The expected launch of Barack Obama's presidential campaign isstill days away, but his quest to become the nation's first blackcommander in chief already is forcing a delicate examination of howcandidates talk about race.
That conversation took an awkward turn last week when Sen. JosephBiden (D-Del.) ruined his presidential campaign announcement withclumsy comments meant to praise Obama though widely interpreted asa putdown of other prominent black politicians.
But Obama also faces his own challenges in dealing with race as heseeks to frame himself as a candidate who can bridge historicdivisions not only of race, but class and religion as well.
Even the simple act of choosing a church can become fodder in anational political campaign, where every facet of a candidate'slife and associations will be put under a microscope. A year beforethe first primary contests, Obama is taking fire from both the leftand the right in these matters.
The product of a black Kenyan father, white American mother and aseries of elite schools, Obama has prompted some African-Americansto question whether he is really in touch with their lives.
In conservative circles
At the same time, conservative critics already have begun a buzzon the Internet about a far less known part of his biography: hisadherence to the creed of the prominent South Side church heattends, Trinity United Church of Christ. The congregation positswhat it terms a Black Value System, including calls to be "soldiersfor black freedom" and a "disavowal of the pursuit ofmiddleclassness."
In an interview late Monday, Obama said it was important tounderstand the document as a whole rather than highlight individualtenets. "Commitment to God, black community, commitment to theblack family, the black work ethic, self-discipline andself-respect," he said. "Those are values that the conservativemovement in particular has suggested are necessary for blackadvancement.
"So I would be puzzled that they would object or quibble with thebulk of a document that basically espouses profoundly conservativevalues of self-reliance and self-help."
In his published memoirs, Obama said even he was stopped byTrinity's tenet to disavow "middleclassness" when he first read ittwo decades ago in a church pamphlet. The brochure imploredupwardly mobile church members not to distance themselves from lessfortunate Trinity worshipers.
"As I read it, at least, it was a very simple argument takendirectly from Scripture: `To whom much is given much is required,'"Obama said in the interview.
That was then. On Saturday, Obama is expected to thrust himselfinto the hothouse atmosphere of presidential campaign politics,where the principles and teachings of Obama's church might requiresome explanation for, say, some white, middle-class voters in Iowaor New Hampshire.
As a candidate who has presented himself as able to enliven anational discourse on faith--he filled his now-famous Democraticconvention speech in 2004 with religious language--Obama would notbe the first presidential candidate to invite an examination of thepolitical implications of his religious beliefs.
Like President John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, 2000 (the year aspublished has been corrected in this text) vice presidentialcandidate Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, or current GOPpresidential contender Mitt Romney, a Mormon, Obama at some pointin a presidential campaign would be asked to explain how he wouldbalance the tenets of his faith with his political positions.
The intended meaning behind certain Trinity precepts is complex,but some theologians argue that on one level they brush up againsta number of the same issues raised by Biden's awkward choice ofwords.
"In both cases--in the value system and in the case of Biden'scomments--we do have a situation where Americans are trying to talkacross the wide chasm that is race," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell,a professor of politics and African-American studies at PrincetonUniversity.
Harris-Lacewell until last year attended Trinity when she taughtat the University of Chicago. "Perceptually, blacks and whites livein vastly different worlds," she added. "Biden didn't mean it to beracist. Certainly Obama doesn't mean that God doesn't love whitepeople. . . . Malicious [intent] or not does not necessarily matterif the ideas are prepackaged with all of this historicalbaggage."
Looking to weigh Obama down with some of that baggage,conservative critics have seized on Trinity's 12-point Black ValueSystem, especially the portion relating to "middleclassness," asevidence that Obama is a divisive candidate who rejects mainstreamAmerican values and is primarily focused on the blackcommunity.
"I question his . . . ability to be able to reach out to a lot ofpeople when he is committed to a group of people who are focused onhelping a certain group of people," said Fran Eaton, editor ofIllinois Review, a conservative political blog. "It seemswrong."
But Obama scoffed at the suggestion that Trinity espouses a valuesystem that seeks to help blacks exclusively. "If I say to anybodyin Iowa--white, black, Hispanic or Asian--that my church believesin the African-American community strengthening families oradhering to the black work ethic or being committed toself-discipline and self-respect and not forgetting where you camefrom, I don't think that's something anybody would object to.
"I think I'd get a few amens."
Trinity, which adopted the principles in 1981, highlights them inbrief form on its Web site without elaboration. That leaves roomfor critics to fill the vacuum.
Difficult task awaits
Political scientist Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State Universityexpert on the party caucuses in his state, said anything perceivedas a rejection of the middle class will not sit well with voters.Fair or not, Obama must move quickly to explain the value systemand what it means to him or risk having the issue defined bycritics, he said.
Otherwise, Schmidt added: "There go the soccer moms and there gothe NASCAR dads."
Explaining those religious ideas could prove a difficult task intoday's political world where complex concepts must be reduced topithy sound bites and attempts at nuance are often consideredevidence of being wishy-washy.
Trinity's value system springs from an era when black Christiansin Chicago were abandoning congregations they felt were too closelyaligned with the administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Asimilar exodus was occurring around the country, withAfrican-Americans turning away from black pastors they felt weretoo tepid in their response to the civil rights movement.
To curb black flight from the pews, Trinity's pastor, Rev.Jeremiah Wright Jr., embraced a theology of black liberation thatheld black Christians accountable for taking care of their own andfor continuing to fight oppression, sharing in the struggle even ifit didn't touch them. To this day, Trinity's congregation of 8,500spans the spectrum from public housing residents to powerbrokersincluding Obama and other celebrities.
Vallmer Jordan, a church member who helped draft the precepts,said they were designed to empower the black community and countera value system imposed by whites. "The big question mark wasracism," he said. "Black disempowerment was an integral part ofthat historical value system. It became increasingly apparent to methat we black people had not developed our own value system . . .to help us overcome all we knew we had to battle."
He acknowledged that the principle on "middleclassness" was a hardsell, even then.
"There was a hunk of resistance to that principle," Jordan said.But eventually committee members came to understand its intention:"Any black person who identifies himself as middle-classpsychologically withdraws from the group and becomes a proponent ofstrengthening and sustaining the system," he said.
Harris-Lacewell, the Princeton professor, said the "disavowal ofthe pursuit of middleclassness" is simply an argument againstmaterialism and the pursuit of the American standard of wealth.Many white Christian churches also preach against materialism.
`That's going to resonate'
"If [Obama] can figure out a way to get the sound bite for that,"she said, "I actually think that's going to resonate with a lot ofpeople beyond African-Americans."
In his early forays to address the issue of how faith affects hispublic life, Obama has had a fair degree of success. "If we trulyhope to speak to people where they're at--to communicate our hopesand values in a way that's relevant to their own--then asprogressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse,"he said in a widely praised speech last summer to progressiveevangelical Christians.
Later, Obama and conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas),another potential presidential contender, received a warm welcomeat Saddleback Church, the evangelical megachurch in California.
In addition to attempting to bridge religious divides, Obama nowfinds himself needing to bridge racial divides--even among blacks.Given his racial heritage and upbringing in a white household,Obama has prompted skepticism among African-Americans who havequestioned whether he has enough in common with them to reflecttheir interests.
Writing in the online magazine Salon, essayist Debra Dickersonsummarized this point of view while crediting Obama withpotentially opening doors for other non-white presidentialcandidates. "Barack Obama would be the great black hope in the nextpresidential race--if he were actually black," she wrote, lateradding that he should be considered "an American of Africanimmigrant extraction" and not a descendent of American slaves.
Obama received some unintended support in this regard from Bidenjust last week. In a newspaper interview, Biden sought to praisehim as a worthy opponent. "You got the first mainstreamAfrican-American who is articulate and bright and clean and anice-looking guy" he said in remarks seen by many people ascondescending.
The gaffe gave Obama the opportunity to appear magnanimous in theface of an insult. Initially, Obama graciously said Biden "didn'tintend to offend" anyone. But shortly after, he issued a statementthat highlighted his connection to African-American politicalleaders who preceded him.
Calling Biden's comment "historically inaccurate," Obama praised Jesse Jackson Sr., Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and AlSharpton as past presidential candidates who "gave a voice to manyimportant issues through their campaigns, and no one would callthem inarticulate."
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Excerpts from the Black Value System
COMMITMENT TO GOD
" `The God of our weary years' will give us the strength to giveup prayerful passivism and become Black Christian Activists,soldiers for Black freedom and the dignity of all humankind."
What experts say
Such a commitment stems from the time of slavery when God not onlysustained the African-American community but also empowered theabolitionists and later fueled the civil rights movement.
BLACK WORK ETHIC
"High productivity must be a goal of the Black workforce."
What experts say
In many ways, the Black Value System is intended to be an internalcritique of the African-American community. Black people toiledduring and after slavery so their children could have a betterlife. The value system asserts that subsequent generations owe itto their ancestors to do the same.
DISAVOWAL OF THE PURSUIT OF "MIDDLECLASSNESS"
"While it is permissible to chase `middle-incomeness' with all ourmight, we must avoid . . . the psychological entrapment of Black`middleclassness.' "
What experts say
Authors of the value system discourage black men and women fromdefining themselves by socioeconomic class. Instead, they shouldshare in the collective struggle of the African-American communityand work toward its empowerment.
Source: Trinity United Church of Christ, Tribune reporting
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