Until recently, Barack Obama's presidential campaign was premised on the future. The senator from Illinois orated floridly about bringing "change" to the country; a New Political Man, he pledged to soothe the feuds of old and usher in a national reconciliation amid troubled times. With the emergence of divisive figures like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's longtime friend and acerbically Afro-centric pastor, the focus has shifted to the past, and with good reason. As FrontPageMag.com senior editor Jacob Laksin discovered in his recent reporting from Chicago's South Side, the predominantly black community where Obama launched his political career in the eighties and nineties, Wright may be the best known of Obama's friends and allies, but he may not even be the most controversial. In a series appearing in FrontPage over the last three days, Laksin explores Obama's ties to the South Side personalities who helped propel him to power, but whose continuing – and reciprocated – friendship with the candidate raises troubling questions about his ability to forge a new political consensus, especially on the fractious issue of race. To evaluate Obama's campaign and its grand promises, readers must first come to know the world of Chicago politics from which he emerged. To read Part I of "Obama's World," click here and Part II, click here. -- The Editors
Chicago – The first thing that catches your eye when you enter Trinity United Church of Christ, the erstwhile address of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, is a bronze plaque above the reception desk that states: “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.”
It is an explicit declaration of the Afrocentric politics that animate this church, and a powerful refutation of the objections, feebly offered by the struggling campaign of Barack Obama, that the candidate who has called the church home for twenty years never once witnessed the radicalism that has put it on the national map.
All evidence suggests that the opposite is more likely. In joining Trinity in 1992, Obama purposely was seeking to align himself with the radical tradition – a polarizing but undeniably popular combination of black-power fulminating, racial separatism, and community outreach – that Trinity had come to represent. And while the connection is today a source of embarrassment, as well as swiftly diminishing poll numbers, for Obama, at the time it was a pathway to the credibility and stature that the aspiring politician needed, and which ultimately would power his rise to higher office.
Trinity wasn't always the hothouse of racial resentment that it is today. Founded in 1961, the church had a small, 200-member congregation, and struggled to attract new members. Harder times attended the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Radicalized by the slaying of the civil-rights hero, many black parishioners now sought a more militant message. Churches like Trinity, decried as “white-oriented,” fell into disfavor.
The 1970s marked Trinity’s revival. Under the leadership of interim pastor Reverend Reuben Sheares, Trinity became a beachhead of the black-power movement. Breaking with its past as a conventional community church, Trinity embraced both the racial theories of black “uniqueness” and “authenticity” that had come into vogue and the radical political program of “black liberation theology,” a crude variant of Marxist liberation theology that fused Christian teachings with the anti-capitalist and anti-American dogmas of the hard Left.
It was under Rev. Sheares that Trinity’s congregation voted to adopt “unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian” as its official motto. Afrocentric and confrontational, it was also a rejoinder to those, especially in the Nation of Islam, who sneered that Christianity was a “white man’s religion.” Trinity’s political transformation would be complete under Sheares’ successor, a young preacher named Jeremiah Wright.
The selection of Wright was unmistakably political. In the application, interested pastors were asked for their views on Trinity’s statement of purpose. Testing their commitment to racial politics, the statement explained that pastors were to “serve as instruments of God and church in our eliminating those things in our culture that lead to the dehumanization of persons and tend to perpetuate their psychological enslavement.” In other words, the ideal candidate would preach that the United States was an endemically racist country that continued to subjugate its black citizens. Wright passed the test. In 1972, he was named Trinity’s pastor.
Throughout the next 36 years that he would lead the church, Wright would establish Trinity as the South Side’s premier voice for political extremism and racial separatism. In 1980, for instance, the church adopted a so-called “black value system” that emphasized the “black community” the “black family” and the “black work ethic” and urged a commitment to an “all-black leadership.”
Still another element of the system called for the “disavowal of the pursuit of ‘middleclassness.’” In this view, American society was the enemy of blacks, and stood accused of “[k]illing them off directly, and/or fostering a social system that encourages them to kill off one another” and “[p[lacing them in concentration camps, and/or structuring an economic environment that induces captive youth to fill the jails and prisons.”
To an outside observer, it may seem curious for a church seemingly dedicated to community uplift to decry upward mobility and financial success. But there was a depressing logic to the church’s orientation. If black citizens succeeded in the working world, the core assumptions of black liberation theology– namely, that racism was a widespread and insuperable force in American life – would be invalidated. By convincing parishioners that they could not succeed, conmen like Wright could make them receptive to message of the church. As Wright himself admitted: “That whole notion that we are middle class prevents us from being conscious and doing any type of black theology.” The chief merit of the black value system, then, was in guaranteeing that men like Wright continued to wield influence.
To be sure, it’s possible to overstate Wright’s role in radicalizing the church. With his conviction, derived from black-liberation ideologist James Cone, that the “black church has to be political,” Wright may have been the principal mover behind Trinity’s turn toward the political extreme. But his success in this regard is a reflection of the black community to which he ministered and in which Barack Obama would launch his career.
It is telling that Trinity’s congregation comprises not only inner-city residents, who might be seduced by the catechism of oppression preached by Wright, but also the kind of middle-class, black professionals who might be expected to see through such blustering attacks on the alleged evils of modern America. Even the rich and famous have flocked to Trinity. For an Easter service in 1990, for instance, Jazz great Wynton Marsalis dropped by with his quintet. Oprah Winfrey was reportedly a member of the Trinity congregation, though she seems not to have attended in recent years.
The support that radicals like Wright enjoy in the black community was again underscored last week when the pastor spoke at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. In the speech, Wright mostly repeated his most incendiary remarks, from his claim that the United States is committing “terrorism,” to his support for National of Islam bigot Louis Farrakhan (“one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century”) to his insane insistence that the American government spread AIDS in the black community (“I believe our government is capable of doing anything”). Even more notable about the speech, however, was the reaction to it by the audience of black religious leaders. By no means disapproving of Wright’s poisonous remarks, they cheered and cried “amen.” It was reminiscent of the enthusiastic applause that Wright aroused in his own congregation at Trinity when he delivered his now-notorious “God damn America” tirade.
With large swaths of the black community so sympathetic to Wright’s message, it should come as no surprise that political radicalism has not impeded the growth of his church. Quite the opposite: from an all-time low of 87 members, Trinity’s mainly black congregation now averages over 8,000, making it the single largest church in the United Church of Christ denomination.
Such a trajectory of success suggests an uncomfortable fact. When Rev. Wright dismissed criticism of his inflammatory sermons as an attack on black churches and the black community, he was not entirely mistaken. One reason that racial instigators like Wright have prospered, after all, is that they preach what is the received wisdom in communities like Chicago’s South Side.
Nonetheless, it was here that Obama chose to make his career and here that, in 1992, he joined Trinity. With the controversy over his ties to Rev. Wright wrecking havoc on his political fortunes, the decision now seems woefully misguided. But in retrospect, and in the cold light of political calculation, it was the obvious choice.
Trinity allowed Obama to pad his still-thin résumé. An admitted agnostic, Obama could fortify doubts about his spiritual and religious commitments. A biracial politician looking to prove that he was authentically “black,” he could rely on Trinity’s Afrocentric gospel to convince race-conscious unbelievers. A community organizer with budding political ambitions, he could identify a constituency in the large congregation. At Trinity, Obama got religion – and a reputation.
There can be little doubt that Obama was aware of the political and racial tilt of his church – and not only because its Afrocentric reputation was by then well established. When new members are received into Trinity, the congregation stands and recites, “There is no task more sacred than the liberation of black people…We therefore declare that we are unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.” According to Wright, this affirmation made Trinity different from other churches, which “don’t want to ‘offend’ their white members.” There is no evidence that Obama was offended by this Afrocentric oath.
Nor was Obama ignorant of the “black value system” program touted at Trinity. In fact, he would go on to praise it in his 1996 autobiography, Dreams From My Father, writing: “It was a powerful program, one more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than my own brand of organizing.” And yet, it was this “program” that informed Wright’s sermons, whether it be his ranting that the government created the AIDS virus in the black community or his assurance that the United States the equivalent of al-Qaeda. It is inconceivable that in all his years of attendance Obama remained ignorant of the hateful speechifying that has now brought his pastor and his church to national attention.
In this connection, the single most damaging statement that Wright has made is not found in his sermons. Instead, it is Wright’s recent suggestion that in distancing himself, Obama was acting not out of real conviction but simply as politicians do when “they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls.” Just as Obama once found it useful to seek Wright’s counsel and backing, so too did he now find it convenient to reassure wary white voters that Wright “was never my spiritual adviser, he was never my spiritual mentor” and that he would have left Trinity had Wright not retired. For all of Wright’s fanatical exuberance, this description of Obama seems strikingly plausible.
Certainly Obama has found it expedient to invoke his relationship with Rev. Wright and Trinity when it might be politically advantageous. Addressing black leaders in Selma, Alabama, in March 2007, Obama made a point of mentioning that he had received “a letter from a friend of some of yours named Reverend Otis Moss Jr. in Cleveland, and his son, Otis Moss III is the Pastor at my church and I must send greetings from Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr…But I got but I got a letter giving me encouragement and saying how proud he was that I had announced and encouraging me to stay true to my ideals and my values and not to be fearful.” The message was clear enough: Obama’s values were the values of his pastors, and, by extension, those of the black community in Selma.
Similarly, it was only last fall that the Obama campaign told the New York Times that the relationship between the candidate and his pastor was “closer than ever.” Last month, Obama said that Wright was “like family to me,” an accurate enough description of the man who had married Obama and his wife, and who had baptized his two daughters. Even when Wright became a political wedge, Obama insisted that he “could no more disown him that I could my white grandmother.” Only now that Wright fatally threatens his campaign for the Democratic nomination has Obama decided, unconvincingly, that Wright is “not the person I had come to know over 20 years.”In his defense, Obama says that he “cannot prevent [Wright] from continuing to make these outrageous remarks.” If Wright is the tireless self-promoter he appears to be, that is almost certainly correct. But it is worth considering that when he met Wright twenty years ago, Obama could not but be aware of his political belligerence or the racial chauvinism that inspired his sermons. It is precisely because of these views that Obama, then struggling to define his own identity, became a member of Wright’s church and later used his pastor as a political crutch. Now that Wright threatens to hobble his campaign, Obama has only himself to blame.