Obama tries to rid himself of troublesome firebrand priest

Leonard Doyle
Tuesday 18 March 2008 01:00

Trinity Church on Chicago's south side was overflowing for the Palm Sunday services, but the church's most famous parishioner, Barack Obama, was nowhere to be seen on one of the most important days in the religious calendar.

Instead of taking the sacraments handed out to the congregation, Mr Obama was fighting for his political life in interviews with television stations across the country. Rather than join the 6,000 members of the overwhelmingly middle-class and black congregation he was damping down flames of controversy licking his campaign.

The source of his latest troubles are sermons by the church's founder, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, which date back to 2003 but have been recently uploaded to YouTube. For the past week, the Illinois senator has been under attack as these incendiary clips showing the fire-breathing Mr Wright denouncing US foreign and domestic policy and casual racism against African Americans, have made national news.

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America'," the firebrand preacher is seen saying. "No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human."

The controversy is particularly tricky for the Democratic presidential hopeful because he and his family are close to Mr Wright, a man he says is like an uncle to him. Mr Wright re-introduced Mr Obama to Christianity, married him to his wife, Michelle, and baptised his two daughters at the church. The title of his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope, is also taken from one of Mr Wright's sermons, although the context is different.

Mr Obama was finally forced on Friday to publicly denounce his sermons as "inflammatory and appalling". Carefully choosing his words, the Trinity congregant of 20 years rejected his pastor's comments, saying: "I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country." Mr Wright has resigned as an unpaid adviser to the campaign.

At church, white-gloved ushers handed out statements defending Mr Wright. His "character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe", the statement said. "It is an indictment on Mr Wright's ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second soundbite."

The church's new pastor, the Rev Otis Moss, used his pulpit to defend his predecessor. "We have listened and watched as the wonderful work of our church has been vilified this week," he told the congregation as it prepared for Easter celebrations. "This week should be special for us because I guess we know a little something about crucifixion."

He delivered a sermon entitled "Why the Black Church Won't Shut Up", in which he compared the fate of the poor in the time of Jesus to that of blacks during the slave period and segregation.

Far more political than most black Protestant churches, Mr Wright's approach is to make the Bible relevant to parishioners by linking them to the problems in their lives such as the casual racism they encounter daily, bankruptcy, unemployment, the war in Iraq and the government's tardy response to Hurricane Katrina.

Few white people go to Trinity, although it welcomes them, and the anger behind Mr Wright's words have shocked Americans who rarely venture beyond the safety of suburbia. But Trinity Church is popular with University of Chicago professors and professionals and, unlike many evangelical churches, it embraces gay people and helps those with drug addictions as well as HIV/Aids.

For conservative commentators, who accuse the pastor of being racist, Mr Obama's distancing act is seen as insufficient and the controversy seems destined to bubble away, at least until the general election if Mr Obama fights off Hillary Clinton to become the Democratic nominee.

Staff on the Obama campaign were aware of the potential pitfalls. The Rev Wright was not invited to the official launch of Mr Obama's bid for the White House in February 2007 because aides did not want him to be a distraction.

Mr Obama's presidential tactic in the race for the Democratic nomination has been to project himself as a unifier in a bitterly partisan country, but his pastor's remarks could lose him the support of many who harbour doubts about voting for a black man, especially in next's month crucial primary in Pennsylvania.

So far, Mrs Clinton, trailing in the delegate count, has stayed out of this controversy, perhaps judging that she needs to do little more than watch while her rival is put on the defensive.

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