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Wright brings race issue back to '08 race

Obama's former pastor launched a public-relations blitz.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2008

Wright speaks out: The tradition of African-American churches is misunderstood by the 'dominant culture,' the preacher said Monday.

Larry Downing/Reuters

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With his sweeping speech on race relations a month ago, Barack Obama sought to end nettlesome questions about his long association with a controversial Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. But just as fresh doubts surface about Senator Obama's ability to win working-class white voters important in the general election, Mr. Wright is back – and unrepentant.

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Without coordinating with the Obama campaign, Wright has launched a pugnacious public-relations blitz to defend his church and explain comments that critics have called racially inflammatory and unpatriotic.

In a talk in Washington Monday morning, Wright was by turns professorial, defiant, and flip, twice offering himself up as a candidate for vice president.

The controversy over some of his sermons "is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright," he said at the National Press Club, where he expressed contempt for the several hundred news professionals seated before him. "It is an attack on the black church."

The appearances – in a PBS interview Friday and in speeches in Detroit and Washington on Sunday and Monday – inject issues of race back into the nomination contest at an awkward time for Obama. The Illinois senator was already fending off new questions about his ability to win enough blue-collar white voters to close the protracted nomination fight with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Wright now returns to the headlines as Obama faces new tests of his bid for a postracial politics, first in Indiana on May 6 then in West Virginia and Kentucky later in the month.

Wright said in his appearances that he was the victim of a "public crucifixion" by "corporate-owned media," who sensationalized a few sound bites from 30 years of sermons to spread "fear and hatred and to stir up the anxiety of Americans who still don't know the African-American church."

He sought to explain that religious tradition – "we shout in the sanctuary and we march on the picket lines." But he made no apologies for his provocative style or his critique of the United States. Asked Monday to explain his remarks that American foreign policy had produced the 9/11 attacks, he said, "You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back to you."

"I am not one of the most divisive" black spiritual leaders, Wright said at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People dinner in Detroit Sunday. "I describe the conditions in this country."

In Washington Monday, he said he hoped the controversy would deepen awareness of the black church. For reconciliation between white and black churches to succeed, he said, the "dominant culture" would have to understand – and respect – their different histories and worship styles. "The Christianity of the slaveholder is not the same as the Christianity of the slave," he said.