Obama seeks to clarify his views on race

His speech Tuesday distanced him from his pastor's views.

alex brandon/ap
A defining moment? Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama spoke about race in Philadelphia Tuesday.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. married Barack and Michelle Obama, baptized their daughters, and inspired the title of Senator Obama's bestselling book, "The Audacity of Hope."

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.

As some analysts see it, the speech was no less momentous than the one Mitt Romney gave in December in Texas to defuse questions about his Mormon faith.

"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."

His views are hardly new, and Obama said last year that he does not see eye to eye with his pastor on every issue. But ABC and FOX News began airing segments of old sermons last week, and Obama responded with a series of denunciations since Friday that culminated with his 35-minute speech Tuesday, which he titled "A More Perfect Union."

At the same time, the black megachurch Wright led for 36 years and the headquarters of the denomination, the United Church of Christ, which is largely white, accused the media of distortion. Both issued statements praising Wright as a distinguished preacher who was being sacrificed on the altar of politics.

"It's time for all of us to say 'No' to these attacks," UCC General Minister and President John Thomas said in a statement, "and to declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their narrow political or ideological ends."

Countering the criticism of Wright has put Obama in a delicate spot, analysts say. He has to reassure whites, perhaps the most important swing vote in the nomination fight, without turning off black voters and clergy who may be more familiar with Wright's brand of rhetoric, a tradition in liberal black churches where "social gospel" is as important as scripture. Wright's language draws on black liberation theology, an outgrowth of the civil rights era which views the Bible as a parable for the struggle for black freedom.

"Jeremiah Wright is no surprise to the bulk of black voters," says Christina Rivers, an expert on black political thought at DePaul University, a Catholic institution in Chicago. "He didn't make up that rhetoric. He's just good at it."

But for whites unfamiliar with the history of the black church, she says, "I think [Wright's remarks] would at least give them pause."

Obama met Wright while working with churches as a community organizer in Chicago in the mid-1980s and joined Trinity United Church of Christ in the early 1990s. In his book “Dreams from my Father,” Obama rhapsodizes about the day he found religion while listening to Wright’s sermon on “the audacity to hope” in the face of suffering.

The Obama campaign recognized Wright as a political liability from the very day he announced his candidacy in February 2007, when it abruptly revoked an invitation to Wright to deliver the public invocation.

A flurry of news stories followed, but interest in the pastor had died down until the TV reports last week. The latest round of coverage had a new dimension in part because Obama aides had demanded that Ms. Ferraro resign as a Clinton fundraiser after her comments to a California newspaper that Obama owed his political rise to being black.

In a statement Friday to the Web newspaper The Huffington Post, Obama said he was not in the pews when Wright made "inflammatory and appalling remarks" and had not heard similar language in his conversations with Wright.

He said he "did not think it appropriate to leave the church, … because Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community."

Wright did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment. But in previously unpublished excerpts from an e-mail interview with the Monitor last June, he described his relationship with Obama as more intellectual sparring partner than mentor.

"I think what drew him to Trinity was the fact that I was one of the few black pastors in the late 1980's in the city of Chicago who had a seminary degree and could discuss religion, faith and public policy with him without trying to proselytize him or convince him that my views were the only right (or correct) views," Wright said in his e-mail. "I tried to make him think more than tried to tell him what to think."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.