. And I believe that based upon being around his staff and based upon our conference call last week that he made this decision based upon principle. And I think that that’s what actually encourages a lot of people. We’ve been looking for leadership and President Obama made this decision based upon the values that unite us as American people, values of equality values of freedom. And so it’s clear to me that he made this decision based on principle and not some political calculation.
ODYSSEY NETWORKS: Do you believe the majority of African-Americans will still support President Obama in his bid for reelection?
REV. DELMAN COATES: There’s no doubt about it. I’m very confident that African-Americans will continue to support President Obama. Because at the core of our values is the notion of equal rights for everyone. African-Americans have a long history of fighting for freedom, justice and equality for all.
And when I think about the people in my church family who are doing multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are fighting for freedom abroad, freedom for others – people who may have different theological and religious views than our own – and yet as a nation, as a people we’re spending trillions of dollars and sending our sons and daughters to fight for freedom for others. It’s highly ironic that we’re sending our sons and daughters abroad to fight for freedom and yet some are proposing that we would deny American citizens freedom here at home.
And so, I’m encouraged. I’m encouraged because I believe that African-American pastors and the black church – once the dust settles – people will understand that there’s more that we have in common than we have that divides us. And I think it’s important for people to understand that President Obama’s personal view was a view in support of civil marriage protection.
While there is no piece of legislation on the table, all the civil marriage laws around the country allow religious institutions to maintain their own religious beliefs, doctrines, their practices around this issue. And there’s nothing about civil marriage protection for gays and lesbians that requires religious institutions and churches to acknowledge, affirm or to even perform same-sex marriages. And I think once people understand the issue and once people understand the issue with clarity, they understand that there’s nothing that infringes upon their freedom.
ODYSSEY NETWORKS: What about you? Do your personal views align with President Obama’s on this issue? Do you support same-sex marriage?
REV. DELMAN COATES: Absolutely. I’ve been an advocate for the past five or six months to legalize civil marriage protection here in the state of Maryland. I stood with the governor of the state of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, urging our state legislature to pass laws that would allow gay and lesbian couples to be treated equally under the law. I’ve been unapologetic in that support.
And I think that what the President announced last week is merely an extension of what is taking place. What I believe is at stake here is something that’s even broader than the notion of same-sex marriage. What’s at stake is our democratic freedom. I believe it’s critically important that in a free, pluralistic society, that we protect matters of public policy from matters of personal theology. And I believe that this is a public policy issue. It’s not a theological issue.
There is an arena for the theological question – the seminary, the bible study, the pulpit – where people will continue to wrestle with and grapple with their understanding of scripture. And I think it’s important for us not to demonize people on this issue. I think many people are really attempting to be faithful to their understanding of scripture, to be faithful to their understanding of God and of relationship with God. And as people continue to wrestle with that, we ought to give them that space in the religious environment.
But as it relates to public policy, the question ought not be what is one’s personal theology about the choices our neighbors make. The question is, for me, do all citizens of this country deserve equal treatment under the law. And for me, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
ODYSSEY NETWORKS: Has this announcement sparked any debate in your own congregation?
REV. DELMAN COATES: I’ve not experienced any debate in our congregation. We have 8,000 members and since I came out in support of civil marriage protection here in the state of Maryland there’s been overwhelming support. Ninety-nine point nine percent of our members understand the distinction here. We have actually had the greatest number of people join our church in the first quarter of this year than in the history of our church. We had almost 500 people join our church in the first three months of this year. And you know, just by comparison we had about 800 last year. So, this has been the greatest quarter for us.
And I think people really appreciate a congregation that attempts to model compassion, love and sensibility on the issues, rather than demagoguery on this particular issue. The reality is that gays and lesbians have been a part of the African-American freedom struggle. When one thinks about Dr. King’s work with Bayard Rustin in putting on the March on Washington, when one thinks about the way in which gays and lesbians are part of our families, our church families, contributed to the African-American preaching tradition and the African-American gospel music tradition – this is an issue that we really need to address.
We have to end the sort of implied don’t ask, don’t tell policy that can exist in many of our churches and in many of our congregations. And regardless of where one falls theologically on the issue, I think it’s important for us to model the radical love that is at the core and the center of our faith tradition.