As an up-and-coming Chicago lawyer and politician during the 1990s, Barack Obama courted key players in the city’s black community — including his longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright — to bolster his aspirations for higher office. But after being beaten by Congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush in a 2000 congressional primary, Obama realized he that still wasn’t widely recognized among black voters. So he sought the support of other black clergymen such as James Meeks, a protege of the Rev. Jesse Jackson who later became a state senator.
Such ties have now proved to be a drag on Obama’s effort to win the Democratic presidential nomination, especially after Wright’s fiery, sometimes cartoonish, criticism of American foreign policy and support for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, came to light.
Obama’s ties to gay-bashing clergymen, including gospel singer Donnie McClurkin (who claimed he cured himself of homosexuality) and Meeks — whose church once burned in effigy two gay men adorned in body glitter — have also forced Obama to reconcile these relationships with his vision of a post-racial, post-ethnic, tolerant America.
The Illinois senator has so far managed to overcome these ties. But his struggles also show one of the biggest difficulties faced by black politicians aspiring for higher political office. The very churches and mosques that have helped them gain power in their gerrymandered, mostly-black wards can hinder them among a more diverse collection of voters less knowledgeable of — and less tolerant of — their rhetoric.
Distancing themselves from these power bases also leaves these politicians vulnerable to the charges of racial betrayal. They know that they cannot win office without the less-savory elements of their base. And yet, they may not be able to move up with them in tow.
OBAMA IS JUST the most prominent black politician dogged by such ties. Andre Carson, the Indianapolis political scion now representing the Seventh Congressional District — one of the most demographically diverse House districts in the nation — proclaimed that his faith was “multifaceted” after being criticized for his relationship with the Nation of Islam, especially after its leader, Farrakhan, endorsed his candidacy last December.
Carson’s House colleague, Keith Ellison of Minnesota — who, as a law school student, once wrote articles praising Farrakhan — denounced the Muslim leader in 2006 in order to win the Fifth Congressional District seat held by Martin Sabo and become the first Muslim in Congress. He also had to disavow ties to others, including Siraj Wahhaj, an alleged un-indicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Ordinarily, such ties would not be a winning formula in the current American landscape. But like Christian fundamentalist clerics on the right, black clergymen are key political organizers in black communities throughout the country, offering politicians a network of volunteers and voters, along with forums through which they can electioneer.
Many black churches are still run by old-school pastors who came of age during the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. Their black liberation theology embraces a philosophy of black pride, and a view of American history and life, which can at times verge on separatism.
The clergymen and their older parishioners tend to harbor sentiments about homosexuality that are sometimes more philosophically conservative and less-tolerant than those expressed by some Christian fundamentalists. This despite the fact that closeted gays often make up the gospel choirs, are some of the most popular black cultural icons, sit in the pews as prominent civic leaders, even stand in the pulpit.
But thanks to middle-class blacks, whose more tolerant social tendencies conflict with their desire for community and scarce choices in the religious marketplace, black churches remain an influential political force. That power has grown over the past six decades because of the civil rights movement, the decline of more secular groups such as Masonic lodges, and the efforts by Republicans and centrist Democrats in the 1990s to use faith-based organizations to deliver social services.
These same forces have made Muslim mosques, a fixture in the black community since the 1920s, even more prominent. The Nation of Islam, with its mishmash of black nationalism, anti-Semitism and calls for self-sufficiency, have long appealed to poor, urban blacks who felt their concerns were ignored by whites and middle-class blacks alike. The settlement of Arabs in black communities, along with the growth of the Nation’s more moderate splinter groups since the 1970s, has fueled the growth of more traditional Sunni and Shiite mosques, some of which are tied to more virulent brands of Islamic fundamentalism.
The identity politics favored by the Democratic Party has bolstered these ties. So has the federal Voting Rights Act, which governs the redistricting of congressional and legislative districts. Since its passage in 1965, Democrats and Republicans, with the backing of black civic leaders, have embraced a more modern form of segregation by caring out districts with largely- or majority-black populations.
This political segregation continues even as former congressmen Gary Franks and J.C. Watts, along with Obama, have proven that they can win over a variety of racial, ethnic and social groups.
THEIR PANDERING TO black clergy, along with the traditional post-civil rights era formula of appeals to racial pride and the doling out of welfare benefits, didn’t prepare most black politicians for the kind of broad coalition-building — including appeals to people of non-color — that they need to win governorships and senate seats, the key offices that lead to the presidency.
The politicians themselves, like many of their fellow parishioners, may not embrace the inflammatory rhetoric, but they tolerate it. Those outside the pews of black churches, however, won’t let them off the hook for doing so.
As a result, black politicians must coyly distance themselves from the rhetoric of their supporters without going so far as to break with them. It’s difficult to have a Sister Souljah moment when that person isn’t a smack talking rapper, but an influential supporter.Obama attempted this in Philadelphia last March with his speech on race relations. While arguing that “I can no more disown [Rev. Wright] than I can disown the black community,” he actually did so throughout the entire speech. All it did was lead to backlash from Wright and his fellow clergymen, along with criticism from Obama’s archrival, Hillary Clinton, and pundits.
This balancing is especially problematic for the emerging younger, more centrist generation of black politicians, who prefer to focus on improving schools, economic conditions, and ending unwed parenthood than to dwell on matters of race and sex. It’s difficult to offer a different vision when old-school clerics view such ideas with disdain.
A key Obama supporter, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, faced this opposing problem two years ago during his successful gubernatorial bid. Ministers in such black clergy groups such as the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston complained that his eschewing of old-style race-baiting and support for gay marriage were too far out of the black mainstream. As a result, the former Clinton administration appointee reached out beyond the churches and outside the black community in order to win office.
Younger black politicians, learning the lessons from Obama’s experience, may have to go even further than Patrick in breaking with these clerics, even at the expense of being accused of racial betrayal. The growth of Latinos, Asians and even whites in once solidly-black districts may also help force black politicians to look outward. Either way, it will be a hard transition.