On the night of his triumph in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich boldly announced: “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” Barack Obama did once work in a Chicago project inspired by Alinsky, the legendary community organizer who died in 1972. But, in its essence, this was classic demagoguery: connect a name that, at least to a crowd of Southern Republicans, sounds rather alien—and certainly not Christian—with a president whom many conservatives already suspect of being an un-American, anti-religious socialist.
Because Newt is reputed to know a great deal about the past, even those who don’t admire him may give credence to the former Speaker’s claim that Alinsky was a dangerous leftist whose doctrine lies at the root of all that is wrong in the country—and in the White House. In fact, it shows, yet again, that the skillful demagogue is a lousy historian.
Saul Alinsky often called himself a radical, but his career as a community organizer had thoroughly traditional foundations in grassroots democracy and institutional religion. Indeed, it was built with the active support and resources of key figures in the Roman Catholic Church. (The same faith, incidentally, to which Newt converted in 2009, joining his wife Callista, who grew up Catholic in Wisconsin.)
In the late 1930s, Alinsky launched his first project in the Back of the Yards, a multi-ethnic, working-class, mostly Catholic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Bernard J. Sheil, the city’s auxiliary bishop, championed the new Back of the Yards Council and encouraged local priests and leading parishioners to take part. Sheil, founder of the Catholic Youth Organization, helped set up Alinsky’s network of local organizers—the non-profit Industrial Areas Foundation—and convinced financier Marshall Field III to bankroll it.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, Alinsky worked closely with another influential priest, Monsignor John O’Grady, director of the National Conference of Catholic Charities. O’Grady liked Alinsky’s focus on mobilizing local people to help themselves and introduced the “radical” to a parish priest who was working with young Puerto Ricans in a poor neighborhood near the University of Chicago.
The Monsignor and the Jewish troublemaker got along so well that Alinsky began to work with O’Grady on the older man’s biography. The book was not completed, but the outline made clear that the two shared a strong critique of modern liberalism that would be congenial to many conservatives today: “…the New Deal was important, it was good…yet it carried an opposite side to the shield, in terms of a gravitation of power and the establishment of enormous bureaucracies which were evil.” Americans should turn, instead, wrote Alinsky, “to grass roots organization and decentralization.”
As Alinsky knew well, O’Grady’s thinking drew from the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity,” which the Church began to develop in the late 19th century as an alternative to social change directed by powerful nation-states. Subsidiarity holds that social problems should first be handled by the smallest, most local authority in existence. As Pope Pius XI wrote in a 1931 encyclical: “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.”
Of course, Alinsky’s intellectual influences were not limited to Catholic social thought. Contrary to Gingrich’s ignorant slur, he frequently quoted Jefferson and Madison and had contempt for young leftists in the 1960s who disdained the American flag. “The responsible organizer would have known,” he wrote in 1971, “that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations.” But Alinsky frequently spoke at Catholic venues and regularly advised young seminarians who were eager to improve the well-being of the men and women they would soon be serving, many of whom were poor and needed help organizing themselves to demand jobs and better services from the local authorities.
In 1969, Saul Alinsky received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, given annually by a coalition of Catholic groups in the Midwest to commemorate an encyclical about human rights and alternatives to war written by Pope John XXIII. Most honorees have been ardent reformers of one faith or another: Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Daniel Berrigan, and Jim Wallis are on the list—as is Lech Walesa.
Newt Gingrich would, no doubt, point to some of those names as proof of how the Left can seduce innocent devotees of his new-found faith. But he might find it difficult to criticize the woman who received the award seven years after Saul Alinsky: a community organizer from Calcutta named Mother Teresa.
Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.