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Some critics say Barack Obama is too inexperienced and naive, while others say he’s too closely entwined with treasonous radicals. Months ago he could have countered both attacks at the same time by showing the country a religious mentor who knows how to talk like a progressive, appeal to the center, and quietly make political deals.
And he still could if, as Mary Mitchell speculates, he ends up joining the Apostolic Church of God.
I’m not questioning Obama’s sincerity as a spiritual seeker, but it’s obvious that Jeremiah Wright’s message of black liberation theology (and his congregation full of black politicians and other professionals) was attractive to Obama when he was looking for identity . . . and networking opportunities.
Now, though, his political success depends on his being able to distance himself from left-wing conspiracy theorists and cast himself as a reasonable centrist. (Just do a Google search for "Obama and Jeremiah Wright” if you need to remind yourself of the right wing’s strategy to cast Obama as an H. Rap Brown wannabe.) He couldn’t do better than finding a mentor like Bishop Arthur Brazier, Apostolic’s retiring pastor.
Brazier’s career is a study in social activism moving ever closer to the center. He once protested the segregationist education policies of Richard J. Daley; now, as hands the leadership of his church to his son Byron, he’s an ally of Richard M. Daley.
That wouldn’t hurt Obama at all.
Wright seems mainstream to locals but like a firebrand to outsiders. For Brazier the reverse would be true. Insiders may consider him a Daley apologist, but to the rest of the country he’d seem like a direct, hardworking, grandfatherly figure. And he's a gifted preacher who won't sound too fiery to anyone who's nervous about that sort of thing.
Brazier doesn’t believe in the racial politics of Jeremiah Wright; he was one of the first black clerics to endorse Daley as mayor after he defeated Eugene Sawyer in 1989. Brazier also wasn’t corrupt or dumb enough to trade his support for peanuts like so many pastors and community leaders who’ve gone silent under this mayor. He’s a proud, bright, tough old head, but in a fight he wouldn’t call the cameras in and start screaming -- he’d much rather let others do the talking while he makes a deal and gets somebody to do just what he wanted in the first place. He and his protege Leon Finney Jr. could always talk this Mayor Daley’s language: Look, we all want to build some new middle-class homes in Woodlawn, so let’s tear down the last half mile of the Green Line -- nobody who uses it can raise enough of a stink to stop us -- and call it the removal of blight.
Over the years Bishop Brazier has given thousands of dollars to the mayor and various south-side political figures, including former 20th Ward alderman Arenda Troutman. And there were no doubts about who really led the ward; Brazier stuck with Troutman last year after she was charged with accepting bribes, but when she held up a big Woodlawn development project he backed he found somebody else: a former cop named Willie Cochran. Brazier didn’t do anything lame like endorse Cochran or stand next to him in a photo-op -- he ponied up more than $30,000 in a few weeks’ time and all but escorted his man into office.
Frankly, I used to think Bishop Brazier was a sellout; now I see that he was one of the smartest operators around. I don’t understand many, many of his political decisions or his plans for scrubbing signs of poverty from Woodlawn. But even when he’s a bastard, he makes his views sound quite reasonable. That’s the kind of minister a relatively inexperienced black presidential candidate could use at his side.