True Believer

Published June 23, 2008

National Review, Vol. LX, No. 12

By this point, nobody can seriously suggest that Barack Obama was unaware of the hate-filled rhetoric emanating from the pulpit at Trinity United Church of Christ until it was, very recently, pointed out to him. The church's long history of radical-leftist and anti-white sermons by Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, and others has been made so unmistakably clear that even the mainstream media eventually had to notice, forcing the candidate to offer his half-hearted resignation from the church. With that act, Obama hoped to close the book on his Trinity connection, putting an end to the questions about what he knew and when, and why he waited so long to leave the church.

A more interesting question, though, is why Obama joined Trinity in the first place. Some of his defenders suggest he did so to advance his career as a community organizer: The residents he needed to reach and the contacts he needed to make went to Trinity, so he went there too. In this view, Obama was merely being practical, not radical.

Don't believe it. This was no matter of convenience or expediency. Obama's connections to the radical-left politics espoused by Pfleger and Wright are broad and deep, and he largely approved of their political-theological outlook. Obama shared Wright's rejection of black “assimilation,” individual self-improvement, and the pursuit of “middle-classness.” His goal was not to repudiate religious radicalism but to channel its fervor into an effective and permanent activist organization. How do we know all this? We know it because Obama himself has told us.

A key source for deciphering his political views is a 1995 background piece on Obama that appeared in the Chicago Reader, a left-leaning “alternative” weekly. Hank De Zutter's “What Makes Obama Run?” gives us an in-depth picture of Obama's worldview on the eve of his career in electoral politics. In it, Obama presents his political hopes for the black community as a third way between two inadequate alternatives.

First he rejects, in De Zutter's words, “the unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation — which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks to 'move up, get rich, and move out.' ” Obama, we are told, “quickly learned that integration was a one-way street, with blacks expected to assimilate into a white world that never gave ground.” He also criticizes “the politics of black rage and black nationalism” — although less on substance than on tactics. De Zutter says Obama is “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 problem is not the fiery rhetoric, but merely the wasted anger.

De Zutter lays out Obama's ties to such radical groups as Chicago ACORN, whose lead organizer at the time, Madeline Talbott, practiced the sort of intimidating and often illegal “direct action” that ACORN remains famous for. Talbott is quoted affirming that “Barack has proven himself among our members . . . we accept and respect him as a kindred spirit, a fellow organizer.” The article also mentions Obama's early organizing work for the Developing Communities Project, which was “funded by south-side Catholic churches.” Clearly, this early work cemented Obama's close ties to Father Pfleger, whose support formed a critical component of Obama's grassroots network. Because of this early link, Pfleger threw his considerable support behind Obama's failed 2000 bid for Congress.

In an article on National Review Online, I explored the possibility that Obama may also have used his seats on the boards of a couple of liberal Chicago foundations to direct funds to groups that served as his de facto political base. The threads of this political network are pulled tighter as Obama turns to a “favorite topic”: “the lack of collective action among black churches.” In this year's presidential campaign, Obama has rationalized his ties to Trinity Church by citing its community-service programs. Yet in 1995 he was highly critical of churches that focused exclusively on food pantries and other services while neglecting the sort of politically visionary sermons, local king-making, and political alliance-building favored by Pfleger and Wright.

Obama rejected the strictly community-service approach of apolitical churches as part of America's unfortunate “bias” toward “individual action.” He derogated this as “John Wayne” thinking and the old “right wing . . . individualistic bootstrap myth,” which needs to be replaced: “We have some wonderful preachers in town — preachers who continue to inspire me — preachers who are magnificent at articulating a vision of the world as it should be. . . . But as soon as church lets out, the energy dissipates. We must find ways to channel all this energy into community building.” If anything, Obama wanted to give the political visions of Wright and Pfleger greater weight and substance, by connecting them to secular-leftist political networks like ACORN.

Another part of Obama's strategy was to stay outside traditional political channels. As a Chicago organizer and attorney, Obama took care to maintain friendly ties to the Daley administration, but in his 1996 campaign for state senate, he specifically avoided asking the mayor or the mayor's closest allies for support. Obama's plan was to make an end run around Chicago's governing Democratic political network by building a coalition of left-leaning black churches and radical secular organizations like ACORN (perhaps with de facto help from liberal-foundation money as well). This coalition would provide Obama with the flexibility to play out a political career some distance to the left of conventional Illinois Democratic politics. And sure enough, Obama's extremely liberal record in Illinois proved to be of a piece with his strategy.

It could be argued that the new and supposedly moderate Obama of 2008 is the real Obama. Unfortunately, that argument is unconvincing. As De Zutter notes, Obama gave up a near-certain Supreme Court clerkship to come to Chicago and do community organizing, so he must have felt strongly about it. (See “The Organizer,” by Byron York, in this issue.) He could have joined one of the many other, less-radical black churches on the South Side of Chicago, if that was all he needed to launch a political career. And given his good relations with the Daley administration, Obama could have asked for its support in his bid for the state senate. Yet at every turn, Obama took a riskier path. That suggests he was operating from conviction. Trouble is, the conviction in question was apparently Obama's belief in the sort of radical social and economic views held by groups like ACORN and preachers like Wright and Pfleger.

If there is any doubt about the accuracy of De Zutter's detailed account, we get the same message from a little-discussed but revealing and important piece by Obama himself. In 1988, just after he joined Trinity, Obama wrote an article titled “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City” (which was reprinted in the 1990 book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois). It shows exactly what Obama hoped to make of his association with Pfleger and Wright.

Obama begins by rejecting the false dichotomy between radicalism and moderation: “From W. E. B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, this internal debate has raged between integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy, between sit-down strikes and boardroom negotiations.” Unsurprisingly, Obama proposes to use the best from both approaches. Of course, even James Cone, the radical founder of black-liberation theology, sees himself as synthesizing the moderation of Martin Luther King Jr. with the radicalism of Malcolm X.

Obama continues: “Nowhere is the promise of organizing more apparent than in the traditiona
l black churches. Possessing tremendous financial resources, membership and — most importantly — values and biblical traditions that call for empowerment and liberation, the black church is clearly a slumbering giant in the political and economic landscape of cities like Chicago.” After expressing disappointment with apolitical black churches focused only on traditional community services, Obama goes on to point in a more activist direction:

Over the past few years, however, more and more young and forward-thinking pastors have begun to look at community organizations such as the Developing Communities Project in the far south side . . . as a powerful tool for living the social gospel, one which can educate and empower entire congregations and not just serve as a platform for a few prophetic leaders. Should a mere 50 prominent black churches, out of thousands that exist in cities like Chicago, decide to collaborate with a trained and organized staff, enormous positive changes could be wrought.

Give me 50 Pflegers or 50 Wrights, Obama is saying, tie them to a network of grassroots activists like my companions from Acorn, and we can revolutionize urban politics.

So it would appear that Obama's own writings solve the mystery of why he stayed at Trinity for 20 years. Obama's long-held and decidedly audacious hope has been to spread Wright's radical spirit by linking it to a viable, left-leaning political program, with Obama himself at the center. The revolutionizing power of a politically awakened black church is not a side issue, or merely a personal matter, but has been the signature theme of Obama's grand political strategy.

After the 2004 election, there was some talk of the Democratic party's “purging” such radical elements as MoveOn and Michael Moore. Far from purging its radical Left, however, the Democratic party is now just inches away from placing it in the driver's seat. That is the real meaning of the fiasco at Trinity Church.

— Mr. Kurtz is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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