Obama: Political Pragmatist or Social Gospel Sell-Out?

Stanley Kurtz treats Obama's relationship with black churches in Chicago in a recent piece in the June 30 issue of The National Review, which relies heavily on an article Obama wrote in 1988 entitled, Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City. Kurtz attempts to skewer Obama on his relationship to these churches by suggesting that he "was for black liberation theology before he was against it." In the Why Organize? article, Obama writes:"Nowhere is the promise of organizing more apparent than in the traditional 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. A fierce independence among black pastors and a preference for more traditional approaches to social involvement (supporting candidates for office, providing shelters for the homeless) have prevented the black church from bringing its full weight to bear on the political, social and economic arenas of the city."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 and GREAT in the Grand Boulevard area 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 the thousands that exist in cities like Chicago, decide to collaborate with a trained organizing staff, enormous positive changes could be wrought in the education, housing, employment and spirit of inner-city black communities, changes that would send powerful ripples throughout the city."Of course, Kurtz attempts to foster the fear in his conservative readership that Obama's days as an organizer are still close to his heart, meaning that he will make social gospel theology (read: communism) and minority empowerment (read: Malcolm X) important planks in his political agenda. Kurtz clearly has a caricatured understanding of what constitutes social gospel theology, but Obama missed a major opportunity to correct those who hold such an ossified view by so unceremoniously resigning from a church he would surely have included as a "slumbering giant" in the community organizing movement. He has fueled a lot of his campaign by talking up his community organizing experience, and it was his associations with pastors like Reverend Wright and congregations like Trinity that helped him build the foundation of his political career. Now, though, it appears that he is willing to closet the theological worldview that was once a "promise" of change.As a political thinker, I understand that distancing himself from the sometimes radical language of the social gospel, especially as taken up by some black churches, was a politically necessary move. As Alexander Cockburn said in a recent piece in the June 23 issue of The Nation, "The assignment of every supposed liberal on the presidential campaign trail is to engage in the task of political redefinition, so that bankers, CEOs of the Fortune 500, Rupert Murdoch, the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Abe Foxman and all the others all deem that candidate safe.'" Yet, Cockburn contines, "Lately Obama has shown an eerie and relentless skill in the tasks of reassurance. Though necessary to a certain extent, it's an ominous talent."While "ominous" may be too strong a word for it, Obama's deft negotiation of the political landscape does give cause for concern. As someone interested in the state of public theology, I think a great opportunity to expand the discussion beyond the Bush brand of evangelical Christianity was missed. Furthermore, I fear that, in his rush for broad appeal, those communities, who have trusted him to speak truth to power, will be left in the wake of political efficiency. Only time will tell, but I hope Obama doesn't forget the wisdom he said could be gained from "the beauty and strength of everyday people," and that it is through "stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves." If he is elected, it will be, in part, because he promised to tell these stories. In my view, he missed the opportunity to give voice to one liberative, yet often publicly silenced, theological story-one that sorely needs to be preached. I hope he doesn't miss many more.For a similar critique of Obama on this matter, from someone closer to the black church, see Yale Prof. Andre Willis's blog post here: http://www.theroot.com/id/46329

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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