On Saturday, May 31, just before he
wrapped up the nomination, Obama quietly issued a statement telling us
that he is quitting Trinity United Church of Christ. Maybe it’s all for
the best. Given the hectic schedule he’s going to have to keep between
now and November, it’s probably not a bad idea for him and Michelle to
get to sleep in on Sundays. Read the paper. Make pancakes for the kids.
Leave the praying to the rest of us.
But it is strange that a man who has been attacked by the
lunatic fringe for supposedly being a Muslim (not that there’s anything
wrong with that, they add) is forced to renounce the Christian house of
worship he has called home for the past 20 years. I suppose that soon
we can expect him to take refuge in a synagogue, or perhaps adopt the
tolerant company of Unitarians on the weekend.
Obama timed his resignation from Trinity
Church in a way that minimized press attention. As a presidential
candidate he didn’t want any more association with the Rev. Jeremiah
Wright, and he couldn’t stomach the YouTube version of the speech by
the Catholic priest Michael Pfleger. Pfleger, who has since been forced
to take a leave from his parish by Chicago’s archbishop, spoke from
Trinity’s pulpit on May 25, and mocked Hillary Clinton in racially
tinged tones. It was a sickening spectacle.
The political handlers decided that
Obama can’t be president if he is seen as an associate of Pfleger. How
could a congregation, many ask, allow a man into the pulpit who would
say such divisive things?
The answer is that Pfleger’s actions
speak louder than his words. While Obama did his stint organizing for
change in Chicago, Pfleger has made it his life’s mission. When the
crack epidemic hit Chicago full force 15 years ago, Pfleger didn’t form
a task force, he marched his flock down the aisle and out into the
street to hold vigil at local crackhouses, demanding police action.
When gangs turned his neighborhood into a war zone, Pfleger scurried
about late into the night arranging truces between rivals, saving lives
in the process. While academics debated the absence of fathers in poor
black communities, Pfleger took in three foster children, giving agita
to the archbishop but a home to boys who needed one.
Good works and bad words have defined
his decades of ministry. Pfleger is not afraid to say what he thinks.
This doesn’t always make friends for him. He is not anyone’s definition
of politically correct.
So now we know: People in Barack Obama’s church say
controversial things. And we also know that he has to leave them behind
while trying to get elected president. But I, for one, am glad to know
that he has at least listened to challenging and engaging moral leaders
and has embraced them. It’s been decades now that religion has been
associated with complacency and conservatism in American political
life. We don’t need another president home-schooled by Billy Graham.
There is something of a double standard
here. No one ever expected John Kerry to leave the Catholic Church
because his lead pastor believes that gay folk are going to hell or
that the pope touts that all the best jobs in the church should go to
men. No one ever said Joe Lieberman should leave his religion behind
because of something a rabbi once said, even a rabbi he may have
embraced. Mitt Romney’s freedom to be a Mormon was never questioned
because of some rather unusual Mormon positions. Nixon didn’t even have
to give up being a Quaker just because he carpet-bombed Indochina.
But Barack Obama can’t be president if
he still wants to go to church with folks who are not afraid to speak
their mind without considering the YouTube implications of their words.
Barack Obama can’t be president if he associates with religious types
who say things about America that are less than complimentary, but
which happen to be true.
“Hate me if you will,” Pfleger said in
his apology for his Clinton-bashing remarks. “Hate my imperfect
presentation. Hate my imperfect dramatization. I have never presumed to
be anything but imperfect, but I pray I can still beat the drum of
justice, even if sometimes I am off beat.”
In a century in which so far the
drumbeat of religious activism has been drowned out by the drums of
war, we could do far worse than Michael Pfleger. In a campaign in which
voices of caution will urge him to quiet his more radical impulses,
Obama may miss the guidance from some of those who march to a different
beat. (I’m hoping that he can at least keep up with his church family
Now the question begs to be asked: Which
is the greater shame—that people in the pulpit of Barack Obama’s church
have said controversial things, or that people in George Bush’s own
church have not?