Hitch's column yesterday cast a wide net in impugning today's black civil rights leaders. I'm no big fan of many either. Hitch also denigrates three men whom Obama once described as spiritual mentors:
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 Pflegerfor a change of pace, a white Catholic preacher who has a close personal feeling for the man he calls (as does Obama) Minister Farrakhan.
I had heard of Pfleger, asked someone who knows the Chicago archdiocese and looked him up. Here's his Wiki profile. That he has once called Farrakhan "Minister" is not an exhaustive summary of his career. My source's summary: "a crazy person who's done a lot of great things." Sounds about right. From anti-drug crusades to picketing Jerry Springer and accusing a basketball league of racism to three-hour-long jam-packed Sunday masses, Pfleger is pretty sui generis, and has indeed invited Farrakhan to his church. He has also invited Angelou, and Daley and Tutu among countless others, and has views that would endear him to Bill O'Reilly on some issues. Here's a story from 1998 on his work in the National Catholic Reporter. Here's a brief look at the history of the parish. Pfleger's a white man who has built the biggest African-American Catholic parish in Chicago. In 2002, Cardinal Francis George, while praising Pfleger's work as "wonderful", tried to reassign him to another parish. The parishioners were having none of it. From the National Catholic Reporter:
"I want to remain at St. Sabina," Pfleger told NCR. "When you look at the miserable job the church has done in the black community, and you see here a place that's financially strong, a school with 570 students and a waiting list, why would you not want to duplicate it instead of dismantle it?" He cited parish-sponsored projects including a senior apartment building, an employment service, a youth center, a retreat center and construction plans for 45 new homes. The church's rousing liturgies, which often last three hours or more, draw from the entire metropolitan area. "Look at the successful black [Protestant] congregations in this city and you will see longevity of leadership," Pfleger said. "That's how you build respect and develop relationships."
On Feb. 17 Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu made a visit to St. Sabina where he was welcomed by an overflow crowd that stretched down the street. He came, he said, because of the persistence of the parish's leadership. "They don't know the word no," said Tutu.
Yes, Hitch is right here:
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.
But that is the point, surely. What Pfleger, Wright and Meeks disagree on - gay dignity and equality spring to mind - can be dissected. (Meeks is repellent in his views on gays and Jews; Wright remarkably inclusive in ways no one has any interest in bringing up). But what they obviously share, and what Obama clearly refers to, is an impulse to bring Christianity to the black, urban poor, an attraction to the prophetic tradition in African-American Christianity, and a socially activist agenda. It's not my Christianity, it probably has its share of crackpots, but it does very good things in many blighted, urban neighborhoods, and it has saved souls. If I were looking for a way to criticize today's civil rights leaders, I could find a few more quickly than a priest like Pfleger or a preacher like Wright (Meeks - well, Hitch is not imagining things).