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Did Obama's pastor preach hate?

While some label the Reverend Wright's words 'hate speech,' others point to a tradition of exposing social ills.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2008

Speaking out: Rev. Jermiah Wright Jr., shown speaking to his Chicago congregation in 2006, retired recently.

AP/File

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They're the campaign issue that refuses to fade away.

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The words of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Barack Obama's longtime pastor, continue to fuel controversy, in part because the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is so close this year, in part because the words themselves pose a stark question about America's cross-racial discourse: When does speaking out against injustices cross into hate speech?

Senator Obama's Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, stoked the fires this week, saying, "Given all we have heard and seen, he would not have been my pastor." Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who quit the Republican presidential race, seemed eager to damp the flames as he told MSNBC, "Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment, and you have to just say, `I probably would, too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder, had it been me.' "

For many in the black community, however, the controversy over selected clips of Wright using inflammatory language has been blown out of proportion. More important, they say, it reveals little awareness among whites of the centuries of African-American struggle and its tradition of "prophetic preaching."

In response to the furor, "There's a desire to redouble efforts to portray the beauty and complexities and challenges of our tradition," says the Rev. Brad Braxton, of Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. "Many feel the need to remind people of how the black church tradition has been the soul and conscience of the nation."

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, for example, spoke powerfully of what was awry in the land and what needed to be done to put things right.

In Wright's case, however, the language of video clips in which he said "God damn America" for its historical treatment of minorities and accused the government of spreading HIV/AIDs sounded hateful to many. Senator Clinton compared Mr. Wright with Don Imus, the shock jock whose MSNBC TV show was canceled last year after he called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." "I spoke out against Don Imus, saying that hate speech was unacceptable in any setting, and I believe that," Clinton told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week.

Senator Obama himself has condemned the statements and called them stupid.

With the furor continuing, the recently retired preacher of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago canceled his trip to the Black Church Summit this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was to receive an award for his years of pastoring.

Some pastors, both black and white, argue that Wright's damning of America was not wishing ill on Americans but making a theological point that God condemns acts of oppression. The theme of the sermon from which that clip is taken was that people should not depend on government – which sometimes lies and does wrong – but rely wholly on God.

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