Ethics & Public Policy Center

Left in Church

Published in National Review Online on May 20, 2008



Since repudiating his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., at an April 29 news conference, Barack Obama has done everything in his power to minimize the nature of his relationship with Wright. Supposedly, Obama found Wright's recent and controversial remarks at the National Press Club shocking, unfamiliar, and out-of-character. In fact, we now know that Wright's controversial remarks were entirely in character, and that regular church attendance, and even limited familiarity with church publications, would have made Wright's radical views entirely evident. Indeed, a bit of digging now turns up information that makes it next-to-impossible not to conclude that Obama has long been familiar with Wright's radicalism.

As Obama himself notes in a 2004 newspaper interview, within the constraints of his schedule, he regularly attended weekly services at Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ. In that interview, Obama characterized his relationship with Wright as that of a “close confidant.” We know that the doctrines of “black-liberation theology” are included in new-member packets, and are taught in new-member classes, which Obama and his wife attended. It now emerges that over the years, Obama has worked closely with Wright on a number of political projects. Finally, we can now conclude that Obama had to have had knowledge of Wright's radical and highly political church magazine, since Obama himself was interviewed for a 2007 cover story for that publication.

It is clear Obama was aware of Wright's views; indeed, the specifically political character of Wright's liberation theology is what drew Obama to Christianity.

Further, a careful reading of the 2007 run of Trumpet Newsmagazine — a church newspaper (and later a slick, nationally distributed magazine) that Wright founded in 1982 to “preach a message of social justice to those who might not hear it in worship service” — suggests that Wright's theology and politics have more in common with black-nationalist sources (both Christian and Muslim) than with those of conventional Christianity. In particular, Wright is closely allied with a radical and highly controversial Catholic priest named Michael Pfleger, and with Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan. While his specific ties (if any) to Farrakhan are unclear, Barack Obama appears to be very much a part of the broader Wright/Pfleger/Farrakhan theological-political nexus.

Coming to Christianity

In 2006, Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at a conference sponsored by Jim Wallis and the “religious left” magazine Sojourners. Obama spoke of his early sense of personal isolation in the absence of membership in a community of faith. “If not for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted that fate,” said Obama. The specifically political character of his new church is what drew Obama out of his skeptical isolation and into religion:

But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn to the church.

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of African-American religious tradition to spur social change. . . . the black church understands in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge the powers and principalities. . . . I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; it is an active, palpable agent in the world. It is a source of hope. . . .

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and affirm my Christian faith.

In other words, Obama's membership at Trinity UCC resulted from his familiarity with Wright's political views. Even Obama's phrase “challenge the powers and principalities” is a particular favorite of black-liberation theologists.

Working Together
We know from Obama's own account in Dreams From My Father that Wright personally warned him, from the time of their first meeting, that many considered Wright too politically radical. Yet Obama not only joined the church, but also cooperated with Wright on political matters. In November of 2001, according to the Chicago Defender, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. was marshaling supporters to block two bills in the Illinois state legislature. Among others, Obama and Wright joined Jackson to present a united front against the bills.

Three years later, the same publication described the choice of Kwame Raoul to fill Obama's seat in the Illinois General Assembly, after Obama's election to the U.S. Senate — like Obama, Raoul is a member of Trinity UCC, and while Obama stayed formally neutral in the race, there is a strong implication in the article that Obama kept to the background while allowing Wright to help manage Raoul's appointment. Raoul told the Defender, “Barack stayed out of the competition for his old seat. We are fellow members of Trinity United Church of Christ, and he had a good conversation with my pastor Saturday.”

The article pointedly ends, “Raoul has a lot of work ahead of him and lots of people to thank, including his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. . . .” It seems clear that Wright is a local kingmaker, and that Obama and Wright freely consult on political projects of mutual interest.

In the course of their close, 20-year-long partnership, Obama and Wright must have had chances to meet and converse on a great many occasions. A recent one we know of came in late February or early March of 2007, when Obama and his wife, Michelle, were honored guests at “Legacy of a Liberating Legend,” a gala in tribute to the career and retirement of Jeremiah Wright. The gala is described in the “Teesee's Town” column in the Chicago Defender of March 5/March 6, and is pictured in a feature story in the May issue of Trumpet. According to the Defender, Obama halted campaigning to celebrate with his “mentor,” Wright.

Apparently, a lot of folks have missed a lot of memos, like the ones about Wright not being Obama's mentor, Obama rarely attending Sunday services at Trinity, and Obama not conferring with Wright on political issues.

Trumpeting Obama

And even if all those memos were true, they couldn't explain Trumpet Newsmagazine: Obama himself has appeared on numerous Trumpet covers, is featured in many stories, and was personally interviewed by a Trumpet reporter. The radical doctrines of black-liberation theology pervade this publication, just as they shape Wright's sermons.

Trumpet frequently discusses the works of James Cone, the founder of black-liberation theology, who considers Wright and Trinity UCC to be the premiere exemplars of his system. (In the print edition of NR, I described Cone's radical views and explained how the history and theology of Trinity UCC embody them. Some of this ground is also covered in an extended Investors Business Daily editorial; according to IBD, Obama “refuses to respond to even written questions about Cone and black-liberation theology.”)

The nature and status of this kind of Christianity is complex and controversial. There is a profound difference between “black-liberation theology” and Christianity as conventionally understood. Trinity itself recognizes this difference, to the point where Wright, his followers, and his theological mentors often present conventional American Christianity as both false and evil.

In “Jeremiah Wright's ‘Trumpet'” (based on a reading of the 2006 run of Trumpet), I showed that Obama must surely have known about Wright's politics from this magazine, which was specifically created to bring across Wright's political views to those who could not attend his every sermon. Trumpet reveals Wright and his entire Trinity organization to be thoroughly political, and every bit as radical as those infamous YouTube sermon-segments indicate. A reading of the newly obtained 2007 run of Trumpet brings the same points across, and just as dramatically.

Barack Obama comes up repeatedly in this volume, nowhere more strikingly than in Wright's essay for the April issue, “Facing the Rising Sun.” Here, in honor of Easter, Wright speaks of the resurrecting power of God. Having read through two years' worth of Trumpet, I was genuinely shocked by the optimistic tone of this essay. Wright is generally at pains to be negative about the United States, particularly to puncture any claims of racial progress. So it was truly uncharacteristic for Wright to begin his Easter reflections speaking about America's progress since the desegregation battle of 40 years ago, as a wonderful “new day.” The reality of such progress may seem obvious and elementary to most readers, but in Wright's worldview, it is not.

When Wright finally extends his Easter metaphor to Obama, the reason for his optimism becomes clear:

God raised Barack from a dead political career to the United States Senate. Then, as Jesus ascended into Heaven, God made a way for Barack to ascend to the pinnacle of politics. . . . We are truly in a “new day.”

Reading this, I couldn't help but think of Michelle Obama's comment that her husband's presidential campaign was the first time she'd been really proud of her country. Wright is essentially making the same point.

It's also clear that, in 2007, Wright was convinced that Obama would be a strong force in favor of Wright's basic political agenda. In the ascent of politicians like Obama, Wright argued, “God has shown me that Uncle Toms do not have the last word.” For Wright, Uncle Toms include not only black conservatives like Clarence Thomas, but all blacks who forswear leftist politics. So Wright is expressing faith in Obama's underlying sympathy with the hard-left agenda.

Wright echoes his positive assessment in the Obama cover story in Trumpet's March 2007 issue. The interview with Obama is not particularly revealing, focusing as it does on Obama's family (Michelle balances his idealism, his daughters think they'll get a dog if he's elected president). Yet the article does quote Wright claiming that if Obama won, he would “really do some powerful things in that office.”

The Trumpet interview removes all doubt (if any was possible) concerning Obama's knowledge of the publication.

True/False Religion

Other articles on Obama are dotted throughout Trumpet. A piece in the May 2007 issue praises Obama for “his ability to help the hapless Democrats talk about religion and values.” Yet a reading of Trumpet can't help but raise questions about how the Christianity Obama imbibed at Trinity UCC relates to Christianity as conventionally understood. From the standpoint of the black-liberation theology that informs Trinity's worship, there is a yawning gulf between authentic, liberating Christianity and conventional American Christianity. According to the black-liberation theology's founder, James Cone, Christianity as commonly practiced in the United States is actually the false Christianity of the racist Antichrist. Any Christianity not imbued with “liberating” leftist revolutionary zeal is dismissed by Cone as the work of “white devil oppressors.” While that sort of radicalism may seem an outdated relic of the late Sixties, a reading of Trumpet 2007 shows that, for Wright and his followers, little has changed since then.

Wright's magazine is chock full of denunciations of common Christianity. Certainly, those who support conservative political candidates or causes are dismissed as false Christians, and worse. In the April 2007 Trumpet, black-liberation theologian Dr. Obery M. Hendricks Jr. attacks conservative Christians as “emulating those who killed Jesus, rather than following the practice of Jesus himself.” According to Hendricks, “many good church-going folk have been deluded into behaving like modern-day Pharisees and Sadducees when they think they're really being good Christians.” Unwittingly, Hendricks says, these apparent Christians have actually become “like the false prophets of Ba'al.” Hendricks adds, “George Bush and his unwitting prophets of Ba'al may well prove to be the foremost distorters of the true practice of Jesus' Gospel of peace, liberation, and love ever seen in modern times.”

In the August 2007 issue, taking a leaf from Cone's book, Wright himself goes after traditional Christianity with a vengeance: “How do I tell my children about the African Jesus who is not the guy they see in the picture of the blond-haired, blue-eyed guy in their Bible or the figment of white supremacists [sic] imagination that they see in Mel Gibson's movies?” Authentic, politically liberating Christianity, says Wright, “is far more than the litmus test given by some Gospel music singers and much more than the cosmetic facade of make-pretend white Christianity.”

But if Wright is tough on white Christians, he is equally hard on the many black Christians who fail to share his vision. In fact, it's clear from Trumpet, and from the broader literature of black-liberation theology, that Cone's and Wright's radical religion appeals to only a tiny minority within the black community. Wright bitterly denounces unliberated, non-Africentric, “‘colored preachers' who hate themselves, who hate Black people, who desperately want to be white and who write and say stupid things in public to make ‘Masa' feel safer.”

So Wright (like Cone) sees his own form of Christianity as profoundly different from Christianity as typically practiced by most American whites and blacks. For religious allies, Wright looks not so much to Christians, but to those of any religious persuasion who share his politics.

Also, while James Cone sharply dismisses even white liberals as unhelpful devils, Cone did hold out a legitimate place within black-liberation theology for white revolutionary radicals. Cone's gauntlet has been boldly taken up by Catholic Father Michael Pfleger, a true Christian in Wright's view.

Obama's ties to the priest are clear. During his 2004 senate race, Cathleen Falsani of the Chicao Sun-Times interviewed Obama about his religious views (it is this article that revealed Obama's as-often-as-possible attendance at Trinity, and called Wright a “close confidant”). According to Falsani, the future presidential candidate cited “the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church in the Auburn-Gresham community on the South Side, who has known Obama for the better part of 20 years,” as a key source of spiritual guidance. The piece also includes words from Pfleger himself, praising Obama.

Mic
hael Pfleger

Pfleger is just as far as Wright is from the majority of American Christians. Although Pfleger is white, he heads a largely black congregation on Chicago's South Side. Like Wright, Pfleger follows the black-liberation theology of James Cone. As the June/July 2007 Trumpet cover story opens, Pfleger is preaching a guest sermon at Wright's Trinity UCC. Pfleger compares the average American Christian to the criminals who were crucified alongside Jesus.

As the story continues, we read: “And drum roll please. [Pfleger] also manages to weave into the midday homily at Trinity . . . his deep and abiding dislike for President George W. Bush. And with this mostly African American congregation, Pfleger is in good company.” In light of this, Trumpet author Rhoda McKinney Jones calls Pfleger “Afrocentric to the core.”

Trumpet goes on to highlight the politics of this “radical and revolutionary priest.” Not only has Pfleger pored over James Cone's books, but, Pfleger affirms, “I got very educated by the [Black] Panthers — very educated.” According to Trumpet, Pfleger “counts the mighty as close confidants and friends,” especially Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the Hon. Minister Louis Farrakhan, and Sen. Barack Obama. Trumpet also quotes Wright expressing his confidence in Pfleger.

The story goes on to highlight Pfleger's chronic problems with the Catholic Church, which seems always on the verge of removing Pfleger from his congregation. Pfleger's invitations to Louis Farrakhan to speak at St. Sabina, for example, have roiled the church. Jones relishes Pfleger's attacks on Catholicism as commonly practiced. Pfleger is quoted describing the community of his birth as “in-bred, white, Catholic, democratic . . . and a bubble of fantasyland.” According to Pfleger, the Catholic Church has lost its way. He also rails against “prosperity-pimping” and “all this crazy and perverted theology that people are buying into.”

Unholy Trinity?

As Trumpet notes, Pfleger does in fact work closely with Farrakhan, Wright, and Obama. Pfleger and Wright are key partners in the Chicago crusade against Wal-Mart. Wright's first public appearance after the “God damn America” scandal was in Pfleger's church. Pfleger has repeatedly rejected criticism and hosted Louis Farrakhan at St. Sabina. Recently, Pfleger sharply defended the deeply controversial appointment of Farrakhan follower Sister Claudette Marie Muhammad to the Illinois Governor's Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes. (Muhammad's appointment led to a series of resignations from the commission.)

During the same period, Trumpet ran a highly positive feature article on Sister Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan. In fact, over and above the famous “Empowerment Award” Wright bestowed on Farrakhan, Trumpet regularly features positive mentions of Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam. There is a kind of informal nexus between Wright, Farrakhan, and Pfleger, each of whom are bound by an allegiance to black-liberation theology, or to the black Muslim nationalism that inspired James Cone to create black-liberation theology to begin with.

Obama was a part of this nexus. Despite current attempts to rewrite history, Obama was close to Wright for years, and fully entangled with him, both theologically and politically. Pfleger's influence over Obama, whose work as a “community organizer” had him in frequent contact with South Chicago's churches, is second only to that of Wright. Obama has worked on a great many political causes with Pfleger, and Pfleger was a key early backer of Obama's failed 2000 bid for a seat in Congress.

Despite Obama's distancing efforts, Farrakhan has expressed strong support for Obama. Obama was apparently at Farrakhan's Million Man March, although his precise attitude toward the march is in dispute. Jeremiah Wright co-wrote a book (based on a series of sermons) in defense of the Million Man March, and constantly speaks highly of his regard for Farrakhan. So whatever his own relation (or lack thereof) to Farrakhan, Obama was not discouraged by the fact that his two key religious mentors and political supporters were arguably Farrakhan's closest Chicago allies.

The full story of Barack Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright has yet to be told. It is already evident, however, that Obama's recent attempts to minimize that relationship are smoke and mirrors. Obama leans left — far left. He is not the moderate, bipartisan figure he claims to be. That is what his history reveals. The mentors who knew Obama best supported him because of their confidence that, given the inevitable political constraints, Obama's success would best advance their shared hard-left agenda.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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