Wright brings race issue back to '08 race

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

Larry Downing/Reuters
Wright speaks out: The tradition of African-American churches is misunderstood by the 'dominant culture,' the preacher said Monday.
Paul Sancya/AP
NAACP Speech: The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. said he is not one of the most divisive black spiritual leaders, but one of the most descriptive.

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.

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.

Wright, who is retiring this year as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, a black megachurch on Chicago's South Side, led Obama to Christianity 20 years ago when Obama was a young community organizer there. Wright married Barack and Michelle Obama and baptized their two daughters.

Obama has said he sharply disagrees with Wright's portrayal of American government as racist, corrupt, and murderous. But he said in his speech last month that Wright had been "like family to me," "as imperfect as he may be," and sought to put Wright's comments in the context of an older generation of African-Americans embittered by painful firsthand memories of discrimination.

Obama said Sunday that Wright had not consulted him before going public last week but said he understood his former pastor's motivations.

"He is somebody who has obviously been the subject of some pretty sharp attacks over the last month," Obama told Fox News Sunday. "And it's understandable that somebody, after an entire career of service, would want to defend themselves."

In the Pennsylvania primary last week, Obama won 90 percent of the black vote and 37 percent of whites, according to exit polls. But in his Fox interview, he dismissed race as a problem for his campaign.

"Is race still a factor in our society? Yes. I don't think anybody would deny that," he said. "Is that going to be the determining factor in a general election? No, because I'm absolutely confident that the American people, what they're looking for is somebody who can solve their problems."

"If I lose," he added, "it won't be because of race. It will be because, you know, I made mistakes on the campaign trail, I wasn't communicating effectively my plans in terms of helping them in their everyday lives."

Even so, the last week has offered fresh evidence that Wright will remain a potent issue for Obama's opponents.

An ad set to air Tuesday night in North Carolina, which votes May 6, contains footage of Wright on the pulpit saying "God damn America." Sponsored by the state Republican Party, the spot calls Obama "just too extreme for North Carolina" and assails two Democratic gubernatorial candidates for endorsing him.

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, had been largely silent on Wright, saying he did not believe Obama shared his former pastor's views. Last week, he asked the North Carolina GOP, unsuccessfully, to scrap the ad.

But in an apparent shift, McCain denounced Wright at a news conference in Florida Sunday. He called "beyond belief" Wright's remarks comparing the Romans of Jesus' day to the US Marines and likening America to Al Qaeda.

McCain said that Obama had made Wright fair game by telling Fox on Sunday that Wright's remarks were a "legitimate political issue."

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