Friday, March 21, 2008


An article in The Wanderer the oldest continually published national weekly Catholic newspaper published March 15, 2008. Slightly updated since publication.

By Thomas F. Roeser

Minister Money.

CHICAGO—Almost fifty years ago when I was a Republican political staff operative in Minnesota, the GOP was readying itself for the knock-down-drag-out general election between Richard M. Nixon and John Kennedy. The contest in Illinois was so important that a key GOP strategist—my boss--was detailed by the Nixon people to go to Illinois and try to swing that state for Nixon. The advice given him from national Nixon headquarters: “Take some Minister Money with you.”

My boss, a naïve country boy familiar with the clean politics of Minnesota and Wisconsin, said: “Huh? Minister money?”

Yes, Minister Money, said the Nixon people. You’ve got to get wads of soft folding money to give to black preachers on Chicago’s South and West Side.

He went to me because I was a born-in-Chicago native. What, he asked, is Minister Money?

Oh, I said, that’s the money that historically politicians have given to black churches that motivate charismatic pastors to extol the virtues of particular candidates.

They do that in Chicago?

Yes, I said. But it’s not a singular Democratic stratagem. In fact, Minister Money was invented by the last big-time Republican crook ever to govern Chicago—Mayor Big Bill Thompson in the 1920s. . He carried all the black wards because of his legendary pro-civil rights views, his progressivism, his proclivity to put blacks into city jobs—and minister money.

My friend stuffed a wad of greenbacks in his wallet and went to Chicago. I didn’t want to warn him because it would have spoiled his trip but I knew Republican Minister Money would do him no good. The fix was in for real Minister Money: privilege, jobs, contracts that only a Democratic city administration could supply. But he had to learn sometime.

So he distributed pro-Nixon minister money throughout the South and West Sides and during the campaign had agents pop in at the churches to catch the sermons. From late September through mid-October the oracular preachers extolled the glorious past of the Republican party—starting with Lincoln’s freeing the slaves to the deciding votes for favorable civil rights and urban measures that Vice President Nixon cast as presiding officer of the Senate when the Senate was deadlocked between pro-segregationist Democrats and conservative Republicans. The agents were highly impressed with the spectacular fireworks in behalf of the GOP that came from the pulpits. Then in mid-October the fireworks stopped. Increasingly the rhetoric swung to extolling John F. Kennedy.

The word came back: Send more minister money or the homilies will run out. Especially, they said, since Mayor Richard J. Daley’s organization is starting to put up a fierce fight and we need greenback reinforcements! More money was pumped in but the tide never turned. Thanks to an abundance of minister money from JFK’s father, near billionaire Joseph P. Kennedy and Cong. William Dawson (D-IL), the boss of the South Side, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket overwhelmed the Nixon-Lodge one by a heavy percentage, Republican minister money or no.

That was then. Today I am proud to say there is no need for Republican Minister Money. That’s because the market is dominated top to bottom with Democratic Minister Money so the free market in homilies doesn’t exist. There isn’t even a sham battle for Republican black votes…not that there is any…because the pulpits have been overwhelmed by Democratic preachers who do it for the love of liberal issues—that and the political rewards that come their way. They are spiritually moved by (a) the natural liberal orientation beginning with the civil rights movement of the 1960s on to today and (b) the preponderance of the highly sophisticated Democratic Cook county machine which more than makes up in grants in aid for the meager folding greenbacks folding stuff that typified ancient urban times.

Taxpayers Money to a Church.

To show how things have progressed in this modern media-centric age Chicagoans have the case of Pilgrim Baptist Church in the heart of the city’s Bronzevile neighborhood on the South Side. A venerable black church it was designed as a synagogue by world-famed architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler who built it in 1890. When the Jews started evacuating the South Side shortly after World War I, middle class African Americans bought the building, renamed it Pilgrim and launched it as the birthplace of modern gospel music in the 1930s. Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music, was its musical director for decades. He was protégé to a number of great singers including Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland. The church was a central meeting place during the civil rights movement and hosted Martin Luther King, Jr. often. The building was designated a Chicago landmark in 1981.

On Jan. 6, 2006 a disastrous fire gutted the church, caused by workers repairing the roof during a $500,000 restoration. A nearby private elementary school was also destroyed and had to be evacuated; even cars parked next to the church were virtually incinerated. After the fire the brick and stone framework still stood. Earlier in city history a number of business types would leap to the fray to finance a rebuilding. But this is the 21st century of mercantilism—also the century where the lines of demarcation between church and state in this city have been erased. Along came Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a mop-topped boyish opportunist with the cold heart of a casino owner (he has been listed as Individual A in a federal grand jury bill of particulars on the ties of lobbying and corruption) and announced he would designate a flat $1 million to rebuild the church. Since 2006 was an election year and Gov. Blagojevich was running for reelection, you can jolly well understand that he polled spectacularly well in Bronzeville.

In fact nobody—not the newspapers nor the Republicans—asked why the taxpayers were forced to finance a rebuilding of a church. No civil libertarian or ACLU reformer popped up to object to public money going to build a church. Well, the state check was cut but lo and behold in accordance with Illinois’ brilliant track record of governmental administration, the check for $1 million was sent not to the Pilgrim Baptist Church but, through a crossing of wires, to the elementary school which carried the same address as the church at 3301 South Indiana. Only recently was the error discovered. The private school people kept the check and shut up about it. The Pilgrim people wondered when their check was coming and started to raise a howl about the delay. It was then that the error was discovered. So Gov. Blagojevich said that an error was committed—but not to worry, the school needed help as well and they’d cut another one for the church. Since then the state has had the guts to question the paper trail of the school but everybody emitted a sigh of relief—at least Pilgrim Baptist will get its state money.

An outright grant to a church is still unusual in Chicago lore. But what is not unusual is the continued use of church pulpits—predominantly black church pulpits—for outright partisan, Democratic party purposes. This had been going on for a long time as a kind of subterfuge. A minister would get up and invoke a blessing on either Mayor Daley I or his son, Mayor Daley II for his beneficence to the black community and raise his eyes to heaven to plead that good health shall remain in the Daley family in perpetuity. Then it gravitated to prayers for continued good health for Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, the entire Democratic state tickets, the well-being of George McGovern when he ran in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Carter again in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, Mike Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992 and `96, Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. But in addition, starting in the 1970s with the frenetic energy of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. who passionately urged election of all Democrats, many black churches were transformed into political rallies in even numbered years.

Campaigning Priest and Pol Minister.

No one can top the blond-haired white priest, Fr. Michael Pfleger, the pastor of St. Sabina’s on the South Side. Pfleger’s innovation was to invite to his church active candidates to speak to the congregants including the Rev. Al Sharpton. Pfleger, who affects black slang and jive talk in his stem-winding sermons to show his African American congregants he is one of them and who has gotten away with threatening a legitimate gun-shop owner that “we will drag you out of your lair like a rat!” without incurring any objection from the archdiocese here, is one of several major Democratic party players in Chicago and regularly shares a box with Mayor Daley at White Sox games.

I am proud to say that the “Chicago Tribune” found that Fr. Pfleger puts his political money where his mouth has always been. He gave Barack Obama’s campaigns $1,500 between 1995 and 2001. Proving that when you cast your bread upon the political waters in Chicago it comes back a thousand-fold, Obama announced $225,000 in state grants to St. Sabina’s various community programs—three months before Pfleger felt the impulse to contribute. Just to reiterate that as a man of the cloth he has nothing to do with partisan politics, Pfleger said he made those donations to Obama personally—not on behalf of the church or to win grants. “At a time when less people vote that ever,” he said (he meant “fewer people than ever”), “I don’t think pastors should be silent on politics.” And Pfleger is not at all silent. His services are virtual Democratic party rallies and he regularly introduces his party’s candidates—including Jesse Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Al Sharpton (when he was a presidential candidate)—from the pulpit without a peep coming from the Chicago archdiocese. Not that it would do any good since Pfleger is equivalent to a Cardinal—or prince of the church—in the Democratic party hierarchy.

Thanks to the precedent set by Jackson and Pfleger, it is a regular practice for Democratic candidates (no Republican candidates are invited) to make a round of churches on Sundays during campaign season. When no objection was heard from either church or civil liberties sources, Jackson turned the heat up a notch. The real church of clout is Salem Baptist church House of Hope in the Roselawn neighborhood where the state’s largest congregation—conservatively estimated at 25,000—at many services each Sunday. Democratic politicians regularly stand in line to be hailed at the services by a charismatic 52-year-old preacher, Rev. James Meeks. Many more than the 25,000 catch his sermons on radio and TV. In recognition of his drawing power, Jackson named Meeks the number two man at his Operation PUSH political rallies. Then Jackson, a vigorous 68 who shows no sign of slowing down, announced that Meeks will be his successor. Finally, Jackson anointed Meeks as a candidate for the Illinois state senate which Meeks accepted. He won in a landslide and operates seamlessly as (a) pastor of the state’s largest church which is a non-profit, (b) number two at the city’s most dynamic community organization, PUSH which is a nonprofit and (c) a dynamic politician who collects campaign contributions by the ton to continue his activities.

As a lawmaker, Rev. and Sen. Meeks is deeply interested in getting Illinois to pass a “swap” bill that would reduce property taxes and hike income taxes, a bill that makes no bones about the fact that the end-result would be another drain on the taxpayer. But he sees it as very important to spend more state funds on education and generally muffles his comments to the press when the remarkably low state of the basic reading, writing and math skills in the black community has not budged upward in the slightest despite huge inflows of public dollars to education. He is pro-life but is definitely anti-voucher. Why? A heavy percentage of his congregation are female school teachers who belong to the potent education unions.

He gravitates around Springfield with a swagger befitting a man who occupies an important role in the Democratic state senate and who controls the state’s largest congregation. He tried to get the governor to agree with his “swap” bill and actively pushed the idea that if displeased he would run for governor as an independent. But Blagojevich said he would veto any tax hike. Meeks launched a drive to collect the more than 25,000 signatures to get on the ballot as an independent. Then Blagojevich met with him in a downtown hotel and told him he was thinking of selling the state’s lottery system to a private entity which would free up $10 billion for the schools. Meeks called off the independent bid and Blagojevich pulled the rug out. The lottery wasn’t sold. The smart money decided the slicker governor suckered Meeks. But the gambit with the governor didn’t hurt Meeks in his own church.

In fact the idea has grown that Meeks was just puffing this to become a power broker. Following his negotiations with the governor, Meeks turned to Mayor Daley and held a stentorian news conference asking Daley who was preparing to run for reelection: “We need to ask Mayor Daley some questions like, why are we putting all the inferior teachers in failing schools?” If Daley wanted black votes, he said, he would have to act. He sent 500 congregants to Daley’s office with placards and called for bigger demonstrations: “We want to see the rebirth of the civil rights movement,” he shouted. “Not one black school district in America is doing as well as a white school district.” No one—certainly not the media—cared to bring up the huge rate of illegitimate births in the black community, leading to single-headed families with no fathers present which sociologists cite as the principal cause of poverty, low learning skills and crime, all of which could be rectified if black churches concentrated more on moral issues and less on partisan politics. The issue of illegitimacy seldom if ever comes up in Meeks sermons.

Watching Meeks juggle church and political balls in the air is a favorite media occupation. Segregating money funneled to two nonprofits and his own political activities would seem to be quite an enterprise taxing to any CPA assisted by a few lawyers to keep complicated campaign finance laws straight, but Meeks, a graduate of Bishop College, a small religious school in Dallas and some graduate work at various theological academies, is undaunted. A large, stocky man, he dresses like a banker, in suits that are tailor-made and wears shoes that would grace a CEO; his shirt selections and ties are truly splendiferous. But he has reason to worry about the future. Not because the IRS is after him (so far as we know) but because it seems to be probing a colleague and the scrutiny just might extend to the Meeks religio-political empire.

Obama’s Pastor Causes Unease.

The minister colleague is Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. who shortly will be winding up his 36-year service as pastor of the mostly black Trinity United Church of Christ where Obama—the hottest political ticket in the nation—has worshiped for more than 20 years. Because Obama belongs to his church, Wright has the knack of getting more national press for his sermons than either Jesse Jackson or James Meeks. And the sermons are not exactly theologically orthodox. Last Christmas morning he said that Obama’s so-called “impoverished” childhood resembled Jesus Christ’s. The emotional congregation emitted amens and swayed appreciatively but of course the analogy was very-very lame. Obama’s parents were decidedly middle class, his father abandoning the family to go to Harvard for a Ph.D and the mother a white Kansan who raised the incipient senator with formidable help from her parents, Obama going to private schools.

Obama appropriated the title of his second autobiography covering his 45 years of life, The Audacity of Hope from a sermon of Wright’s but that phrase was probably the least controversial one the pastor has spewed to the church in many years. He has excoriated President Bush from the pulpit and has lauded Chicagoan Louis Farrakhan of the nation of Islam. That’s not much different than the run-of-the-mill black pastors do in Chicago except for one thing that greatly disturbs Meeks and others: Wright is Obama’s pastor and by all odds Obama is on a fast track to be elected this nation’s 43rd president. Wright’s noisy sermons, often anti-Semitic, catch the news and threaten to bring down the wrath of the IRS which would queer the entire political ministry business which has been a bonanza for the Democratic party. Sure enough, last week The Wall Street Journal reported in a page-one story that Wright “may be running afoul of federal tax law which says churches can endanger their tax-exempt status by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.”

Good gracious, IRS where have you been for the last 30 years when endorsements and diatribes against Republicans have been stock in trade up and down in the black community with Fr. Pfleger’s St. Sabina’s virtually leading the pack? Well, the end days may have begun for minister money and politics. Trinity’s parent, the United Church of Christ, has reported that it is being probed by the IRS for a speech Obama gave to 10,000 at a church conference in Hartford, Conn. where he mentioned his candidacy and ticked off portions of his program including health care reform.

Naturally in true Chicago pol style the answer would be to claim racism is running amok at the IRS but everybody knows what’s been going on at these churches. If anything, Fr. Pfleger is more notorious, virtually thumbing his nose at the establishment and inviting almost all Democratic candidates he can inveigle to take part in the service. And of course the politically astute IRS is making the probe look bipartisan by also investigating a Baptist church in California which recently backed Mike Huckabee in his bid for the White House.

While everybody is mum about the effort, no one is quieter than Pastor/Senator James Meeks who has been known to fly to Springfield from Chicago aboard private jets on occasion. He, after all, does not just endorse Democratic candidates; he is one and strides around the altar in TV presentations in magnificent robes while he churns up a heady brew of liberal theology and Democratic partisanship. Last year Mayor Daley came out of hiding and stood side by side with Meeks where Meeks proudly endorsed Daley for reelection. Reporters asked Meeks why he wasn’t considering supporting Dorothy Brown, the African American city treasurer with MBA and law degree who was running a lonely and underfinanced run against Daley.

Meeks’ answer embodied the pragmatism that has permeated his theology and politics. The fact that fellow Democrat Ms. Brown is black and qualified didn’t move him.

“Well, “ he said, “I don’t endorse candidates who are going to lose.”

That’s the Chicago Way all right.


  1. elizabeth alexanderMarch 23, 2008 at 11:29 AM

    Be careful. Your racism is beginning to show.

    I said once before: You do not understand their world. It isn't your world, and you need to accept that.

    If you knew more of how they have been shaped and why their thinking is not your thinking, then I think you would write differently.

    There is a wide gap that I think you are not interested in spanning. What you want is for everyone to see the world as you do. It's not going to happen.

  2. Father Michael Pfleger's embarrassing appearance at the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's church may reignite the controversy. While he stopped short of Wright's histrionics, he did not miss the same rhetorical mark by too much. Praising Farrakhan and talking in a fake black dialect, Pfleger ought to be reporting to the Cardinal and seeking counseling or reassignment to a mission church in Deadhorse, Alaska.

    This issue is not going away anytime soon. Obama's clarification speech may have gone for naught.