Visiting Chicago’s St. Sabina parish this March, it was impossible to quell the suspicion that the resident pastor, firebrand activist Rev. Michael Pfleger, was bound to spell trouble for Barack Obama.
Immediately striking were the parallels between Pfleger and Obama’s soon-to-be ex-spiritual advisor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Like Wright, Pfleger enjoyed a friendship with the candidate stretching back twenty years. Like Wright, too, he was an unreconstructed political radical, preaching an abrasively Afro-centrist gospel of oppression that takes white “racism” as a powerful and pervasive fact of American life – a liturgical bent all the more noticeable for the fact that Pfleger, while ministering to an overwhelmingly black congregation, is himself white. It was only a matter of time, surely, before Pfleger’s penchant for off-the-cuff ad hominem – he dedicated one Good Friday service to waxing apoplectic about “the stupid people” in the media who dared to disparage his friend Jeremiah Wright – landed him in the national spotlight.
Pfleger’s moment of infamy finally arrived last week. While putting in a guest appearance at Trinity United Church of Christ, led until his recent retirement by Rev. Wright, Pfleger struck up a familiar theme: railing against alleged white racism, personified, in this instance, by Hillary Clinton. Purporting to expose “white entitlement and supremacy wherever it raises its head,” Pfleger claimed to see it in Clinton’s stymied campaign:
“I really believe that she just always thought, 'This is mine! I'm Bill's wife, I'm white, and this is mine! I just gotta get up and step into the plate.' And then out of nowhere came, 'Hey, I'm Barack Obama,' and she said, 'Oh, damn! Where did you come from? I'm white! I'm entitled! There's a black man stealing my show!’”
Sensing that he had gone too far, Pfleger tried to step back from the brink. “Sorry,” he said, “don’t want to get you into any more trouble.”
By then, of course, it was too late. A video clip of the sermon, posted on Youtube shortly thereafter, revealed to a broader audience what already was common knowledge on Chicago’s South Side: Even as he has cast himself as the candidate to transcend racial tensions, Obama has retained lasting attachments to Chicago activists and religious leaders whose politics, anchored in a sectarian creed of self-imposed victimhood and racial paranoia, inflamed those tensions and stifled progress in the black community. Jeremiah Wright, hardly an outlier, was representative of Obama’s support base in Chicago. And as the emergence of Michael Pfleger showed, there was more – much more – where that came from.
With the airing of the Pfleger video, the Obama campaign went into damage control. Obama professed himself “deeply disappointed” with Pfleger’s “backward-looking rhetoric.” A testimonial from Pfleger that had once appeared in the “people of faith” section of Obama’s website was summarily disappeared. Pfleger himself, in a statement released by his church, explained that his words were “inconsistent with Senator Obama's life and message” and that he was “deeply sorry if they offended Senator Clinton or anyone else who saw them,” a non-apology apology that made a mockery of contrition. On Saturday, in his most decisive step to date, Obama quit his membership in Trinity United, citing his concern that remarks made by those affiliated with the church, “including guest pastors,” could be “imputed” to him.
As with the storm over Rev. Wright, Obama’s latest retreat from an old ally raised more questions than it answered. If Pfleger’s words really were “inconsistent” with Obama’s message, why had Obama not moved sooner to distance himself from the vitriolic pastor? If he truly was disappointed by “backward-looking” rhetoric, why had he cultivated the support of those who, like Wright and Pfleger, had made a career of preaching it to the city’s black community?
Ignorance is not an option for Obama. Pfleger has led St. Sabina since 1981. In that time, he has established himself as a prominent voice of racial grievance, regularly invoking the “racism” of the United States. America, he has long claimed, is permeated with “classism and racism,” with a “double standard” against black citizens. In a 2006 speech, he charged that Americas’ “greatest addiction is to racism” (this even as he hailed bigot Louis Farrakhan as a “great man”). The following year he declared that “African American life in America is still threatened and still at risk,” presumably by white society. As recently as this April, he told the Washington Post that “racism is alive and well in America,” but that the country “doesn’t want to deal with it.” In denouncing Hillary Clinton as an agent of white “supremacy,” Pfleger was only being true to his message over the years.
It’s inconceivable that Obama was unaware of that message. In the first place, there is his admitted, decades-long friendship with Pfleger. Then there are his occasional appearances at St. Sabina’s, where promotional videos capture the candidate in the congregation. Further, before media scrutiny forced a public divorce, Obama was not only not offended by Pfleger’s politics, but he was an active supporter of Pfleger’s church. As recently as 2001, Obama directed at least $225000 in taxpayer dollars towards social programs at St. Sabina's.
On other occasions, he found Pfleger politically useful. Just as he dropped Rev. Wright’s famous name to gain credibility with black audiences in the South, Obama invited Pfleger to host an interfaith forum in Iowa. That he now feels compelled to keep him at arm’s length only underscores the shameless opportunism behind the Obama campaign.
It probably is too late for Hillary Clinton to capitalize on the fallout over Pfleger’s remarks. News reports now treat her campaign as a sideshow, unworthy of serious consideration. John McCain’s campaign, meanwhile, has declined to make an issue of Obama’s allies in Chicago.
That is a strategic mistake. If one measure of a man is his friends, then the Revs. Wright and Pfleger divulge much about Obama. They cast doubt, for instance, on Obama’s ability to speak hard truths to the black community, particularly on the issue of race. In their seesawing relationship – up when Obama needed to appeal to black voters, down when it became a political liability – the candidate is revealed as a creature of ambition more than principle. Ultimately his lasting ties to racial rabble-rousers like Wright and Pfleger call forth a number of questions – about character, about judgment – that a future president should be made to answer. To Obama’s supporters, the candidate’s inability to put his pastor problems to rest must seem frustrating. But as would be obvious to anyone who has watched Rev. Michael Pfleger in action, he had it coming.