Wednesday, June 11, 2008


A column written for The Wanderer, the nation’s oldest national Catholic weekly. Significantly updated since publication…including “what should happen now.”

By Thomas F. Roeser

CHICAGO—Fr. Michael Louis Pfleger, the 59-year-old boyish, white (of German heritage), blond-haired, radicalized priest-throwback to the `60s who affects a black accent in his sermons, just may have unintentionally wreaked serious, long-term damage to the presidential hopes of Barack Obama. In the short-run, his TV tirade last week as a guest speaker before cheering black members of Trinity United Church of Christ who could pass for anti-white bigots caused a furor that led to Obama leaving the Hyde Park church.

Last week the fiery priest was suspended from his pastorate for two weeks by Francis Cardinal George. Many of his devotees are non-Catholic and more entranced with his “hate whitey” verbiage than the liturgy of his Mass which appears to be go by the wayside. A temporary administrator—a priest—was appointed and crowds of St. Sabina “congregants” attended a rally demanding Pfleger’s return. A pastoral associate interviewed by the press says the cardinal “disrespected us”—black talk for not kowtowing to wishes of the rabble, many of whom, some whites as well as blacks, had been bouncing off the wall in excitement at Pfleger’s tirades.

The same kind of excitement at pastoral enunciations preceded Obama’s departure from his church.

Obama left Trinity because in truth he can no longer remain a parishioner there and appeal to the white working class he needs to be elected president. He thought he had it greased when Jeremiah Wright left the pastorate to be followed by one whom Obama had saluted as a kind of clerical moderate, Rev. Otis Moss III, calling him “a wonderful young pastor.” But Moss not only invited Fr. Pfleger to speak at the Sunday service and introduced him in glowing terms but said he “is a brother beloved, he is a preacher par-excellence, he is a prophetic powerful pulpiteer.” After Fr. Pfleger’s incendiary speech, Moss took the pulpit and said, “We thank God for the message and we thank God for the messenger. We thank God for Fr. Michael Pfleger. We thank God for Father Mike.”

The priest, only slightly less than Wright, had been identified with Obama. Obama identified Fr. Pfleger in a 2004 interview with the Sun-Times as a key factor in his spiritual guidance. Fr. Pfleger responded in the article by saying of Obama, “Faith is key to his life, no question about it. It is central to who he is and not just in his work in the political field but as a man, as a black man, as a husband, as a father…I don’t think he could easily divorce his faith from who he is.” The priest was a contributor to Obama in his state senate days, has been friends with the candidate since Obama’s days as a community organizer, took part in an Iowa event last fall and has said he gives Obama “spiritual counsel.”

Whether Obama can repair gratuitous anti-white recriminations led by Fr. Pfleger is another question. It is all but certain that the “sleepy eye” of the electorate that focuses for briefest minutes on campaigns has glimpsed anti-white racism and has drawn its conclusions. But the presidential campaign is still early and the furor may cease being a public spectacle.

What Fr. Pfleger Said.

As the U.S. political world now knows, Fr. Pfleger began his guest appearance, invited by the new pastor-successor to the inflammatory Jeremiah Wright, by talking of the need to expose “white entitlement and supremacy wherever it raises its head.” Then he talked about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s nearly weeping just before the New Hampshire primary.

“I really don’t believe it was put on,” Fr. Pfleger said. “I really believe that she just always thought…” and here he raised his voice in a shrill scream that was supposed to be an imitation of Clinton…”`This is mine! I’m Bill’s wife! I’m white and this is mine! I just gotta get up and step into the plate!’ And then out of nowhere came, `Hey, I’m Barack Obama!’ and she said, `Oh, damn! Where did you come from? I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show!’”

Pulling out a hanky and wiping his eyes in mock anguish, the priest said, `She wasn’t the only one crying. There was a whole lot of white people crying!” The black audience erupted in raucous laughter.

Far more disturbing for white viewers of the scene on YouTube and the national networks was the scene of the black congregation roaring with laughter and cheering on the white priest as he mocked members of his own race—something which if done in reverse with a black man assailing blacks before a white church would likely be condemned as virulent racism.

The performance spurred Obama to say “I am deeply disappointed in Fr. Pfleger’s divisive, backward-looking rhetoric.” Fr. Pfleger responded to Obama by apologizing: “I regret the words I chose Sunday. These words are inconsistent with Sen. Obama’s life and message and I am deeply sorry if they offended Sen. Clinton or anyone else who saw them.” To which the Tribune responded editorially: “If? If? “ The question worrying Obama campaign strategists is whether Fr. Pfleger’s widely covered speech will prompt Jeremiah Wright, the retired Trinity pastor who is jealous of others moving in on his black nationalist constituency to respond to get equal time on the networks.

But There’s Much More.

If anti-white racism is what the priest is accused of today, a study of past speakers he has entertained at St. Sabina’s pose a distinct question of his support of Islamic terrorism. On the fourth anniversary of 9/11 he invited Kareem Irfan, former chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago as guest speaker. Purpose: to inveigh against “prejudice against Muslims and Arabs in the wake of Sept. 11.” As a member of the Islamic Society of North America, Irfan has characterized Islamic beheadings of non-Muslims not as acts of evil but rather as manifestations of “a primordial sense of retaliation and revenge.”

Addressing his flock, Fr. Pfleger said: “In the name of patriotism and the Patriot Act, there was a great rising of prejudice and bigotry agains Muslims and Arabs. We cannot along that under the guise of patriotism.” Irfan spoke about the alleged abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and denial of legal representation to those suspected terrorists being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“We’ve seen a shameful erosion of civil rights and liberties,” he said, referring to the Patriot Act’s power to allow law enforcement to use such measures as secret arrests and unrestricted wiretaps to investigate people since Sept. 112. “There’s been a distressing violation of the privacy of organizations and individuals.”

His softness of Jihidism not perceived until recently, Fr. Pleger has been regarded as a distinct asset to the Obama campaign and to the Illinois Democratic party. The fiery priest has been a favorite on the heavily liberal news media here and has been inflated as if by a bicycle pump by its TV and print reporters with him cast as the hero of the powerless, the underdog, the defenseless. For the most part, the supine local media have not cared whether or not he conducts himself in accordance with priestly duties. Indeed, Chicago’s David Axelrod, Obama’s top campaign strategist and TV packager, had scheduled through one of his satellite companies a film documentary of the priest for use on public television, its release to be synchronized purportedly with the campaign calendar. Axelrod now has said the documentary has been indefinitely postponed.

Small wonder.

Francis Cardinal George issued a statement saying “The Catholic Church does not endorse political candidates. Consequently, when a priest must speak to political issues that are also moral, he may not endorse candidates nor engage in partisan campaigning. Racial issues are both political and moral and are also highly charged. Words can be differently interpreted, but Fr. Pfleger’s remarks about Sen. Clinton are both partisan and amount to a personal attack. I regret that deeply. To avoid months of turmoil in the Church, Fr. Pfleger has promised me that he will not enter into campaigning, will not publicly mention any candidate by name and will abide by the discipline common to all Catholic priests.”

Calm words and not censorious. But the pro-Obama tabloid the Sun-Times hyped it with a front-page color stock photo of the Cardinal in mid-speech, topped by the huge black headline Enough is Enough (words the Cardinal did not speak nor write) along with a stock photo of Fr. Pfleger looking chastened. Stinging from more than the ecclesial rebuke may well be the priest’s exorcism by the leaders of the Illinois Democratic party to whom the beloved figure known as “Father Mike” was always a key player.

As pastor of a huge church whose audience is heavily non-Catholic but who go to hear his sermons, Fr. Pfleger has been a celebrity in the party and a frequent guest of Mayor Richard M. Daley in his box at Cellular field for White Sox games. Catholic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin calls him “Fr. Mike.” Now Fr. Mike seems to be, temporarily at least, persona non grata because the priest yielded to his zest to rant before a black audience on TV to jeopardize Obama’s campaign to get white votes that would solidify a majority in the general election. The entire Illinois Democratic hierarchy is on board the Obama ship—and Fr. Pfleger’s rant may make it look somewhat like the Titanic.

While to the nation Fr. Pfleger has just become a national figure with his seeming unbalanced emotional address, he has been known to regular Wanderer readers for many years from stories about his proclivity to politicize his parish sermons, perform extraordinary partisan rants and get away with it. He has been a fixture in the local media ever since 1981 when he was named pastor of the all-black St. Sabina’s church in the city’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, becoming the archdiocese’s youngest pastor at age 31. He has been there for 27 years, far exceeding the usual term limitation of 12. He has refused to be reassigned and has said that if the archdiocese tries, he will start his own church. The archdiocese under two archbishops has backed down since Fr. Pfleger has so ingratiated himself to blacks there could be a mass demonstration on the chancery (something the archdiocese shudders to think about) if he were to be reassigned. He has been called by admirers the possessor of “a blue-eyed black soul.”

He Has Done Some Good Things.

By no means has the mission of Michael Pfleger been exclusively partisan—but has turned St. Sabina’s into a neighborhood social service hub with an employment resource center, a social service center and a home for the elderly. But he has been disruptive, bringing to his church such social and political activists as Joseph Lowry, Jesse Jackson, Cornel West and others.

In 1981 Fr., Pfleger adopted an eight-year-old son, Lamar, who is now working for Continental Airlines. In 1992 he adopted another son, Beronti, who attends the University of Central Florida. In 1997 the priest became foster father to Jarvis Franklin who was killed by stray gunfire on May 30, 1998. He has led successful anti-drug campaigns, winning the shutdown of a number of neighborhood businesses that featured drug paraphernalia. He campaigned for removal of liquor and alcohol billboards in his area. He climbed up a ladder and defaced a sign, leading to his being charged with defacing private property. He was tried by a jury and acquitted and the city council voted 44 to 1 to eliminate tobacco and alcohol billboards from selected areas of the city.

Then he turned his wrath on the hard porn radio broadcasts of Howard Stern, forcing Viacom to remove billboards advertising Stern’s move to satellite radio. He skewered violence-prone Jerry Springer whose TV tapings are done here. But as his celebrity grew in this city Fr. Pfleger turned more unconventional. He encouraged his parishioners to buy time with prostitutes, using that time to try to convince them to accept job-training and counseling at St. Sabina’s.

He was arrested dozens of times on civil rights issues. In later years he invaded the precincts of partisan politics, violating all the conventional rules governing religious leaders except cadres of politicized black ministers who feel unrestrained by IRS rules banning the mixing of electoral politics with their nonprofit institutions.

He has welcomed Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to St. Sabina’s with his virulent anti-white rhetoric but the local media played it down as not to bring harm to Fr. Pfleger. In February, 2003 he invited the Rev. Al Sharpton, then a presidential candidate and a pro-abortion figure to speak at Mass during Black History Month celebrations, prompting Cardinal George to object and archdiocesan officials to worry they would lose their tax-exempt status. George decided that trying to stop Sharpton from coming “would be a futile gesture and a waste of effort.”

In May, 2007 Fr. Pfleger joined a coalition protest with Rev. Jesse L. Jackson outside a legally-operating Chicago gun shop, shouting over a p.a. address to the owner that “we’re going to find you and snuff you out. Like a rat you’re going to hide but like a rat we’re going to catch you and pull you out!” Again the cardinal rebuked Fr. Pfleger. The priest said he did not use the word “snuff” as a slang term for kill but as a substitute for “pull.”

Because of his celebrity…due in large part because he is white …Fr. Michael Pfleger became a folk hero to the black community subordinate to Jesse Jackson but equal to black pastor and state senator Rev. James Meeks who has an equally large politically active Baptist congregation. As a result Fr. Pfleger has been a main cog in the exceptionally viable black wing of the Cook county Democratic machine, a figure whose personal endorsement of candidates has been adjudged worth many hundreds of thousands of black votes. Last month, the priest came to Jeremiah Wright’s aid by posting a letter on his parish’s website calling Obama and Wright “two friends who [sic] I respect, admire and have a deep love for…The truth is we need Sen. Barack Obama and we need Reverend Jeremiah Wright and, if we are serious about wanting a new America, we cannot afford to throw either one of them under the bus!”

Fr. Pfleger’s support of Obama has been returned in state grants. The priest donated $1,500 to the candidate’s first state senate run, $1,500 to his presidential campaign and until recently sat on a “Catholics for Obama” committee. When Obama was in the Illinois legislature he helped Pfleger land two state earmarks for his church--$100,000 to repair The Arc community center and another for $125,000 for computers at the church’s employment resource center.

Fr. Pfleger’s speech last week prompted another Catholic priest to speak out in favor of Sen. John McCain. Msgr. James Lisante of Rockville Centre, Long Island praised McCain and added: “A lot more of us would be comfortable with Sen. Obama’s judgment skills if he hadn’t sat for 20 years through the words offered by his preacher of division, bigotry…without a word of rejection from Sen. Obama—that is, until the media brought it up. And now he doesn’t want any part of the guy. I’m willing to be his pastor.”

Assessing the Political Wreckage.

Obama strategists whom I talked with following the Pfleger eruption have a packet of political worries caused by the priest. First, Fr. Pfleger’s speech came while Obama has been trying to reach out to white working-class voters who in the past several primaries have trended to Hillary Clinton (as my Wanderer article last week showed). Second, since Fr. Pfleger spoke from the Trinity pulpit, it will signal a return to the fray of Jeremiah Wright. Third, the disgraceful treatment of Hillary Clinton by Fr. Pfleger helps Clinton backers who are seeking to drive a wedge between women and Obama, especially white women.

Fourth, a highly publicized part of Fr. Pfleger’s speech opened a possible chasm between Obama and white wealthy donors and entrepreneurs from the Silicon Valley who have been significant in backing him financially including multi-billionaire Warren Buffett. Fr. Pfleger shouted that whites “should give up your 401K and assets because these are the benefits of slaves one hundred seventy years ago and you and your white ancestors are responsible”—echoes of what Chicagoans Wright, Farrakhan, Billy Ayres the Pentagon bomber and other close associates of Obama espouse. There have been hints which have also sprouted up in Michelle Obama’s rhetoric—who advised new college graduates not to strive to be rich but serve the community’s needs, notwithstanding that she settled for a $300,000 a year salary as community relations vice president of the University of Chicago hospitals.

Fifth, To imagine that Obama does not agree with his longtime friends (he has known Fr. Pfleger for 18 years) seems ludicrous and has to be remedied quickly in a drastic image makeover by Axelrod. Sixth, the message destroys the carefully-crafted Axelrod campaign showing Obama as a “different kind of politician” but pictures him through his associates as quite close to Farrakhan. Seventh, the spectacle of black congregants at Trinity hugely savoring Fr. Pfleger’s hate rant casts real doubt on Obama’s ability to rebuild a condition of white racial trust as president.

In summary, Republicans need not think they have won the presidential election because of this early flap. Most political analysts including this one say the election is still Obama’s to lose. Right now, though, even some Democrats admit he seems to be doing a good job of it.

What is Likely to Happen Now?

The archdiocese, always at sea when decisions of principle are to be rendered, is seriously thinking of replacing Pfleger with a black priest—by which it hopes to mitigate the damage. But there is no doubt that this will not work and could render the black priest token into an Uncle Tom. What has to happen, in the minds of authenticists, is that the archdiocese has to do three things:

1. It has to understand that by keeping Pfleger at St. Sabina’s far too long it has built a Frankenstein monster. Thus in rectifying the situation it has to take the heat.

2. Returning Pfleger would be more of the same-old, same-old and likely to produce another confrontation down the pike in weeks or months to come.

3. Replacing Pfleger with a new pastor is the way to go.

4. Installing a black pastor would be `way too cute. It is a needless mollification of a congregation, largely non-Catholic purportedly, which has been flattered far too long by Pfleger and treated as if it were a civil rights rally.

5. A new pastor of any race should come and be prepared to see wholesale defections from St. Sabina—but these defections would be either largely non-Catholic interlopers who savor stentorian shouting rallies instead of Mass or nominal Catholics who don’t understand the significance of the Mass. In any case hunkering down and returning the parish to its original status of church rather than raucous meeting hall is what is needed.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, great post as usual.

    Your column included a very interesting tidbit that puts the lie to Obama's claim that his thinking cannot possibly be reflected in the ideology of Fr. Pfleger and Rev. Wright.

    You write about Fr. Pfleger's absurd sponsorship of an appearance by radical Muslim Irfan on the fourth anniversary of 9/11 (apparently 2005). According to your column, Irfan bloviated on how 9/11 and its repercussions, particularly abuse of the Patriot Act, resulted in substantial prejudicial backlash against Muslims in America.

    Few people appear to have taken notice of the fact that in Barack Obama's victory speech the night he won the Illinois Democratic primary for the nomination for United States Senator in 2004, and reprised nearly word for word in his lionized speech before the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Barack Obama made the following statement, and I paraphrase:

    "We cannot continue to be tolerate an America..... where the John Ashcroft's use the Patriot Act to discriminate against Muslim immigrants..."

    That phrase of Obama's struck me each time I heard it: What evidence is there of the Patriot Act being used to discriminate against "Muslim immigrants"? Is he referring to any legitimate use of the Act to identify potential terrorists?

    But through your column's reference, we now know that Obama's remarks are evidence of an ideological and political perspective shared by the political radicals of Irfan's and Plfeger's vintage. This is direct evidence that Obama's belated claims that "they do not speak for me" or "that is not what I think" are neither completely truthful nor determinative of the question.