Analysis: Rev. Wright's Comments on 'Black Church'

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright told the National Press Club that attacks on him are really attacks on the black church. Earlier comments about race and the Sept. 11 attacks by Barack Obama's former pastor have caused controversy for the presidential campaign.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Senator Barack Obama's former pastor has been making the media rounds. The Reverend Jeremiah Wright spoke yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, and this was how he characterized the uproar over statements he's made over the years that many have called inflammatory.

Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Former Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ): This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. This is an attack on the black church, launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.

MONTAGNE: Joining us to talk about Wright and the black church is NPR News analyst Juan Williams, who's written about the role of the black church in the civil rights movement. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Juan, in your opinion, is an attack on Reverend Wright an attack on the black church?

WILLIAMS: Not at all. Reverend Wright's appealing to the black church tradition and to black churchgoers to protect him for saying controversial statements that have hurt not only Senator Obama, but hurt Reverend Wright's reputation. The things that he has said are not heard regularly in the black church, despite what he would want people to believe. You don't hear cursing in the pulpit. You don't hear terrorism equated with errors made by U.S. foreign policy advisors. You don't hear paranoid theories about the government spreading AIDS in the black community. Certainly, you hear conversations about certain contemporary issues, but not of that nature. Really, there is preaching from the good book. And Wright said yesterday the black church, though it was founded in an environment of slavery and racial intolerance is still invisible to the dominant white culture, therefore he's trying to say you don't understand. Just all that he said about the founding of the church and slavery is absolutely true. But by contrast to what he said, you know, he went on to add that he's not running for political office, that he's running for Jesus. I think he's trying to use black theology to create some kind of black national identity that would insulate him.

MONTAGNE: Now Juan, Jeremiah Wright has reinforced a distinction that he's made in the past few days between himself, a pastor, and Barack Obama, a politician. Reverend Wright criticize - or characterized, rather, himself as a truth teller, Obama as someone who would say what he has to say to get elected, implying really that Obama's not telling the truth.

WILLIAMS: That's exactly right. I mean, it's obvious now that Wright really has his own agenda. The Obama campaign indicates that they have been in touch with Wright as some point, trying to encourage him to take a back seat. But yesterday, Obama said it's obvious that Wright, you know, has not been coordinating with them over the last three days, and David Axelrod - who is an Obama senior political advisor - said to his mind, Wright is not out there with the intent of helping Senator Obama.

In many ways, you could read what Reverend Wright had to say yesterday, Renee, as reacting to Senator Obama's Philadelphia speech in which the Senator characterized Wright as being somewhat stuck in past grievances, an older black person who went through some experiences of not understanding what's going on in contemporary America and the progress that's been made. And you can also read therefore that Wright was upset by the idea that Obama's distancing himself and now, taking the offensive, going after Obama and saying Obama just is saying what he has to say to get elected. He's nothing but a politician and the true prophet, the truth teller, is himself.

MONTAGNE: In defending Reverend Wright, though, some supporters have noted that Martin Luther King was regarded as quite radical in his day, weighed in on foreign policy. Does that comparison hold up for you?

WILLIAMS: Renee, you know, it doesn't. King was particularly critical of the Vietnam War toward the end of his life, critical of U.S. foreign policy, but he did not damn America. He did not get involved with all these kinds of outlandish theories about government conspiracies. King was usually inspirational and challenged America to right the ship, deeply patriotic, and so emphatic about black patriotism to the point of being criticized by younger militants. King was about trying to create coalitions. If you look back at his "I Have a Dream Speech," or the speech he gave the night before he died, it's always in keeping with the Bible and the sense of hope and deep faith in the black tradition.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams. He's the author of "This Far By Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience."

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