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The Soul of the Christian South: Fundamentalist and Progressive Churches Square Off in Gay Marriage Debate

N.C. is the only state left in the Southeast without a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. What voters decide on May 8 will send a strong signal throughout the nation.

When North Carolina voters head to the polls on May 8, they will be asked to decide on a constitutional amendment - known as "Amendment One" - that prohibits marriages between same-sex couples. Same-sex marriage is already illegal by statute, but N.C. is the only state left in the Southeast without a constitutional ban.

So this is quite a showdown. There’s much talk of liberty, lifestyle and family -- and a whole lot of talk about God. As opponents and supporters target churches all the way from Appalachia to the Outer Banks, religious leaders are flooding the airwaves to share their views on a hot button issue that throws core values into stark relief.

Growing up, I attended a church in Raleigh that is deeply involved in the current debate. And I can tell you that the fault lines are deep – and often surprising – to folks in other parts of the country.

A Tale of Two Churches

The Upper Room Church of God in Christ, located in south Raleigh, is presided over by the Rev. Patrick Wooden, who describes homosexuality a “deathstyle” and presents himself as a zealous defender of traditional marriage. Rev. Wooden, an African American, launched his ministry career with a tent revival in a small rural town. Bringing a message infused with miracles and warnings of the devil’s influence, the pastor came to Raleigh to lead the Upper Room in 1987, where his congregation, by the reckoning of the church Web site, today numbers 3,000. Proudly describing himself as a businessman and his church as one of the largest employers of blacks in Raleigh, Rev. Wooden's teachings carry a whiff of prosperity gospel that appeals to those striving for economic salvation as well as spiritual. And he champions social views that have made him a rising right-wing media star, complete with spots on "The O’Reilly Factor."

A passage in Genesis forms the basis for Rev. Wooden’s view that God’s definition of marriage is strictly a male-and-female union. He rattled it off in a recent TV appearance: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

Rev. Wooden is particularly incensed with those who equate the battle for gay rights with the struggle for civil rights. His comments on homosexuality, sometimes graphic, push the notion that gays are aberrant both culturally and physically. Who, he demands, could support a practice that forces men “to wear a diaper or a butt plug just to be able to contain their bowels?” For him, comparing gays to blacks is denigrating.

Just a few miles away from Rev. Wooden’s church, just at the edge of the North Carolina State University, stands Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, where a different strain of righteousness prevails. The church is led by Rev. Jack McKinney and co-pastor Rev. Nancy Petty, a lesbian who has made history as the first openly gay minister to lead a Baptist church in the South. Pullen, with roots in the late 19th century, evolved a brand of progressive Christianity under the leadership of poet and scholar E. McNeill Poteat, Jr., whose preaching emphasized an inclusive spirit uncommon in Baptist churches. In 1956, the liberal firebrand W.W. Finlator was called to Pullen, and under his guidance, the church opened its doors to worshippers of all races in 1958. In the late 60s, it was this focus on inclusiveness and social justice that attracted my father and mother (an Episcopalian and a Methodist respectively) who both taught at local colleges.

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