Obama seeks to clarify his views on race
His speech Tuesday distanced him from his pastor's views.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But with racially charged excerpts from Mr. Wright's sermons resurfacing on the airwaves at a critical time in the fight for the Democratic nomination, Obama delivered a major speech Tuesday distancing himself from the Chicago pastor he has credited with leading him to Christianity.
"Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong, but divisive," Obama said at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. "They weren't simply a religious leader's efforts to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America." The campaign said Friday that Wright had been severed from its African American Religious Leadership Committee.
The rupture represents a nadir in the relationship of two men who once heaped only praise on each other. But it also reflects the persistence of race as a bedeviling issue for an African-American whose historic candidacy seeks to transcend it.
Whether Obama can explain his 20-year association with Wright to the satisfaction of whites, blacks, and religious leaders looms as one of the greatest tests of his vision for an America delivered from division.
Obama walked a fine line Tuesday. He condemned Wright's language, but sought to explain it as a symptom of America's tortured racial history. He faulted what he said was Wright's pessimism about change, but praised the ministries Wright created for the homeless and people with AIDS.
"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me," Obama said. "He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.… I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."
The speech was a response to the controversy over Wright. But it also enlarged on the touchstones of his campaign, tying together black history, working-class white anger, and his own multiracial biography in a plea for understanding and unity.
"The issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through – a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect," he said.
"He is taking the central issue that is troublesome to some voters and trying to turn it to his advantage," says Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist and author of "Faith in the Halls of Power." "That's the challenge he faces."
Obama proceeded with the speech over the objection of some associates, according to news reports. Some worried that it would only draw more attention to race, an issue already much in the news after the polarized results of last week's Mississippi primary and controversial remarks by a former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, a prominent supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Wright has portrayed the United States as corrupt and racist, and his language sometimes veers into the incendiary. "White America got a wake-up call after 9/11/01," Wright wrote in a church-affiliated magazine in 2005, blaming American foreign policy for the attacks. In a December sermon cited by CNN, Wright said, "Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people."