Politics & Government

Wright calls accusations unfair, says black church is misunderstood

Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, speaks at a breakfast at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, speaks at a breakfast at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — The Rev. Jeremiah Wright was correct Monday when he told an audience at the National Press Club that the black church in America is widely misunderstood.

"I think there are elements of truth in what he says," said former Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., an African Methodist Episcopal church minister in Queens, N.Y.

At the same time, Wright's explanation of black church traditions, as well as his vigorous defense of his controversial statements about the United States and race, are also unlikely to be understood — if the nuances and full text of his comments are noticed at all.

"What this requires is thought and consideration, and that's not historically something that works very well in a large campaign," said Betsi Grabe, an associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University.

The presidential campaign on Monday witnessed the latest chapter in the saga of Wright and his relationship with Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Obama attended Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ for years and titled his memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," after a passage in a Wright sermon.

But after the pastor came under fire earlier this year for incendiary comments, notably one condemning the United States — "God damn America...for treating her citizens as less than human" was an oft-quoted line — Obama distanced himself from Wright's remarks.

Now, the preacher is fighting back.

The controversy stems from people who "have never heard my sermons, nor do they know me," he said Monday. "They are unfair accusations taken from sound bites, and this which is looped over and over again on certain channels."

Wright noted that he served six years in the military as a Marine.

"Does that make me patriotic?" he asked. "How many years did Cheney serve?"

Vice President Dick Cheney, a key architect of the Iraq war, received five deferments when the U.S. was involved in the Vietnam War because of his student status and later because he was a father. He never served in the military.

Wright's key theme in his one-hour appearance at the press club was his lengthy discussion of the black church in American life.

He cited author Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" and pointed out that "in far too many instances, (the black community) still is invisible to the dominant culture in terms of its rich history, its incredible legacy and its multiple meanings."

Wright saw his critics zeroing in on him while ignoring that legacy.

"This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright," he said. "It is an attack on the black church."

The church, experts said Monday, may not be invisible, but it's often misunderstood on several levels.

One is theological. The United Church of Christ, formally created in 1957, combined a number of different Christian churches and movements whose roots go back to the 16th century. Today, the church has about 1.4 million members and is considered a liberal, mostly white denomination. The predecessor churches of the UCC were the first in the United States to ordain gays, women and blacks as ministers.

Most notably, congregants "did not always have to agree to live together in communion," according to a church description.

It's noteworthy that "a member is not individually bound to adopt the preacher's word as law," explained Jason Bivins, an associate professor of religion at North Carolina State University.

While Scripture does not change, a congregant's understanding of it "is his own," Bivins said.

Also not fully understood are the historic role and nature of the black church. Mark Anthony Neal, an associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University's African Studies program, saw elements of truth in Wright's comments. And his inflammatory remarks were hardly surprising to black Americans.

"The stuff heard in Jeremiah Wright's speech is barbershop talk," said Neal. "The barbershop in African-American communities is where people talk politics, and something you hear in many black pulpits."

Black churches may not be invisible to whites. Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, noted that "anybody who's followed politics in the South knows black churches are incredibly important in mobilizing black voters." And some of the South's leading politicians and movements came out of black churches.

But understanding a church's ability to prod voters is quite different from understanding the liturgy or the style.

That's what Wright was trying to address Monday.

"Maybe now," Wright said, "we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country, but for all the people in this country."

But all those thoughts couldn't mask the key reason he was getting this nationwide forum in the middle of a still-sizzling presidential primary season: Wright's relationship with Obama remains a hot topic, and there was division Monday on how much the relationship will matter politically.

Wright spoke early Monday morning; by afternoon, what was being played and replayed was his explanation of his past comment that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. were "America's chickens coming home to roost."

Wright asked if people had heard the entire sermon and then explained: "Jesus said, `Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you."

Anyway, Wright said, "I'm not a spiritual mentor. ...I'm his pastor."

What about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Wright was asked. The two men have known each other for 30 years. Farrakhan once called Judaism a "gutter religion" and railed against "false Jews (who) promote the filth of Hollywood that is seeding the world and bringing you down in moral strength ..."

"Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy," Wright said. "He did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery and he didn't make me this color."

David Bositis, a senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, thought the Wright controversy would fade. "If anything," Bositis said, "it's a plus for the Obama campaign because it's putting (Wright) out of the way now."

Others weren't so sure. They fretted that people won't take the time to see the nuances in Wright's comments or accept his invitation to look more critically at race issues.

When following campaigns, "people want dichotomies," Grabe said. "They like good or bad, right and wrong, agree and disagree. This controversy could hurt Senator Obama."

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