ABERDEEN, S.D. — Barack Obama has quit his church of two decades, saying Saturday that the racial and other controversies of recent months had become too great a distraction for his presidential run while his campaign brought too much unfair attention upon a congregation that he cares for deeply.
The Democratic frontrunner's decision to leave Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, made official Friday in a letter to it pastor, Rev. Otis Moss Jr., comes as Obama prepares to wrap up the last primary contests on Tuesday and compete in a general election in which polls show he must build more trust with working-class whites dubious of his motives.
In a news conference after a campaign speech in Aberdeen, S.D., Obama told reporters that he and his wife, Michelle, had been considering leaving the church since the retired Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary remarks at the National Press Club several weeks ago. Those followed earlier sermons in which Wright proclaimed "God damn America," suggested U.S. foreign policy and Israel helped provoke the 9/11 attacks, railed against the white establishment and criticized Obama's opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Obama distanced himself from Wright, saying those sermons went against his philosophies. He also delivered a major speech on race in America. Wright, angered by Obama's cold shoulder, accused Obama at the press club of political expediency. The controversies also have fueled false rumors that Obama is Muslim or doesn't say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Obama's announcement came less than a week after yet another controversy involving racially incendiary remarks from Obama's church's pulpit - this time from a guest pastor.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago had mocked Obama's Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton for tearing up during the New Hampshire primary, fake-sobbing and saying she and other whites assumed she would be the nominee because of their sense of white entitlement and supremacy.
"We don't want to have to answer for everything that's stated in a church," Obama said Saturday. "On the other hand we also don't want a church subjected to the scrunity that a presidential campaign legitimately undergoes."
He made clear, however, "I'm not denouncing the church and I'm not interested in people who want me to denounce the church." He said the church's congregation does not hold anti-white or anti-American views.
"I did not anticipate my fairly conventional Christian faith being subject to such challenge," he added.
Of his withdrawal, Obama said: "I have no idea how it will impact my presidential campaign, but I know that it's the right thing to do for the church and for our family."
The Illinois senator said he and his wife didn't expect to settle on another church until next January, after they know where they'll be living.
Asked whether he could remain in a black church as president, he acknowledged, "There is a cultural and a stylistic gap (between black churches and white church culture) that has come in to play in this issue."
Whatever church they choose, Obama said, it will be one that provokes thought but also preaches reconciliation - and that he hopes once they settled on one, he and his family can worship in peace.
Dennis Jones, 63, a farmer who came to hear Obama speak in Aberdeen on Saturday, said Obama's church was never an issue for him. But as for Obama's decision, Jones said, "He maybe has to do it. It seemed like there's been a history of, I don't know how to put it - extremism? - there, that I don't think fits his philosophy or a lot of other people in America's philosophies."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008