In advance of his Thursday meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, the New York Times is portraying President Obama’s community organizing as a kind of Catholicism in practice. In a front page, above-the-fold piece titled “The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism,” Jason Horowitz highlights the close alliance between Obama, his organizing mentors Greg Galluzzo and Gerald Kellman, and the Catholic Church. Obama’s frequent invocation of Chicago’s Cardinal Bernardin is referenced, along with Obama’s ties to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Horowitz notes that the alliance reached the point where young Obama was effectively proselytizing for the Catholic Church. A fuller and more accurate account of Obama’s organizing paints a very different picture, however.
Before we get to the reality of Obama’s organizing connection with the Catholic Church, let’s have a quick look back at the founder of community organizing, Saul Alinsky. Obama’s Chicago organizing mentors, after all, were consciously trying to replicate Alinsky’s church strategy. In fact, they were working in some of the same Catholic churches originally organized by Alinsky.
As I show in Spreading the Wealth, Alinksy created his first community organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, in an attempt to convince local Catholic churches to support the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, a union most local priests were reluctant to endorse because it was effectively controlled by Chicago’s Communist Party. Alinksy’s line with these reluctant priests was that cooperating with the union would allow the church to “beat the Communists at their own game.” While there was certainly a small group of young, sharply left-leaning Catholic priests working directly and knowingly with Alinsky, it’s clear that he saw himself as hoodwinking the larger and more influential group of anti-Communist priests with whom he worked. In a famous interview with Playboy, Alinsky summarized his feat of conning neighborhood priests into dropping their opposition to a Communist-dominated union, “To f**k your enemies, you’ve first got to seduce your allies.”
Obama’s organizing mentor Gerald Kellman specialized in Alinsky-style church organizing, and was trained by Alinsky himself. Kellman was brought into what would soon become Obama’s organizing network by Greg Galluzzo, who never met Alinsky, but considered himself Alinsky’s chief follower, “as St. Paul who never met Jesus.”
By Obama’s day, an exodus of white ethnics to the suburbs had depleted Chicago’s urban Catholic congregations. Greg Galluzzo ran an Alinskyite group called UNO (United Neighborhood Organizations) of Chicago, largely populated by Mexican Americans. In effect, Galluzzo offered local Catholic churches a deal: Allow him to train parish priests and influential congregants in Alinskyite tactics, and UNO of Chicago and its affiliated groups (including Obama’s group the Developing Communities Project) would restock local congregations.
So, yes, as the New York Times claims, Obama was effectively proselytizing for the Catholic church. But this was part of a larger, far more questionable and controversial deal. Effectively it was an attempt by Galluzzo, Kellman, and Obama to commandeer local Catholic congregations from within, turning them into political shock troops in their hardball Alinskyite organizing ventures.
In my book Radical-in-Chief, I lay out Galluzzo’s Catholic strategy and show the sort of events he encouraged his new congregational recruits to participate in: trapping a U.S. senator in a ladies room, pushing for a school to be named after anti-American heroes, singling out and intimidating opponents by calling them “enemies of the community,” and besieging them at their homes. Obama worked directly with UNO of Chicago during his organizing days, and funded his Alinskyite friends to run these tactics for years thereafter from his position on the boards of several left-leaning Chicago foundations.
By no means was this controversial Catholic organizing strategy the work of Galluzzo, Kellman, and Obama alone. Monsignor John J. Egan, originally a close ally of Alinsky himself, leaned far to the left. As the dean of Chicago’s community organizers in the 1980s, Egan favored Galluzzo’s strategy for effectively restocking Chicago’s Catholic churches by turning them into centers of leftist political activism. The Church hierarchy in Chicago, however, did not share Egan’s view. Despite Obama’s persistent attempts to link his organizing efforts to Cardinal Bernardin, influential Chicago Catholic clergy, including Bernardin, conspicuously avoided events organized by Galluzzo, Kellman, and their crew.
While Galluzzo and his organizers did succeed in drawing quite a few local priests into an alliance, the venture finally soured. Many priests and congregants backed out of their ties to Galluzzo and his groups once they realized the extent of political commitment Galluzzo was expecting. In response, Galluzzo and his allies made exploratory efforts to organize Catholic congregants to seize control of church affairs away from parish priests. This move backfired badly.
Once it became clear that Galluzzo and his Alinskyite organizers were attempting to seize effective control of Catholic churches in the heart of Chicago, the entire strategy collapsed. UNO’s Catholic allies for the most part backed out, and Galluzzo moved on to an attempt to organize schools instead of churches. Obama followed suit.
So Obama’s vaunted praise of Cardinal Bernardin and his proselytizing alliance with the Catholic Church are not what they appear to be (or what the New York Times makes them out to be). Obama and his organizing mentors were simply running Alinsky’s game on the Catholic Church, promising to help advance its goals, while in reality coopting the clergy to leftist political ventures at odds with their intent.
Young Barack Obama has come a long way. It’s tough not to wonder whether this Thursday might present him with an opportunity to run Saul Alinsky’s game on the Pope. The Times piece makes it clear that the Vatican is wary of Obama’s overtures. At a difficult political time, Obama would value some gesture of support from the Pope. Yet Obama’s policy goals seem at odds with Catholic precepts. Sound familiar? While the Vatican remains cautious and concerned, best remember that, like his idol Alinsky, Obama has always been adept at seducing his allies.