The Curious Politics of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III

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.


  1. Temple, It sure as hell is confusing to see some of these preachers and others give their support to Hillary. The cynical part of me wonder, what was the bargin? what was promised? After all this is a political decision and Hillary is the most connected of the two candidates, and could make things happen early and ofter for her supporters.

    I have to respect the disenting opinions of some of these brothers and sisters. However, I think some of these brothers are missing the bigger picture. Would it not be good to see a black woman as first lady? would it not be good to see black kids on the white house lawn? Would it not be good to see a president without a european name? The kids being born now, would come into a world with a different reality and possibilities. Maybe a greater civic awareness will swell up in our young people.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have some great amount of respect for the white house. It could burn to the ground for all I care, and if a Black person never occupy it that’s fine with me. But don’t tell me that Barack is not qualified to live in that mofo.

    I’m under no illusions as to what Barack will accomplish. He is beholden to the system. He is backing up on Rev. Wright, Rev. Farrakhan and the Black Panthers, and he still have their endoursement. He gets might close to talking about personal responsibility, but I don’t see him as absolveing white folks of their racist past/present. I don’t see Barack ignoring us like Clarence Thomas has done. Just don’t see it.

    Rev. Butts talk about experience. What about these white muthafuka that took office without any political experience, whose only qualification was white skin and wealth? Or those that took office because of “successful” military service, what experience did they have? BTW Rev. Butts, if experience is the criteria, then we should vote for McCain.

  2. That “politics of personal salvation” is one helluva memetic drug…., the kind of drug that enables you to sleep easy at night after you extract your $110 Million tip for services rendered on behalf of the system.

  3. I am a student at SUNY College At Old Westbury and I have a Major in Management In Information Systems and I am under the Arts and Sciences Department and The department itself and my chairman told me that they can not give me two classes that I need to graduate because they told me that they don’t have the money to have the courses made but it is on my registrable courses that I must take as well My chairman along with the Principle told me that I can’t go to another school, will not accept transfer credits and will not Substitute for another classes .

  4. Maybe you should pay the man a visit. I don’t think he’s the person to fix your issue, though.

    Frankly, your university should have what’s called an Ombudsman who addresses issues like this…then the issue should be shared with the board of trustees at your university (in a hurry) with copies to the New York State Education Department Commissioner and Board of Regents. It’s a lot of mail, but if you can get that nonsense from your chairman in writing, you’ll be in great shape.

    I’d say Letter to Ombudsman or Provost.
    Request a response within 10-14 days. Send copies of your letter to the University President, your elected officials (check online). Then you have to get persistent. You may need to call the elected officials to get them to follow up on your behalf. Keep calling them.

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