This morning I had the pleasure of seeing Rev. Butts on Gil Noble’s long-running news magazine Like It Is. For me, it was a distinct pleasure because I genuinely like the Reverend. I’ve met him on several occasions. I even made sure to invite him a university-wide symposium over a decade ago so that he could share his potent message of politics and faith. In the Empire State, life is often about faith and politics – and not necessarily in that order.
The Reverend is the heir to the throne at the church of churches in Harlem – Abyssinian Baptist Church. The church was headed for six decades by two men – Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
(that’s Gil Noble narrating)
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Harlem’s Adopted Son, Kwame Nkrumah
at the dawn of Ghanaian Independence
While politics makes strange bedfellows, I can’t say that “Adam the Younger” would have made the decisions his successors have made at the poduim (Hon. Charles Rangel) or at the pulpit (Rev. Butts). When Barack Obama was a child, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. called for Blacks to seek an audacious power – the kind of power that would transform our relationships with the political and economic apparatus of the nation from dependency to directorship. Powell’s call for audacious Black Power was picked up by a young Kwame Ture (then known as Stokely Carmichael) and many others. Powell’s assertion, demonstrable in the community-based politics of the National Black Panther Party and the authentic striving of a generation of Black mayors, may best be seen in the paradigm of Shirley Chisolm.
But what are we to make of his successors on the ground in Harlem? In the case of Charles Rangel, the verdict is already in. Without the support of the “Paper Bag Test” Democratic Machine of Upper Manhattan, he’d have been a historical footnote two decades ago. Even the Congressman’s wife saw fit to vote in a different direction. She endorsed Barack Obama. For good or for evil, the couple split in a direction that mirrored the split at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Reverend Butts has been making the rounds and discussing Barack Obama’s modified rebuke of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Butts has also endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The members of his church are not of the same mind.
“The fact that he made the statement he made today reflects that a very sizable majority of the congregation in fact supports Senator Obama, and Reverend Butts did his best to stress that his judgments are reflection of his individual opinion,” Mr. Johnson said. He said that the pastor was not speaking for the church as a whole. “He made a very individual decision.”
Parishioners believe that his was a unilateral decision to play politics. The Reverend has placed himself in a precarious position. He has rightly criticized Barack Obama for his characterization of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments. After all, heard in their full context, those comments most recently subjected to recurring loops by the MSM do not fit the characterizations of Barack Obama. In fact, Reverend Wright’s comments echo the sentiments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other persons who clearly saw the connections between the US’ recurring need to wage war and the challenges of economic justice. And still, Rev. Butts stands by Hillary Clinton. Why is he keeping the FAITH with this woman?
Through all of her years in Washington, Clinton has been an active participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the Fellowship. Her collaborations with right-wingers such as Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) grow in part from that connection. “A lot of evangelicals would see that as just cynical exploitation,” says the Reverend Rob Schenck, a former leader of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who now ministers to decision makers in Washington. “I don’t….there is a real good that is infected in people when they are around Jesus talk, and open Bibles, and prayer.”
Clinton’s faith is grounded in the Methodist beliefs she grew up with in Park Ridge, Illinois, a conservative Chicago suburb where she was active in her church’s altar guild, Sunday school, and youth group. It was there, in 1961, that she met the Reverend Don Jones, a 30-year-old youth pastor; Jones, a friend of Clinton’s to this day, told us he knows “more about Hillary Clinton’s faith than anybody outside her family.”
Because Jones introduced Clinton and her teenage peers to the civil rights movement and modern poetry and art, Clinton biographers often cast him as a proto-’60s liberal who sowed seeds of radicalism throughout Park Ridge. Jones, though, describes his theology as neoorthodox, guided by the belief that social change should come about slowly and without radical action. It emerged, he says, as a third way, a reaction against both separatist fundamentalism and the New Deal’s labor-based liberalism.
Under Jones’ mentorship, Clinton learned about Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich—thinkers whom liberals consider their own, but whom young Hillary Rodham encountered as theological conservatives. The Niebuhr she studied was a cold warrior, dismissive of the progressive politics of his earlier writing. “He’d thought that once we were unionized, the kingdom of God would be ushered in,” Jones explains. “But the effect of those two world wars and the violence that they produced shook his faith in liberal theology. He came to believe that the achievement of justice meant a clear understanding of the limitations of the human condition.” Tillich, whose sermon on grace Clinton turned to during the Lewinsky scandal, today enjoys a following among conservatives for revising the social gospel—the notion that Christians are to improve humanity’s lot here on earth by fighting poverty, inequality, and exploitation—to emphasize individual redemption instead of activism.
Niebuhr and Tillich’s combination of aggressiveness in foreign affairs and limited domestic ambition naturally led Clinton toward the gop. She was a Goldwater Girl who, under the tutelage of her high school history teacher Paul Carlson (whom Jones describes as “to the right of the John Birchers”), attended biweekly anticommunist meetings and later served as president of Wellesley’s Young Republicans chapter. Out of step with the era’s radicalism, Clinton wrote Jones from college, lamenting that her fellow students didn’t believe that one could be “a mind conservative and a heart liberal.” To Jones, this question indicated that Clinton shared Niebuhr’s notion of Christians needing to have “a dark enough view of life that they can be realistic about what’s possible.”
Two decades later, while Bill was campaigning for president, Clinton picked up that theme once more, displaying a theological depth that conservative believers could appreciate. In an interview with the United Methodist Reporter, she expressed regret that her church had focused too much on social gospel concerns in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, “to the exclusion of personal faith and growth.” The spirit, believe theological conservatives, matters more than the flesh. Clinton added that she was happy to see her liberal denomination becoming more salvation centered in the ’90s.
When Clinton first came to Washington in 1993, one of her first steps was to join a Bible study group. For the next eight years, she regularly met with a Christian “cell” whose members included Susan Baker, wife of Bush consigliere James Baker; Joanne Kemp, wife of conservative icon Jack Kemp; Eileen Bakke, wife of Dennis Bakke, a leader in the anti-union Christian management movement; and Grace Nelson, the wife of Senator Bill Nelson, a conservative Florida Democrat.
Clinton’s prayer group was part of the Fellowship (or “the Family”), a network of sex-segregated cells of political, business, and military leaders dedicated to “spiritual war” on behalf of Christ, many of them recruited at the Fellowship’s only public event, the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Aside from the breakfast, the group has “made a fetish of being invisible,” former Republican Senator William Armstrong has said.) The Fellowship believes that the elite win power by the will of God, who uses them for his purposes. Its mission is to help the powerful understand their role in God’s plan.
Hillary Clinton position of the comments of Rev. Wright is no better than that of Barack Obama – and she does not consider him to be a member of her family – even though he was once a member of her husband’s political family of support. How odd that Reverend Butts is now aligned with Camp Clinton for reasons that make absolutely no sense at all. Strange bedfellows, indeed.