WASHINGTON — Barack Obama said Friday that he won't leave his Chicago church because of incendiary remarks by the pastor, but he condemned the man's controversial statements, which are igniting a firestorm of TV and Internet coverage.
Obama laid out a detailed self-defense of his long, close relationship with the retiring Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in a written statement to The Huffington Post, a liberal Web site. Obama also planned a blitz of TV network appearances to counter recent broadcasts of Wright saying "God damn America" and making other inflammatory remarks.
Wright stepped down Friday from Obama's African American Religious Leadership Committee. In an interview Friday night on MSNBC, Obama said that Wright reflected the anger and frustration of an older generation of African-Americans who came of age during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. He said he did not share that anger because he's a member of a new generation that's enjoyed the benefits accomplished by the earlier generation. Obama said, however, that he hoped to use the issue to launch a broader discussion about race in America.
While the controversy may counter Internet rumors that Obama's a Muslim, it threatens to inflame racial sensitivities and could impede Obama's campaign to present himself as a presidential candidate who's able to transcend social divisions in America.
Wright is retiring this year after a long tenure as pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, whose motto is "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." He mentored Obama, performed the Obamas' wedding, informed Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, and his phrase, "the audacity of hope," became the title of Obama's 2006 memoir.
But some of Wright's video-archived sermons deliver harsh messages.
Wright, an African-American, once railed that Hillary Clinton doesn't know what it's like to be a black man trying to hail a cab in America. He's said that rich whites control the country. He's spoken of the "U.S. of KKK-A." He's compared the World War II atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the 9/11 attacks. He's said that the United States invited the attacks by supporting Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
Obama said that "I ... strongly condemn the statements" from Wright causing controversy. Wright, he said, "has never been my political adviser; he's been my pastor." Obama said that he never heard Wright make such comments in the church or in private conversations, and that "the sermons I heard him preach always related to our obligation to love God and one another, to work on behalf of the poor and to seek justice at every turn."
Obama said he joined the church nearly 20 years ago, that he respected Wright as a former U.S. Marine and leader of a diverse congregation that serves Chicago well with ministries serving the homeless and those with HIV/AIDS. He said that with Wright retiring and being replaced by a new pastor, "Michelle and I look forward to continuing a relationship with a church that has done so much good."
Videos of Wright's sermons have been out there for years but have attracted new scrutiny of late because of a combination of factors.
These include Wright's announced retirement, an IRS investigation into whether the church should lose its tax-exempt status after an arguably political speech that Obama gave last year to church members and the church magazine's decision last year to honor Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan with an award in Wright's name.
The scrutiny also comes as Obama enjoys front-runner status in the Democratic presidential race, Clinton accused the media of not being tough enough on Obama, Clinton backer Geraldine Ferraro suggested that Obama's being black gives him an undeserved advantage, and voter exit polls suggest that Obama's race was a divisive issue in the Mississippi and Ohio primaries.
Mark Silk, the director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said it's difficult to know how much the controversy would hurt Obama, but that "it can't help."
"Everyone's got clerical people who say wacky things," Silk said. "That said, it's not as if this is just some pastor who's decided last week to endorse Obama. This is his guy."
Obama's "whole persona . . . is not in any sense being the angry black guy. On the other hand, because Obama is a black guy out of Chicago with an alien-sounding name who people don't know very well, because of rumors floating around, some maliciously spread by e-mail, that he's a Muslim or that kind of stuff, if I were him I'd be concerned about that."
(Steven Thomma contributed.)
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