Say it ain’t so. Barack Obama has worked hard over the past 18 months to persuade Americans that he is the untraditional politician – immune to special interests, loyal to his faith, close to the people, guided by principle.
Part of the pitch was that, as a regular churchgoer, he could tap into values voters and show that – as he said in his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention – those in the blue states also “worship an awesome God.”
And now Obama goes and does something foolish that shows he is a traditional politician after all and may suggest that his religious convictions are not all that firm: He quits Trinity United Church of Christ, the Chicago sanctuary he attended for two decades, where he was married and where his children were baptized.
Not because he was uncomfortable sitting in the pews all those years but because other people were uncomfortable that he sat in the pews all those years.
The last straw was the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest who, while visiting Trinity, mocked Hillary Clinton for feeling entitled to the presidency because she’s white and the wife of a former president.
Obama, in explaining why he had left the church, said the Pfleger controversy had convinced him that, as long as he remained in the congregation, he would have to respond to things that were said from the pulpit – no matter who said them – and that the issue would continue to be a distraction for his campaign.
Many inside-the-Beltway pundits applauded Obama’s footwork. The Sunday shows were abuzz with praise for the fact that Obama realized that it was either his church or his shot at the presidency, and that he chose the latter.
In fact, it is considered a sign of his political maturity. As one conservative pundit asserted, Obama simply could not be elected president if he had remained a member of the congregation.
They may be right. Still, I wonder how that analysis is playing at Trinity, where parishioners – the sort of folks who don’t usually pop up on YouTube blasting the United States or antagonizing whites – had to have felt a deep sense of pride over the last few months that a member of their church might actually be elected president.
And, suddenly, now that this person is one step closer to the presidency, he steps out the door.
That’s a betrayal in my book. Some African-Americans assure me that there may be no hard feelings after all is said and done, and that they understand better than most of us how the game is played and what sort of accommodations have to be made to fit into the mainstream.
I won’t defend a lot of what gets said at Trinity or, for that matter, at any other church around the country. I can’t.
But, to me, what is really indefensible is the fact that so many Americans are so thin-skinned when it comes to even talking about race.
There is also the politics of all this. John McCain is fond of calling Obama naive. That’s far off the mark.
The way I see it, Obama is wrong on a host of issues – from Iraq to No Child Left Behind to NAFTA – but it should now be clear that he has an intuitive understanding of the rough and tumble of politics and what is necessary to win the presidency.
The senator from Illinois has demonstrated that he is quick on his feet and able to adjust to changing circumstances. He possesses a sleight of hand reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s abracadabra style of politics.
From the nomination of Lani Guinier to Clinton’s promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military, it was always the same story with the master politician: “Now you see it, now you don’t.”
Long gone is Obama’s admirable rhetoric about how he could “no more disown” his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and implicitly his now-former church, than he could disown his own grandmother.
Now, Wright has been disowned. The church has been disowned. And Grandma should watch her back.
Barack Obama continues his wild ride through the world of American politics. And his supporters are right to worry about the price of the ticket.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.
The San Diego Union Tribune