Obama’s latest pastor problems

wrightpflegerobamafoxWhat do you think of the media coverage of the latest religious news being made by and around Sen. Barack Obama?

I suspect that I am not alone in thinking that the coverage of Obama’s church, pastors, and religious advisors isn’t going to win any awards. But what do you think could be done to improve it?

I’ll admit I was totally obsessed with the Scripps National Spelling Bee yesterday (go Sameer!) but my survey of mainstream media over the last few days didn’t turn up much about the incendiary sermon preached from the pulpit of Obama’s church last Sunday. Obama’s long-time friend and fellow community activist Rev. Michael Pfleger preached a sermon there that you can watch a portion of for yourself. It’s been all over the political blogs and opinion media but solid mainstream stories have been harder to come by. Of course, now that the Obamas have resigned their membership from Trinity United Church of Christ, coverage is definitely picking up.

Here’s how MSNBC reported the original story:

Saying he was seeking to “expose white entitlement and supremacy wherever it raises its head,” Pfleger mocked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for appearing to weep at a campaign appearance before the New Hampshire primary in January, saying she was crying because “there’s a black man stealing my show.”

“She always thought, ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife, I’m white and this is mine,’” Pfleger said in his fiery sermon.

As the racially mixed congregation responded “Amen!” and “Yes, sir!” Pfleger pretended to cry and shouted: “And then out of nowhere came him, Barack Obama. And she said: ‘Damn! Where did you come from?! I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show!’

“She wasn’t the only one crying!” he said. “There was a whole a lot of white people crying!” . . .

After conservative commentators and Fox News Channel latched onto Pfleger’s remarks, which received wide circulation on YouTube and conservative political blogs, Obama released a statement late Thursday repudiating the priest, who resigned from the campaign’s pastoral advisory committee several months ago.

That last paragraph forced me to emit a groan. If it’s true that only conservative commentators and the Fox News Channel care about remarks such as these, I’m not sure I would be highlighting that fact. It seems to me that the media are in the bag for Obama and as a result willfully avoid reporting some negative news surrounding him. I was one of the folks calling for the media to put Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s remarks in context (I didn’t know how overboard the media would eventually go in context-providing) but that doesn’t mean that the remarks weren’t newsworthy. Same here. This reporter’s attempts to downplay the significance of Pfleger’s relationship to Obama seems a bit much. Particularly since it was only Friday that Pfleger’s testimony was scrubbed from the’s web page on Obama’s web site describing the support he’s received from religious leaders. And brutally mocking Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination and calling her a racist from the pulpit of Obama’s church? Surely it’s not just conservatives who care about such things.

One of my favorite political reporters is ABC News’ Jake Tapper. Sometimes I think he’s the only mainstream-based reporter who won’t look back on his performance this year as embarrassingly uncritical of Obama. Not that he’s unfair to Obama, he’s just tenacious with all of the candidates he covers. He’s also done a good job covering the religious angles to the various horse races (perhaps related to his self-description as a “person of faith” here?).

Rather than unnecessarily downplay Obama’s relationship with Pfleger, he explained in his first post on the matter that the Obama campaign brought Pfleger to Iowa in September to host an interfaith forum, and:

Their relationship spans decades. Pfleger has given money to Obama’s campaigns and Obama as a state legislator directed at least $225,000 towards social programs at St. Sabina’s, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Tapper paints a picture of a complex priest, beloved for his social work and criticized for inviting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to speak at St. Sabina’s. It’s certainly much better than this puffy Washington Post video report of Pfleger.

Lynn Sweet, who blogs for the Chicago Sun-Times wrote up the controversy. I found it noteworthy on two fronts. Describing Pfleger as a headline-making household name in Chicago, she provides context for how the controversial priest’s 20-year association with Obama has been underreported:

Pfleger’s crusades against guns, prostitution, porn and tobacco have made good copy for years for a fairly admiring local press corps hooked on cheering for the underdog, the poor and the powerless.

She also nails the largely religious impact of the remarks with a remarkable efficiency of words.

farr and pflePfleger’s comments, she reports, come at a time Obama has been trying to reach out to working-class white voters, he spoke from the pulpit of Trinity, show a troubling connection with Obama, they drive a wedge between women and Obama and they forced Chicago Cardinal Francis George to reprimand Pfleger at a time when Obama is trying to win Catholics over. It would be nice to see a bit of context and analysis of the story — that doesn’t shy away from the religious impact — in more straight news accounts.

This connects to the even bigger — and related — news that the Obamas just resigned their membership at Trinity United Church of Christ. It occurs to me that if Pfleger’s remarks were enough to get the Obamas to quit their church, perhaps that might signal to the MSNBC reporter that they were newsworthy? Who knows.

This Washington Post story covers the Aberdeen, South Dakota, press conference Obama held to announce his resignation from the church. It’s fine, but I think it’s much better to read the full transcript. It’s noteworthy both for the less-than-stellar questions posed by the reporters and the religious content of Obama’s answers:

Q: We talk about some of the sacrifices running for president. Are you surprised how deep this has cut into your personal life and family? Obviously it’s under a lot of scrutiny now you are giving up a church.

BO: I have to say this was one I didn’t see coming. We knew there were going to be some things we didn’t see coming. This was one. I didn’t anticipate my fairly conventional Christian faith being subject to such challenge and such scrutiny. Initially with e-mails suggesting I was a Muslim, later with the controversy that Trinity generated, and the interesting aspect of this is that as some of you know I have been somebody who really has insisted that the democratic party reach out to people of faith and to take issues of faith more seriously and have written and spoken about this in fairly extensive terms. It is something that I still believe that faith is a powerful force in our lives and should be part of our public conversation. This also indicates the difficulties at least in a presidential campaign around these issues. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Obviously colleagues of mine who are catholic for example have had to deal with their public positions on issues verses the decisions the Holy C (sic) has taken predominantly on abortion and contraception. We work these through.

Not all of the questions were that poor but what I really found missing was any discussion of what changed between Obama’s defense of Trinity in his Speech Heard Round the World and now. It’s not like Pfleger’s comments were different in substance or style from what’s he’s delivered over the years. The parishioners at Trinity clearly approved of the comments and they didn’t strike me as different from other comments we’ve heard from that pulpit. If Rev.s Wright, Pfleger and Moss haven’t changed over the years, I’d ask Obama what has changed.

So how do we improve coverage of religious news around Obama? Jacques Berlinerblau of the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith experiment has a few questions he’d like answered.

One of the minor stories I’d be interested in is an exploration of Cardinal George’s relationship with Pfleger. This weekend wasn’t the first time he’s publicly criticized him. I know people are really focused on the political ramifications of Pfleger’s sermons but what about the theological questions? A discussion of Pfleger’s Catholicism is just as interesting as his use of the pulpit for politicking. But that’s probably a minor story line here. What do you think? Do you like the coverage? Do you think it’s bad? What questions would you like answered?

As always, keep your comments focused on the media coverage of the religious angles, not your personal support for or opposition to Barack Obama.

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  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    This is a little off topic, but I wish someone in the press would explain what a community organizer/activist is. I’ve heard several times that Sen. Obama used to be a community organizer. And now I read that Rev. Pfleger is a community activist. Do you have to be a priest (pfleger) or a lawyer (obama) to get into that line? Does one get paid for that work? By whom?

  • Jay

    Holy C in the press conference transcript should be “Holy See”, another name for the Vatican.

  • Michael

    It seems to me that the media are in the bag for Obama and as a result willfully avoid reporting some negative news surrounding him.

    Given the kid gloves treatment of McCain by the press, this comment needs some context. If the press were so “in the bag” for Obama, would this story have gotten the play it has? Would we have had a drumbeat of six weeks of stories of Wright if the press were so uncritical of Obama? Is the narrative “the press is in the bag for Obama” true or a conservative meme trotted out in every election?

    It reminds of the allegation that the NYT was soft on Bill Clinton, after it spent a year with front-page stories about Whitewater and Lewiknski.

    When the story of thie election gets told, a lot of the media will have much to atone for. And the pundit class–incuding the blogosphere and media critics–will have a lot to answer for.

    Has there been too much emphasis on Obama and his preacher? Why was so little attention given to McCain and his preacher? Why was so little attention given to Clinton and her faith? Was there too much emphasis on Obama and problems with white, working class voters? Was there too little coverage of McCain and his problems with white Evangelicals voters?

  • FW Ken

    According to the Sun-Times, Fr. Pfleger, a Chicago priest, doesn’t know that “snuff out” means “to kill” and that police at the rally didn’t interpret it as “to kill”. Did the reporter think to ask police present what they thought? Also, the S-T reporter referred to Fr. Pfleger and Cardinal George as “the two priests”. An interesting and technically accurate construction I’ve never seen before when referring to a priest and his bishop.

    Also, Senator Obama’s comment comparing his church situation to that of a Catholic politician and the Catholic Church demands further exploration.

    But not before more coffee.

  • Ingrid

    Funny, I don’t remember any previous election spending so much time focusing on associations between campaigners and their churches or pastors. As I have moved several times in my life, I have always found a church home where my faith would be strengthened and I would have the ability to find good Christian friends in the congregation. I have never considered one of my pastors for President.

    The media should keep focused on the candidates and their positions on the issues! Hilary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama are politicians! As such they have a need to remain “politically correct” in many situations. No one religious group has ever elected a president, although I am sure many groups are more or less pleased with outcomes.

    I think the coverage of associations and political comments is outrageous and very lopsided! It seems like there is no true link to follow with the other candidates, inflammatory or not. So let’s look at the one we have covered, political comments aside, what is the religious belief of the church? The media does not seem to care. If you want to talk about their churches and pastors tell me their position on Christ, tell me their position on marriage, and tell me their position on families, pornography and child abuse! And tell me about ALL of the candidates!

    The President is not going to tell my family how/who to worship! Are we looking for a President or a Pope?

    P.S. to MattK – A community activist is one who gets a local community (that was often previously passive or scared) involved in making changes like – getting rid of a drug house or starting crime watches or demanding better libraries.

    And Molly – what is the purpose of the photo of Farrakahn?

  • http://Paulaasks Paula

    It’s sad that people are influenced by the tricks of the media. To distract and maneuver from the real, more important concerns.

    What happen to separtion of church and state?

    My question is whom can be held accountable for the words, thoughts, and actions of an other person?

    P.S. Ingrid great request, “And tell me about ALL of the candidates!”
    Limited coverage was given regarding the sentencing of the sexual abuse pastor.
    Not much coverage has been broadcasted about the other pastors, etc.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Barak Obama has made the claim that he has a “conventional Christian faith”. If, in fact, he does not have a “conventional Christian faith”, that is news because he is claiming to be something he is not. Given the pastors he has associated with, he may not even know what a “conventional Christian faith” is.

    Following the links you provided here, Mollie, it would appear that Obama’s faith is Unitiarian, but not exactly Universalist. He does not believe in the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ or that anyone will do to Hell. I think reporters need to follow up on the interview by Falsani from 2004.

  • FW Ken

    Ingrid –

    I agree with you in principle. The media has been far too focused on religious affiliation this year, between Romney’s Mormon faith (a new wrinkle in presidential politics), and the stress the Democratic candidates have put on faith. In part, the Dems opened the door, so it’s somewhat precious to criticize reporters for walking through it.

    Senator Obama, however, is in a unique position, given his long-term membership in a church with a very specific political viewpoint and self-described father/son relationship with Rev. Wright. That is very fair game for journalists.

  • Eric W

    Barack Obama’s Christianity, if exemplified or represented by Wright’s and Pfleger’s sermons, is neither nice nor Nicene. To call it “Christian” and his related faith “Christian” (since he listed both men among his three spiritual advisors/fathers) is euphemistic, and the fact that Obama claims to be a “Christian” when this is his definition of the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints should be a concern not only to Christians but to voters who think that words should mean what they mean and that candidates should be candid and not obfuscatory.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    Step one to knowing more about Obama’s faith would be reading Cathleen’s Falsani’s profile of him from the Sun Times in 2004. She cover Pfleger as well, especially when Cardinal George decided to transfer him to another parish several year ago. Reading Sun Times and Tribune clips would also make sense, as Trinity UCC and St. Sabina have long histories as newsmakers.

  • http://dallasnews.com/religionblog Jeffrey Weiss

    Getting back to the journalism…Mollie, what I think is interesting is how little attention *has* been given to the incredibly religious nature of some of his answers, beyond the political implications of any particular anouncement. When is the last time you heard a presidential candidate assert in a news conference that Christ died for your sins? Whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing, I suggest it is a Notable Thing.

    (More of my thoughts about this on the dallasnews.com Religion blog.)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    What I think is funny is how most reporters don’t know how to even discuss his religious answers. They just don’t include them in their stories.

    I think there’s a ton of political fat to chew on here but it’s kind of sad how the truly religious angles are sacrificed for the sake of advancing just the political story.

    Bob,

    Thanks for the link to the Falsani profile — I have been meaning to find an excuse to link back to that for months.

    Ingrid,

    The Farrakhan picture is because it’s with Pfleger and demonstrates an aspect of Pfleger’s controversy.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ perpetua

    Hey Mollie,
    I linked the Falsani interview first in comment 7. Bob ignored it and now you are, too. But I was first!

  • http://www.GetReligion.org Mollie

    Sorry Perpetua!

  • Jerry

    I could not find a complete transcript of Obama’s actual statement just the Q & A session you posted. In his actual statement he stated that the media was a significant reason for his decision. A couple news web sites reported this point. The LA Times reported:

    He said critics were exploiting the most innocuous remarks and news organizations were harassing parishioners.

    “That’s just not how people should have to operate in their church,” he said. “It’s not fair to other members of the church who seek to worship in peace.”

    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/politics/la-na-obama1-2008jun01,0,7053918.story Knowing how the MSM works, I’m not surprised that some would harass people looking for a story. But of course, the media itself is not highlighting this significant fact and, in fact, almost completely ignoring it.

    In this case, the media is part of the story, a very much under-reported part. Clearly this is an example of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

  • http://mormonmd.wordpress.com Doc

    I have tried to imagine how I would feel as a candidate having hoards of media elite descend upon my Church taking copious notes for anything juicy and controversial to splay across the headlines. Than again, you have pastors and leaders all to willing to oblige. This whole debacle underscore exactly how volatile a mixture religion and politics can be. Part of me grieves for the acrimony the Media has caused Barack, his fellow congregationalists and the wrenching divisions this media storm must be causing in the community. Another part of me sympathizes with Barack’s apparent anger with his clergy for using the spotlight to push their agendas and wedge people apart. What the coverage is missing more than anything else is a look at the spiritual toll this politically charged climate is taking on all involved. It is missing context and background into who exactly are Jeremiah Wright, Reverend Pfleger, or the congregation at United Church of Christ and what has historically brought them together as a religious community. It is completely absent of any discussion of how their faith informs their politics, going instead for the cheap incendiary statements devoid of critically important background and context.

  • Elaine T

    What I’ve missed is any follow-up to the claims Obama has stated that these men aren’t really like that. Has any reporter (not blogger) dug into their history? I think I saw a mention on blogs about Wright’s history (short form, what we saw in the snippets was highly representative), but somehow it just doesn’t hit the major media in such a way I spot it. If it is there at all.

    Or how about the ‘it’s cultural’ angle? The claim is the culture of black churches is for that kind of preaching and service. Has anyone in the major media checked out other black churches and done a story on whether or not the claim matches what they found?

    I suppose it would be asking too much to ask reporters to check out Obama’s claim to be Christian given some of the beliefs he holds (as per his votes, and his interview in 2004). There are enough squabbling Christian denominations around that it could be claimed he’s in the Christian ballpark. Personally I agree with Eric above that, as conveyed in assorted media, Obama’s Christianity is not Nicene, (ie, not the historic understanding of Christian faith) and it would be nice if someone wrote about that.

    And I’m tired of hearing that none of this is germane to the election. He’s got less of a record than Dan Quayle, so his judgement about the people he chooses as mentors, etc., is one of the few ways most of us have to judge him.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ perpetua

    I think most Black churches would claim the unique Lordship of Christ and disagree with the theology Obama expressed in the 2004 article:

    “So, I have a deep faith,” Obama continues. “I’m rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people.

    “That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there’s an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.”

    It’s perhaps an unlikely theological position for someone who places his faith squarely at the feet of Jesus to take, saying essentially that all people of faith — Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, everyone — know the same God.

    That depends, Obama says, on how a particular verse from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me,” is heard.

    However, as C. S. Lewis presented it in The Last Battle, Emeth the pagan Calormene soldier had been worshiping Aslan all along, although he didn’t know it.

  • Eric W

    That depends, Obama says, on how a particular verse from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me,” is heard.

    Oh, that’s just great.

    First we have: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

    Now we have: “It depends on what the meaning of the claim ‘I am’ means.”

    “I am rooted in the Christian tradition.”

    I’ll believe him when he shows evidence that he’s read Jaroslav Pelikan’s series by that title and can enunciate a statement of faith that resembles something found in those books that is at least considered to be historically and creedally Christian.

  • Jerry

    As a followup to my earlier point about the media, I found the story in the NY Times to underline the point:

    One man, whose job it was to usher congregants across busy 95th Street toward the church, pointed toward a cluster of news cameras and said: “Watch out for the vultures. God bless them and move on.”

    Even the salesman on a corner outside the church selling Obama T-shirts, caps and buttons refused to speak with reporters.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/02/us/politics/02church.html

  • Julia

    my survey of mainstream media over the last few days didn’t turn up much about the incendiary sermon preached from the pulpit of Obama’s church last Sunday

    I saw the Pfleger clip on the Friday night PBS Newshour and on Tim Russert’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

    A big deal is being made of Wright, Pflager et al because they are not giving “sermons”, they are talking about politics from the pulpit. Reporters have gotten used to giving black churches a pass when their pulpits have been used for political speechifying – perhaps because of MLK’s use of that forum. And some white churches and pastors started giving endorsements to individual politicians expecting the same media pass.

    But I don’t recall King ever getting specific about political figures; he always stayed on policies with what he considered a moral content. Maybe the days of giving blatently political pulpits of all stripes a pass are finally over. That’s not a bad thing.

  • Julia

    What is a community organizer:

    Here in Chicago, Obama worked as lead organizer for the Developing Communities Project, a campaign funded by south-side Catholic churches to counteract the dislocation and massive unemployment caused by the closing and downsizing of southeast Chicago steel plants.

    From 1984 to ’88 Obama built an organization in Roseland and the nearby Altgeld Gardens public housing complex that mobilized hundreds of citizens. Obama says the campaign experienced “modest successes” in winning residents a place at the table where a job-training facility was launched, asbestos and lead paint were negotiated out of the local schools, and community interests were guarded in the development of the area’s landfills.

    From a 1995 article in the Chicago Reader with an extensive interview with Obama.
    http://www.chicagoreader.com/features/stories/archive/barackobama/

  • Michele Hagerman

    As a 12-year resident of Chicago, I can attest that Fr. Pfleger is quite inflammatory. He is quite flamboyant, in that he is an attention seeker. The media here seem to love him. He seems to go for the shock value, and he definitely accomplished that with his “sermon” at Trinity UCC.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Who cares what Obama’s, Mc Bush’s, Hillary’s, whomever’s personal theology is? What they believe/don’t believe about God is absolutely irrelevant to their qualifications to lead this country. Many people who don’t believe as you or I believe call themselves Christians. It is none of our business one way or the other. Mormonism, Unitarianism, Christian Science … all claim Christianity as their creed. So?

  • Dave

    Mormonism, Unitarianism, Christian Science . . . all claim Christianity as their creed.

    Some Unitarian Universalists claim Christianity as their creed.