Love him or hate him, Christopher Hitchens goes places no one else dares in political commentary. Not many atheists would presume to argue that they have more of a sense of Martin Luther King’s legacy than Jeremiah Wright, James Meeks, or Michael Pfleger. Hitchens does just that in scolding Barack Obama for his refusal to explicitly disavow the hate speech of these three men, and calls into question whether Obama actually stands for anything at all:
I also absorbed a news item about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the recently retired pastor of Barack Obama’s church in Chicago. Here is the form that the reverend’s “retirement” will take: a $1.6 million home, purchased in the name of his church and consisting of more than 10,000 square feet, in a gated community in Tinley Park, a prosperous white section of the city. There used to be a secularist line about fat shepherds and thin sheep, but the joke here is not just at the expense of a man who never pretended to be much more than a hustler. The joke is on those of the “flock” who tithed themselves to achieve this level of comfort for a man who must be pinching himself when he wakes up every day.
But, then, so must the Rev. Al Sharpton, routinely described by the New York Times as “the civil rights activist,” be pinching himself each morning. By evening, after all, several limos will have arrived to transport him to several studios where he will be flattered and taken seriously. And this enviable existence is watched with avaricious jealousy by more junior practitioners, like the raving Rev. James Meeks of Chicago’s Salem Baptist Church, who may not yet be quite ready for prime time, and by the members of Louis Farrakhan’s racist and sectarian crew, who affect to think that Christianity is a slave religion and that white people are the products of a laboratory experiment gone wrong.
The thing that this gaggle of cranks and parasites has in common is the extreme deference with which it is treated by the junior senator from Illinois. In April 2004, Barack Obama told a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times that he had three spiritual mentors or counselors: Jeremiah Wright, James Meeks, and Father Michael Pfleger—for a change of pace, a white Catholic preacher who has a close personal feeling for the man he calls (as does Obama) Minister Farrakhan. This crossover stuff is not as “inclusive” as it might be made to seem: Meeks’ main political connections in the white community are with the hysterically anti-homosexual wing of the Christian right. If Obama were to be read a list of the positions that his clerical supporters take on everything from Judaism to sodomy, he would be in the smooth and silky business of “distancing” from now until November. And that is why he hopes that his Philadelphia speech, which dissociated him from everything and nothing, will be enough. He seems, indeed, to have a real gift for remaining adequately uninformed about the real beliefs of his “mentors.”
This is a lot sadder, and a lot more serious, than has been admitted. Four decades after the murder in Memphis of a friend of the working man—a hero who was always being denounced by the FBI for his choice of secular and socialist friends and colleagues—the national civil rights pulpit is largely occupied by second-rate shakedown artists who hope to franchise “race talk” into a fat living for themselves.
Obama indeed identified Pfleger, Meeks, and of course Wright as his spiritual mentors in this April 2004 profile in the Chicago Sun-Times. At the time, Obama needed the vote from Chicago to win against his presumed opponent in the Senate race, incumbent Jack Ryan. No one could have predicted Ryan’s fall from grace that summer and the inability of Illinois Republicans to field a challenger with more credibility than a carpetbagging Alan Keyes.
If he had known of the walkover at that time, he might have done then what he’s tried to do for the last few weeks — distance himself from Wright and Pfleger. Instead, he called Wright a “close confidant”, a much closer relationship than the “just a pastor” line he trotted out after Wright’s sermons hit the Internet. Pfleger is introduced in the article as being among Obama’s “friends and advisers” and his 20-year relationship is emphasized.
Hitchens exposes Obama’s spin rather nicely in this essay. It has little to do with faith and Christianity — but then neither did Wright’s rants about the US of KKK-A and the conspiracy theories about HIV. Obama still needs to answer for his advisers and acknowledging his past enthusiastic embrace of them when it suited his political needs.