Published September 1, 2008
After hearing about Barack Obama’s ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Fr. Michael Pfleger, and the militant activists of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), it should be clear to everyone that his extremist roots run deep. But the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has yet another connection with the world of far-Left radicalism. Obama has long been linked — through foundation grants, shared political activism, collaboration on legislation and tactics, and mutual praise and support — with the Chicago-based Gamaliel Foundation, one of the least known yet most influential national umbrella groups for church-based “community organizers.”
The same separatist, anti-American theology of liberation that was so boldly and bitterly proclaimed by Obama’s pastor is shared, if more quietly, by Obama’s Gamaliel colleagues. The operative word here is “quietly.” Gamaliel specializes in ideological stealth, and Obama, a master student of Gamaliel strategy, shows disturbing signs of being a sub rosa radical himself. Obama’s legislative tactics, as well as his persistent professions of non-ideological pragmatism, appear to be inspired by his radical mentors’ most sophisticated tactics. Not only has Obama studied, taught, and apparently absorbed stealth techniques from radical groups like Gamaliel and ACORN, but in his position as a board member of Chicago’s supposedly nonpartisan Woods Fund, he quietly funneled money to his radical allies — at the very moment he most needed their support to boost his political career. It’s high time for these shadowy, perhaps improper, ties to receive a dose of sunlight.
The connections are numerous. Gregory Galluzzo, Gamaliel’s co-founder and executive director, served as a trainer and mentor during Obama’s mid-1980s organizing days in Chicago. The Developing Communities Project, which first hired Obama, is part of the Gamaliel network. Obama became a consultant and eventually a trainer of community organizers for Gamaliel. (He also served as a trainer for ACORN.) And he has kept up his ties with Gamaliel during his time in the U.S. Senate.
The Gamaliel connection appears to supply a solution to the riddle of Obama’s mysterious political persona. On one hand, he likes to highlight his days as a community organizer — a profession with proudly radical roots in the teachings of Chicago’s Saul Alinsky, author of the highly influential text Rules for Radicals. Obama even goes so far as to make the community-organizer image a metaphor for his distinctive conception of elective office. On the other hand, Obama presents himself as a post-ideological, consensus-minded politician who favors pragmatic, common-sense solutions to the issues of the day. How can Obama be radical and post-radical at the same time? Perhaps by deploying Gamaliel techniques. Gamaliel organizers have discovered a way to fuse their Left-extremist political beliefs with a smooth, non-ideological surface of down-to-earth pragmatism: the substance of Jeremiah Wright with the appearance of Norman Vincent Peale. Could this be Obama’s secret?
FROM REVELATION TO REVOLUTION
Before outlining Gamaliel’s techniques of political stealth, we need to identify the views that they are camouflaging. These can be found in Dennis Jacobsen’s book Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing. Jacobsen is the pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Milwaukee and director of the Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus. Jacobsen’s book, which is part of the first-year reading list for new Gamaliel organizers, lays out the underlying theology of Gamaliel’s activities. While Jacobsen’s book was published in 2001, it is based on presentations Jacobsen has been making at Gamaliel’s clergy-training center since 1992 and clearly has Galluzzo’s endorsement. So while we cannot be sure that Obama has read or taught Doing Justice, the book certainly embodies a political perspective to which Obama’s more than 20 years of friendship with Galluzzo, and his stint as a Gamaliel instructor, would surely have exposed him.
In Jacobsen’s conception, America is a sinful and fallen nation whose pervasive classism, racism, and militarism authentic Christians must constantly resist. Drawing on the Book of Revelation, Jacobsen exhorts, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! . . . Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins.” The United States, Jacobsen maintains, employs nationalism, propaganda, racism, bogus “civil religion,” and class enmity to bolster its entrenched and oppressive corporate system. Authentic Christians forced to live in such a nation can “come out of Babylon,” says Jacobsen, only by entering into “a perpetual state of internal exile.”
Of course, many believers do feel at home in the United States, but according to Jacobsen, these inauthentic and misguided Christians have been lulled into the false belief that the United States is somehow different from other countries — that it stands as a genuine defender of freedom and democracy. According to Jacobsen, the desire of most Americans to create a safe, secure life for themselves and their families constitutes an unacceptable emotional distancing from the sufferings of the urban poor. Jacobsen says that whenever he feels himself seduced by the American dream of personal security — this “unconscionable removal from the lives of those who suffer” — he rejects its pull as the deplorable “encroachment of America on my soul.” To “feel at home in the United States,” maintains Jacobsen, is not only to fall victim to a scarcely disguised form of political despotism; it is to betray Christianity itself.
Although Jacobsen acknowledges that the sufferings of the poor in America do not quite rise to the level of the Nazi Holocaust, he nonetheless finds a similarity: “The accommodation and silence of the church amidst Nazi atrocities are paralleled by the accommodation and silence of the church in this country amidst a calculated war against the poor.” He recounts being present at the Pentagon “to fast and vigil with a group of religious resisters against the madness of nuclear build-up and militarism generated in that place” and is horrified when he sees that many in the American military actually think of themselves as Christians. For Jacobsen, this means that the church has “aligned itself with oppressive forces and crucified its Lord anew.”
Jacobsen has a low opinion of the food pantries, homeless shelters, and walk-a-thons that make up so much religious charitable activity in the United States. All that charity, says Jacobsen, tends to suppress the truth that the system itself is designed to benefit the prosperous and keep the poor down. He complains: “The Christians who are so generous with food baskets at Thanksgiving or with presents for the poor at Christmas often vote into office politicians whose policies ignore or crush those living in poverty.” “Most churches do not operate on the basis of healthy agitation,” he says, but instead “on the basis of manipulation, authoritarianism, or guilt-tripping.”
The solution, says Jacobsen, is community organizing: “Metropolitan organizing offers a chance to end the warfare against the poor and to heal the divisions of class and race that separate this sick society.” “Militant mass action . . . fueled by righteous anger,” he maintains, offers authentic community, and therefore “the possibility of fulfillment in a vacuous society.” He continues: “If the pain and human degradation all around us doesn’t stir up within us sufficient anger to want to shake the foundations of this society, then it’s probably best for us to go back to playing church.”
Other than the sense of community that is generated by militant struggle, what does Jacobsen offer as the cure for America’s ills? He is short on detail here, but there are tantalizing hints. Jacobsen invokes the commu
nal property and absence of private ownership that prevailed among early Christians as a possible model. Despite his initial skepticism regarding such selflessness, says Jacobsen, he has seen this sort of “radical sharing of limited resources” on a trip to a poor African church in Tanzania. Unfortunately, says Jacobsen, “the church in the United States lacks community. The American church by and large is privatistic, insular, and individualistic. It reflects American culture.”
These, then, are the beliefs at the spiritual heart of the Gamaliel Foundation’s community-organizing efforts. They show clear echoes of Jeremiah Wright’s and James Cone’s black-liberation theology, and it’s evident that Obama has an affinity for organizations that embody this point of view. But a question arises. Gamaliel’s goal is to build church-based coalitions capable of wielding power on behalf of the poor. These congregation-based organizations are supposed to counterbalance and undercut America’s oppressive power structures. Yet if most American Christians are deluded servants of a sinful and oppressive system, how can they be molded into a majority coalition for change? Given the privatistic, insular, and individualistic character of American culture, theological frankness might backfire and drive away potential allies, exactly as happened with Reverend Wright. Thus arises the need for stealth.
FAKE RIGHT, GO LEFT
It might have been all but impossible to penetrate the strategic thinking of Obama’s cohorts if not for the fortuitous 2008 publication of Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-based Progressive Movements, by Rutgers political scientist Heidi Swarts. This is the first book-length study of the organizing tactics and political ideologies of Gamaliel and ACORN, the two groups to which Obama’s community-organizing ties are closest. Swarts’s study focuses on Gamaliel and ACORN in St. Louis, but given the degree of national coordination by both groups, the carry-over of her findings to Chicago is bound to be substantial. Because Swarts is highly sympathetic to the community-organizing groups she studies, she was granted an unusual degree of access to strategic discussions during her period of fieldwork.
Swarts calls groups like ACORN and (especially) Gamaliel “invisible actors,” hidden from public view because they often prefer to downplay their efforts, because they work locally, and because scholars and journalists pay greater attention to movements with national profiles (like the Sierra Club or the Christian Coalition). Congregation-based community organizations like Gamaliel, by contrast, are often invisible even at the local level. A newspaper might report on a demonstration led by a local minister or priest, for example, without noticing that the clergyman in question is part of the Gamaliel network. “Though often hidden from view,” says Swarts, “leaders have intentionally and strategically organized these movements that appear to well up and erupt from below.”
Although Gamaliel and ACORN have significantly different tactics and styles, Swarts notes that their political goals and ideologies are broadly similar. Both groups press the state for economic redistribution. The tactics of Gamaliel and ACORN have been shaped in a “post-Alinsky” era of welfare reform and conservative resurgence, posing a severe challenge to those who wish to expand the welfare state. The answer these activists have hit upon, says Swarts, is to work incrementally in urban areas, while deliberately downplaying the far-Left ideology that stands behind their carefully targeted campaigns.
While ACORN’s membership is fairly homogeneous, consisting chiefly of inner-city blacks and Hispanics, congregation-based community organizations like the Gamaliel Foundation tend to have more racially, culturally, and politically mixed constituencies. The need to overcome these divisions and gather a broad coalition behind its hard-Left agenda has pushed Gamaliel to develop what Swarts calls an “innovative cultural strategy.” Because of the suspicions that blue-collar members might harbor toward its elite, liberal leaders, Gamaliel’s main “ideological tactic,” says Swarts, is to present its organizers as the opposite of radical, elite, or ideological. As Swarts explains, they deliberately refrain from using leftist jargon like “racism,” “sexism,” “classism,” “homophobia,” “oppression,” or “multiple oppressions” in front of ordinary members — even though, amongst themselves, Gamaliel’s organizers toss around this sort of lingo with abandon, just as Jacobsen does in his book.
Swarts supplies a chart listing “common working-class perceptions of liberal social movements” on one side, while displaying on the other side Gamaliel organizers’ tricky tactics for getting around them. To avoid seeming like radicals or “hippies left over from the sixties,” Gamaliel organizers are careful to wear conventional clothing and conduct themselves with dignity, even formality. Since liberal social movements tend to come off as naïve and idealistic, Gamaliel organizers make a point of presenting their ideas as practical, pragmatic, and down-to-earth. When no one else is listening, Gamaliel organizers may rail at “racism,” “sexism,” and “oppressive corporate systems,” but when speaking to their blue-collar followers, they describe their plans as “common sense solutions for working families.”
Although the Gamaliel agenda is deeply collectivist and redistributionist, organizers are schooled to frame their program in traditional American, individualist terms. As Swarts puts it:
What makes [Gamaliel’s] ideology liberal rather than conservative is that it advocates not private or voluntary solutions but collective public programs. They seek action from the state: social welfare programs, redistribution, or regulation. . . . But publicly [Gamaliel and other congregation-based groups] usually emphasize individual responsibility on the part of authorities.
What Gamaliel really wants, in other words, is for the public as a whole to fork over funds to the government, but they’re careful to frame this demand as a call for “personal responsibility” by particular government officials.
The relative homogeneity of ACORN’s membership allows it to display its radicalism more openly. According to Swarts, ACORN members think of themselves as “oppositional outlaws” and “militants unafraid to confront the powers that be.” Yet even ACORN has a deeper, hidden ideological dimension. “Long-term ACORN organizers . . . tend to see the organization as a solitary vanguard of principled leftists,” says Swarts, while ordinary members rarely think in these overtly ideological terms; for them, it’s more about attacking specific problems. In general, ACORN avoids programmatic statements. During a 1980 effort to purge conservatives from its ranks, however, the organization did release a detailed political platform — which Swarts calls “a veritable laundry list of progressive positions.”
Although ACORN’s radicalism is somewhat more frank than Gamaliel’s, ACORN has an “innovative cultural strategy” of its own. ACORN’s radicalism is incremental; it’s happy to work toward ambitious long-term goals through a series of baby steps. For example, although ACORN has fought for “living wage” laws in several American cities, these affect only the small fraction of the workforce employed directly by city governments. The real purpose of ACORN’s urban living-wage campaigns, says Swarts, is not economic but political. ACORN’s long-term goal is an across-the-board minimum-wage increase at the state and federal levels. The public debate spurred by local campaigns is meant to prepare the political ground for ACORN’s more ambitious political goals, and to build up membership in the meantime.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
Throughout his career, Obama has drawn on all of these strategies. In Illinois’s Republican-
controlled state senate, Obama specialized in incremental legislation, often drawn up in collaboration with groups like Gamaliel and ACORN. His tiny, targeted expansions of government-financed health care, for example, were designed to build political momentum for universal health care. And his claim to be a “common-sense pragmatist,” rather than a leftist ideologue, comes straight out of the Gamaliel playbook.
New evidence now ties Obama still more closely to both organizations. Not only was Obama a trainer for Gamaliel and ACORN, he appears to have used his influence to secure a major increase in funding for both groups — arguably stretching the bounds of propriety in the process.
In 2005, the year after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Community Change released a report titled “Promising Practices in Revenue Generation for Community Organizing.” One of the report’s authors was Jean Rudd, Obama’s friend and the president of the Woods Fund during Obama’s years on that foundation’s board. Buried deep within the report lies the story of Obama’s role in expanding the Woods Fund’s financial support for groups like Gamaliel and ACORN.
Since the start of his organizing career, Obama was recognized by the Woods Fund as “a great analyst and interpreter of organizing,” according to the 2005 report. Initially an adviser, Obama became a Woods Fund board member, and finally board chairman, serving as a key advocate of increased funding for organizing during that period. In 1995, the Woods Fund commissioned a special evaluation of its funding for community organizing — a report that eventually recommended a major expansion of financial support. Obama chaired a committee of organizers that advised the Woods Fund on this important shift.
The committee’s report, “Evaluation of the Fund’s Community Organizing Grant Program,” is based on interviews with all the big names in Obama’s personal organizer network. Greg Galluzzo and other Gamaliel Foundation officials were consulted, as were several ACORN organizers, including Madeline Talbott, Obama’s key ACORN contact. Talbott, an expert on ACORN’s tactics of confrontation and disruption, is quoted more often than any other organizer in the report, sometimes with additional comments from Obama himself. The report holds up Gamaliel and ACORN as models for other groups and supports Talbott’s call for “‘a massive infusion of resources’ to make organizing a truly mass-based movement.”
Support from the Woods Fund had importance for these groups that went way beyond the money itself. Since community organizers often use confrontation, intimidation, and “civil disobedience” in the service of their political goals, even liberal foundations sometimes find it difficult to fund them without risking public criticism. As the report puts it: “Some funders . . . are averse to confrontational tactics, and are loathe [sic] to support organizing for that reason. They essentially equate organizing with the embarrassment of their business and government associates.” The Woods Fund is both highly respected and one of the few foundations to consistently support community organizing, so its money acts as a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, providing political cover for other foundations interested in funding the hard Left. Obama apparently sought to capitalize on this effect, not only by expanding the Woods Fund’s involvement in organizing, but by distributing the Woods report to a national network of potential funders.
Formally, the Woods Fund claims to be “non-ideological.” According to the report: “This stance has enabled the Trustees to make grants to organizations that use confrontational tactics against the business and government ‘establishments,’ without undue risk of being criticized for partisanship.” Yet ACORN received substantial funding from Woods, apparently aided by Obama’s internal advocacy, and we now know that ACORN members have played key roles as volunteer ground troops in Obama’s various political campaigns. That would seem to raise the specter of partisanship.
A 2004 article in Social Policy by Chicago ACORN leader Toni Foulkes, titled “Case Study: Chicago — The Barack Obama Campaign,” explains that, given Obama’s long and close relationship to ACORN, “it was natural for many of us to be active volunteers” in Obama’s campaigns. Perhaps ACORN volunteers observed the technical legalities and helped Obama merely in their capacity as private citizens. Even so, it seems at least possible that Obama used his position at a supposedly nonpartisan foundation to direct money to an allegedly nonpartisan group, in pursuit of what were in fact nakedly partisan ends.
Given Obama’s political aspirations, it’s notable that the focus of his Woods Fund report is its call for “improving the tie between organizing and policy making” and shifting organizing’s focus from local battles to “citywide or statewide coalitions.” The report boldly criticizes Saul Alinsky himself for being excessively focused on local issues, complaining that “he did not seek to fundamentally upset the distribution of power in the wider society.”
The ultimate goal of all these efforts — fundamental disruption of America’s power structure, and economic redistribution along race, poverty, and gender lines — is entirely compatible with the program outlined by Dennis Jacobsen in Doing Justice. Obama could hardly have been unfamiliar with the general drift of Gamaliel ideology, especially given his reputation as an analyst of community organizing and his supervision of a comprehensive review of the field.
Even after becoming a U.S. senator, Obama has maintained his ties to the Gamaliel Foundation. According to an October 2007 report for the University of California by Todd Swanstrom and Brian Banks, “it is almost unheard of for a U.S. Senator to attend a public meeting of a community organization, but Senator Obama attended a Gamaliel affiliate public meeting in Chicago.” Given this ongoing contact, given the radicalism of Gamaliel’s core ideology, given Obama’s close association with Gamaliel’s co-founder, Gregory Galluzzo, given Obama’s role as a Gamaliel consultant and trainer, and given Obama’s outsized role in channeling allegedly “nonpartisan” funding to Gamaliel affiliates (and to his political ground troops at ACORN), some questions are in order. Obama needs to detail the nature of his ties to both Gamaliel and ACORN, and should discuss the extent of his knowledge of Gamaliel’s guiding ideology. Ultimately, we need to know if Obama is the post-ideological pragmatist he sometimes claims to be, or in fact a stealth radical.
— Mr. Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.