He was skeptical of preachers and their effect on God-and-gun clinging Americans, and saw the Catholic Church as an obstacle to his policies, plans, and vision for the state.
At the same time, he argued that Christians should support his ideas and enthusiastically sought the support of the "social justice" Religious Left for various causes and campaigns. And yet, many people were unclear about his personal religious beliefs, including whether he was a Christian. Some even dared to call him a communist, while he described himself as "progressive."
Sound familiar? Who is this man? If you answered "Barack Obama," you're only half right. The answer is Frank Marshall Davis, Hawaii mentor to a young Barack Obama, and Communist Party USA (CPUSA) member 47544.
This week, we're officially releasing my biography of Obama's mentor, titled, The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor. That book will get dissected from a thousand different angles, but I fear most will miss one of the more compelling components -- namely, the faith of Frank Marshall Davis, and its often odd parallels to our president today.
First, a few words on who Davis was, and how he came to meet a young Obama:
Frank Marshall Davis (1905-87) was a writer, poet, and political extremist. His politics were so extreme that he eventually joined the Communist Party in Chicago in the early 1940s. He became very active in Party circles. In 1946, he became the founding editor-in-chief of the Chicago Star, the CPUSA organ for Chicago. There, Davis shared the op-ed page with the likes of Howard Fast, a "Stalin Prize" winner, and Senator Claude "Red" Pepper, who, at the time, sponsored the bill to nationalize healthcare in the United States. Davis and his Star favored taxpayer-funding of universal healthcare, blasted Wall Street and big business and big oil, demanded wealth redistribution to fund "public works projects," attacked GOP tax cuts, excoriated "profits" and millionaires and corporate executives -- all traits we'd see one day in the young man Davis influenced, Barack Obama.
Davis left the Star in 1948 for Hawaii, where he would write for the CPUSA organ there, the Honolulu Record. His politics remained so radical that the FBI had Davis under continued surveillance. What's more, the federal government placed Davis on the Security Index, meaning that in the event of a war between the United States and USSR, Barack Obama's mentor could be placed under immediate arrest.
Davis's targets were Democrats more than Republicans, given that it was Democrats like Harry Truman who opposed Stalin's Soviet expansion. In December 1956, the Democrat-run Senate Judiciary Committee called Davis to Washington to testify on his activities. Davis pleaded the Fifth. No matter, the next year, the Democratic Senate published a report titled, "Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States," where it listed Davis as "an identified member of the Communist Party."
Frank Marshall Davis would meet Obama in 1970, introduced by Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham, for the purpose of mentoring. An eyewitness, a woman named Dawna Weatherly-Williams, who knew Davis so well that she called him "Daddy," was present the first time Obama and Davis met. She described the relationship as very influential, with Davis impacting Obama on "social justice," on "life," on "what's important," on no less than "how to use" his "heart" and "mind."
Stanley Dunham hoped Obama would find in Davis the father figure and role model he lacked. So deep was the influence that Obama, in Dreams from My Father, would cite Davis dozens of times over thousands of words and in each and every section of his memoirs.
There's much more that could be said on all of that, but -- sticking to my theme here -- how does the faith factor figure into this story?
Well, mentors, of course, matter. I have done several biographies. As every biographer knows, you start with the mentors. In my biographies of Ronald Reagan, I found that Reagan's mentor was a pastor, Ben Cleaver, a University of Chicago theology graduate, intellectual, patriotic, given to invoking Washington and Lincoln, seeing America as exceptional, a Shining City on a Hill. In my biography of Reagan's closest aide, Bill Clark, a devout Catholic, I detailed how Clark invoked the influence of brilliant Catholics minds like Fulton Sheen and Thomas Merton. In my biography of Hillary Clinton, I found a pastor as a mentor: Don Jones, youth minister at First Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Illinois. Jones had the young Hillary read Tillich, Niebuhr, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In the case of all of these influences, the mentor entered their lives in adolescence and remained right up to their departure for college -- just like Frank Marshall Davis in the case of Obama. In the case of Davis, however, the influence was hardly religious, and didn't exactly view America as a Shining City.
To the contrary, in Frank Marshall Davis, we find a resentfulness of religion and God. Davis had been raised by Baptist parents and taught the power of prayer "from infancy." But he felt he did not see results. To be fair, he witnessed some terrible racial persecution in the Jim Crow South. When he read about a young black mother who was burned at the stake while the white mob laughed at her cries, little Frank knelt at his bedside and "prayed for retribution." When nothing happened to the perpetrators (at least in this world), he was puzzled.
"I became deeply depressed," he wrote in his memoirs, "feeling that God had somehow let me down."
Of course, many black Americans felt this pain, but typically with a different reaction, turning to God rather than away from God. They understood that people were bad and only God is good. The problem wasn't Christianity, or Christ, but bad Christians. Not God, but men. God and Christ and Heaven were good.
If only Frank Marshall Davis would have taken away that understanding. He did not. "Very well," he scoffed. If this was the Christian religion, "Then I was through with it."
And there was more to Frank Marshall Davis's rejection of God. His grandfather was agnostic, and those seeds, when mixed with (perceived) non-answers to young Frank's prayers for retribution, "fell in welcoming soil." (As a parallel to Barack Obama, Newsweek described Obama's grandfather as a "lapsed Christian" who likewise did not nurture in Obama a Christian belief system, nor did Obama's grandmother nor mother, with the grandparents at best attending a Unitarian Church known among locals as "The Little Red Church on the Hill.") Davis said that his grandfather "converted me almost immediately." He was easy prey.
Turning away from the light, Frank Marshall Davis began haunting the recesses of the Wichita Public Library, where he imbibed in the anti-God writings of agnostics and atheists. This was a pivotal period. By then, Davis was not an immature five-year-old with childlike questions but an 18-year-old becoming a man. His break from Jesus Christ was intellectually reinforced.
Moreover, this break would be further reinforced by atheistic communists that Davis came to meet. Among them, Davis came to know and greatly respect the black American poet and intellectual, Langston Hughes.
And Hughes, for the record, was not merely a poet but also a loyal Soviet patriot. His devotion to the Stalinist cause was evident in one of his most infamous quotes: "Put one more 'S' in the USA to make it Soviet," declared Hughes. "The USA when we take control will be the USSA." He urged the Marxist faithful to rise and fight for the "great red flag ... of the [Communist] Internationale."
In 1932, Hughes took his devotion directly to Stalin's USSR. There he found his god. "There," wrote Hughes of his Moscow pilgrimage, "it seemed to me that Marxism had put into practical being many of the precepts which our own Christian America had not yet been able to bring to life." Moved by the Soviet spirit, Hughes penned his worst poem:
Goodbye Christ, Lord Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here, make way for a new guy with no religion at all,
A real guy named Marx, Communism, Lenin, Peasant, Stalin, worker, me.
Beat it, Christ. Move over for someone real: Marx, Lenin, Stalin. This was Langston Hughes.
Overall, despite such negative influences, Frank Marshall Davis said in his memoirs that he did not forever physically desert churches, always seeing them as valuable social centers for black Americans who needed them and for addressing problems of everyday living. Did he become a lifelong committed agnostic or atheist? He does not clarify in his memoirs, though he clearly rejected the Christian faith at one point. And as we shall see in his writings from the 1940s and 1950s, he would take pointed jabs at Christians for their supposed sins of anti-communism and anti-Sovietism.
In my next article, I will take a look at some of those jabs delivered by Frank Marshall Davis, Obama's mentor.
This is part one of an exclusive two-part series written adapted from the author's newly released book, The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor.