Politics & Policy

The Gospel According to Barack Obama

At this rate, Barack Obama will have repudiated every one of his friends in Chicago by November.

Obama resigned from Trinity United Church of Christ over the weekend after another rant from its pulpit made the rounds, this time from Catholic priest and longtime Obama friend Michael Pfleger. In a racially charged (and buffoonish) harangue, Pfleger mocked Sen. Hillary Clinton for her sense of entitlement as a white person. In a press conference announcing his decision, Obama said he was leaving the church for two reasons.

First, he claimed that as long as he belonged to the church the controversial views of its pastors and guest preachers would be unfairly imputed to him. Perhaps so. But the real question is how Obama could have been a member of the church for 20 years — and accepted the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a personal spiritual mentor — without appreciating the radical “Black Liberation Theology” that is at the church’s heart. Obama’s claim to be innocent of Wright’s radicalism is not credible.

Second, Obama said that he was severing his ties with the church out of respect for its other members, complaining that the media has been harassing them in the storm around his relationship to the church. How very high-minded of him. But the fact is Obama didn’t feel obligated to do his fellow parishioners this courtesy until dumping Trinity became a political imperative for him.

Obama has slowly walked away from the church as political calculation has dictated. When the first videos of Wright damning America surfaced, Obama compared him to an obnoxious but harmless uncle and gave a widely acclaimed speech in Philadelphia, saying he could no more repudiate Wright than he could repudiate the black community or his own family. When Wright held a press conference at the National Press Club simply reiterating some of his toxic views, Obama starkly distanced himself from him — his Philadelphia speech suddenly inoperative. Pfleger then prompted him to leave the church altogether.

Any suggestion that Obama didn’t understand the nature of his church is absurd. As Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has documented in his extensive reporting, Obama regularly attended weekly services at Trinity; he went through its membership classes, which retail its radical theology; he was regularly profiled in its magazine, which is shot through with black nationalism. Not to mention his close relationship to Wright.

Why was Obama drawn to Trinity? On Monday, Kurtz reported on a profile of Obama published in 1995 in the Chicago Reader that appears to shed some light. It tells us that the young politician did not accept “the unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation — which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks to ‘move up, get rich, and move out. . . .’ ” Obama didn’t embrace black nationalism to the extent that Wright did — but, according to the profile and to Obama’s first book, that was only because Obama regarded that approach as an impractical way to organize constituencies for his own brand of change.

For Obama and Wright, integration encouraged blacks to buy into the notion that they can overcome obstacles like racism and poverty on their own, without relying on the government. That kind of self-reliance makes it harder to build coalitions for liberal policies, and such coalition-building is what community organizing — Obama’s post-college vocation — is all about.

According to the 1995 profile, Obama said he was “tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up — at the speaker’s rostrum and from the pulpit — and then allowed to dissipate because there’s no agenda, no concrete program for change.” The formula Obama devised was simple: He would supply the agenda, and people like Wright would supply the rage.

Now, Obama the presidential candidate — selling the soothing politics of unity and inspiration — has carefully pirouetted away from his former church. But he has yet to give a full, honest accounting of his relationship to Wright and Trinity. The public and the press should demand one.

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