Faith Questions for President Obama

by Stanley Kurtz

Outgoing New York Times editor Bill Keller has kicked up a controversy by placing on the table a series of religious questions for the Republican candidates for president. Pointing to the Jeremiah Wright issue in 2008, Keller argues that such questions are fair game for Republican candidates this year. Clearly, Keller has at least the kernel of a legitimate point here. Yet he may also push that point too far.

Barack Obama was extremely close to Jeremiah Wright, who served as both a pastor and (despite Obama’s denials) as a close political mentor, who featured heavily in Obama’s memoir, and who famously was the source for the title of Obama’s second book. It is by no means clear that any of Keller’s questions rise to a comparable level of political relevance. To the extent that they do, however, they are fair game.

Keller acts as though the Jeremiah Wright affair–and the broader issue of Obama’s political background — has essentially been settled. In fact, there are many outstanding and unanswered questions that relate directly to the subject of Obama’s political convictions. These questions include, but also go far beyond, religious issues. To maintain a rough parallel with Keller, I will illustrate by showing the sort of unanswered questions that could still be addressed by reporters to Obama regarding his own political development — in this case, as it has intersected with religion.

Note that these questions do not involve thin ties, as in: “So-and-so has endorsed you: Do you accept his endorsement or not?” Keller ventures into that territory. The questions I pose here involve the president’s close and longstanding political mentors, who were also involved in religious activism. The groups and individuals I inquire about here are not only longtime mentors and sponsors of Obama, but most have had substantial foundation funding channeled their way by Obama himself. Thus, the questions that remain unanswered about Obama’s background are not about brief or glancing “associations,” but are instead about deep, longstanding, and completely mutual political alliances, some of which have extended through the years of Obama’s presidency.

So while it is doubtful that all of Keller’s questions are fair (although some may be), I maintain that the questions for Obama listed below are legitimate, and go to the heart of the riddle of Obama’s political convictions. Again, while I have limited myself to questions that touch on religion, so as to keep things in parallel with Keller, the questions below are largely political in nature, and could be expanded far beyond the religious realm. Obviously, the questions I put forward here are based on my political biography of President Obama.

Those who view the following matters as strictly historical in character — and therefore irrelevant to Obama’s campaign for reelection — have no business posing Keller’s questions to Republicans. On the other hand, to the extent that reporters put any of Keller’s questions — or similar such questions — to the Republican candidates, they ought also to put the questions listed below to President Obama.

1. You note in Dreams from My Father that you attended socialist conferences in New York when you lived there in the mid-1980′s. Archival evidence indicates that you attended the New York Socialist Scholars Conferences of 1983, 1984, and possibly 1985. Please confirm which socialist conferences you attended, and indicate whether you were present at, or were aware of, the talks by James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology, and other Black Liberation Theologians at those conferences.

2. Your longtime religious and political mentor, Jeremiah Wright, was the most prominent colleague and follower of James Cone in Chicago. Archival research indicates that Cone and Wright worked closely together at the Black Theology Project (BTP), and that and that both visited Cuba at the head of BTP delegations. Wright has bragged about his trips to Cuba and has made evident his support, and the support of the Black Theology Project, for the Cuban regime — treating Cuba as a political model to be drawn on by Americans. Were you aware of Wright’s trips to Cuba and his support for the Cuban regime? What role, if any, did Wright’s hard-left views and ties to Cone’s liberation theology play in your choice of Wright as your pastor?

3. Research indicates that you have read James Cone’s theological work, and archival records show that your first important political job in Chicago, with Project Vote, was undertaken in partnership with another liberation theologian, Wright ally, and prominent Cone follower, Yvonne Delk. How, if at all, did liberation theology, and its associated political practice, help shape your political development?

4. Archival records indicate that many of your key community-organizing mentors and colleagues were part of the Midwest Academy network. Your position as a board member at Public Allies (before your wife took over the Chicago chapter) meant that you yourself were part of the Midwest Academy network — at a fairly high level. You also directed a great deal of funding to the Midwest Academy from your position as a board member at the Woods Fund. Archival and other documentary evidence indicates that the Midwest Academy’s leadership pioneered in synthesizing community organizing, socialist strategies, religious activism, and electoral politics. What, precisely, was your relationship with the Midwest Academy? Were you aware of the socialist convictions of the Midwest Academy’s leadership? You’ve said that community organizing gave you the best education of your life. How, if at all, has the Midwest Academy vision of a synthesis between community organizing, religious activism, and democratic socialism shaped your political development? Describe the continuing coordination between your White House and grass-roots groups tied to the Midwest Academy network.

5. Two of your key organizing mentors, Greg Galluzzo and Mary Gonzales, founded a group called UNO of Chicago, which you worked with closely during your early organizing years. Your other key organizing mentor, Gerald Kellman, worked with UNO just before hiring you. He specialized in linking community organizations to churches. UNO of Chicago engaged in deeply controversial Alinskyite confrontation tactics, including aggressive moves to seize control of churches against the wishes of their priests. What, precisely, was your relationship with UNO of Chicago? Were you aware of UNO’s controversial techniques for taking control of churches, as your memoir seems to indicate you were? What do you think of these tactics? How has your view on that issue affected your years of subsequent support for the work of Galluzzo, Gonzales, and Kellman?

6. Reverend Wright has said that he sees no real separation between religion and political activism. Your community organizing mentors and colleagues at the Midwest Academy and UNO of Chicago also seem to have treated religion as an occasion for hard-left political activism. Your extensive foundation work was largely devoted to funding community organizing ventures — often religious in character, but always sharply left-leaning. Is your longstanding record of delivering financial support to both the religious and secular hard-left compatible with your claim to be a pragmatic, post-ideological problem-solver? Has your public self-presentation been influenced by the fact that your organizing mentors habitually disguised their own hard-left political convictions by claiming to be pragmatic, post-ideological problem-solvers?