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Barack Obama Does Not Have To Apologize For James Meeks

It's time to call a halt to the dispute Michael and I had this weekend over Jeremiah Wright. Jewcy readers can go over the debate through the links at right and make up their own minds.

However, there is one factual point Michael raises that needs to be addressed, namely his accusation that James Meeks, a demagogic gay-bashing Chicago preacher and Illinois state senator, is "a key player in the Obama campaign." Michael provides a surfeit of evidence that Meeks is a creep, including a dossier from the Southern Poverty Law Center, and some eyewitness accounts of Meeks' antics from the Chicago Sun-Times. What he does not provide is anything approaching "substantiation" of the charge he reprinted from a comment on the website Queerty,* that "Rev. James Meeks is a close friend and spiritual consultant to Sen. Obama," let alone his gloss that Meeks is an important figure to the Obama campaign.

Doubtless one could dig up tranches more material on Meeks' repugnance, none of which would serve to confirm anything other than that Meeks is repugnant. In particular, it wouldn't confirm anything about the nature of Obama's relationship with Meeks. Yet the charge that Obama and Meeks are close friends and spiritual brethren has been circulating around the net's right wing for several days now. Where does that charge originate, and what backing does it have?

The only source for the claim that Obama and Meeks are "close," as near as I can tell from several hours of research, is an August 2004 opinion piece in an online publication called Men's News Daily, which sounds a bit like it might be a new media version of a lad mag, but is in fact a lunatic right-wing tabloid dedicated to liberating men from the oppression of gynocracy. (Start reading here to get the gist of the "men's rights movement" MND purports to represent.) The author of the MND article, Nicholas Stix, accuses Barack Obama, then a US Senate candidate, of being a false Christian because of his support of reproductive freedom. Stix then attacks several clergymen for endorsing Obama, including Meeks. That's the context in which Obama's supposed closeness to Meeks emerges — Stix is not attacking Obama for coddling Meeks, but Meeks for coddling Obama.

In the last week, Stix's criticisms of Christian Obama endorsers were laundered through the right wing tabloidsphere, where, through a game of telephone, it became a fact that Obama and Meeks are close friends. Only this time, the point was to embarrass Obama rather than Meeks. The sourcing is just a bit thin, however.

Likewise, the alleged spiritual kinship between Obama and Meeks is based on a single paragraph in Cathleen Falsani's book, The God Factor. Falsani quotes Meeks bragging about the fact that Obama came to his church to pray the night of his primary victory — I'm sure you're as shocked as I was that Meeks would try to cash out a tenuous connection to a rising political rock star. Falsani concludes, unprompted, that Obama seeks out Meeks "for spiritual counsel." What else would one conclude about a solitary post-primary prayer meeting?

And that's it. The association between Obama and Meeks consists in a campaign stop at Meeks' church and a prayer night, four years ago. There isn't a shred of evidence to suggest Meeks is an important or influential figure to Obama, spiritually or otherwise. In his LA Times column last October, David Ehrenstein took Obama to task for campaigning at Meeks' church in 2004, and goes no further in his accusations. Fair enough. It was a bad decision for which Obama deserves to be held accountable. Now, Ehrenstein is an outspoken Obama opponent — his other column on Obama attacks the candidate as nothing more than white liberal America's hope for a "magic negro" — but also an exceedingly scrupulous journalist. If there were any more of a case to be made, Ehrenstein would have made it.

So let's take a look at Ehrenstein's factual accusation, rather than a circular chain of unsourced internet gossip. Ehrenstein believes Obama failed his gay and lesbian constituents by campaigning at Meeks' church, even once. Fair enough. In the four years since that appearance, Obama has gone to one black church after another, in which many of the congregants (and dare I say it, many of the pastors) are undoubtedly homophobes, and denounced homophobia as a pathology in the black community, as well as a betrayal of Christian values.

What does that mean? It means that Obama is a politician who, like any politician, has occasionally failed to live up to his principles in his effort to court votes. And it means that Obama, unlike any serious contender for the presidency in history, has gone out of his way to defend the dignity and rights of gay people, not just in front of gay-friendly audiences, but gay-unfriendly audiences as well, and has done so in a language that stands a chance of breaking through their mistrust of people different from them. He has done so when no conventional political calculation suggests he should, and when the downside risk is large and the only potential upside a substantive one, namely a thawing of Christian antipathy towards gays and lesbians.

But never mind that. Obama once campaigned with James Meeks. See, there's no yawning gap between him and his rivals after all. QED.

(N.B. I've put in a call to the campaign to get their characterization of the relationship between Obama and Meeks. If evidence emerges to prove me wrong, I'll say so.)

*Update 3/25: Evidence emerges, per Michael's comment, to make the case thicker. I was aware prior to writing the post that Rev. Meeks and Obama were colleagues in the Illinois statehouse (see above), and the fact that Obama worked with a fellow legislator on legislation doesn't seem all that incriminating (should he have refused to co-sponsor bills with Meeks?). Indeed, the fact that Meeks is an Illinois state senator and not simply a turbulent priest seens to me a fairly strong mitigating fact. (Should Obama's friendship with Sen. Tom "Execute Abortionists" Coburn (R-OK) count as a black mark?). However, there were clearly more than two contacts between them. The picture I see is one of a politician forming an alliance with another politician, the latter a disreputable creep, for short term gain. An unambiguous failing, and a standard, depressing Chicago deal. One that, I still believe, doesn't nullify Obama's atonement.

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