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How Will Obama's Pastor Impact the Campaign?

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How Will Obama's Pastor Impact the Campaign?

Election 2008

How Will Obama's Pastor Impact the Campaign?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

(Soundbite of Music)

CHIDEYA: From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. Religion plus politics equal fireworks. Barack Obama is taking heat because his pastor criticized America. Here's an excerpt to the 2003 sermon by Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

(Soundbite of Sermon)

Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Barack Obama's Pastor): The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a freak flag law and then wants us to sing God Bless America? No, no, no. Not God Bless America, God damn America. That's in the bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. Now Obama says his pastor's words go against his beliefs. Is that enough to keep his association with Wright from hurting his campaign.

In a few minutes we are going to talk to a theologian and a reporter with very different views of the Wright/Obama connection. But first, we're joined by NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams. Hi Juan.

Mr. JAUN WILLIAMS (NPR News Senior Correspondent): Hi Farai.

CHIDEYA: So Juan, this weekend Reverend Wright's church, the Trinity United Church of Christ released a statement which read in part, quote, "This is an attack on the legacy of the African—American church, which led and continues to lead the fight for human rights in America and around the world." That part was from Reverend Otis Moss the third. He's going to be taking over as pastor of Trinity when Reverend Wright retires. The statement also includes words from the president of the denomination, Reverend John H. Thomas. Thomas said, it's time for us to say no to these attacks. Juan, are these statements by church leaders - and we should add the president of the denomination is white - enough to end this controversy?

Mr. WILLIAMS: No. I'm afraid not. You know, the whole idea is not so much that Senator Obama is being held responsible for what Reverend Wright had to say as that he maintained an association with the church for more than 20 years, as has been said. There's a litany of connections. He was married in the church. His children were baptized in the church. And he's someone who took the title of his most famous, of his book, "The Audacity of Hope" from a Wright sermon.

So he now says that in some cases, he just wasn't there - was unaware of what Reverend Wright had to say. And that started a sort of odd game Farai, in which now reporters were say, well was he there on this Sunday when this controversial sermon was delivered. But what we know is that he was sufficiently aware to dis-invite Reverend Wright from his announce — the announcement of his presidential bid back February of 2007 in Springfield, Illinois.

And according to Reverend Wright, he was told by Barack Obama, you know, some of your sermons are a little rough. So the question then becomes why at one point was he you know, comfortable with Reverend Wright and the church and in another moment realizing maybe what Reverend Wright said is a little bit out of control and something that would constitute baggage for someone running for national office.

CHIDEYA: Here's something that Barack Obama said in a statement. He said, all of the statements that I have been the subject of, are ones that I vehemently condemn. Excuse me, let me reiterate that. All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy, he means Reverend Wright's, are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradicts my profound love for this country.

Now another thing this calls up is when his wife, Michelle Obama, talked about pride for the country, you know, and being in different place with that. Is this fundamentally a conversation about how much it's fair game to critique America if you're African—American and different perceptions people might have along racial lines?

Mr. WILLIAMS: No. You know, this is an interesting argument because it's one that's being advanced I think, pretty much as an excuse to say don't pay attention to what Reverend Wright has had to say, Farai. But the fact is that there is something called liberation theology. Some people might refer to it as the social gospel, which speaks to the whole notion of Jesus identifying in Christianity, Jesus identifying with those who are oppressed, those who've had the fight against the system, the powers that be, Moses leading the slaves to freedom. And in that sense, it's always been about inspiration and triumph and identifying as people of God.

And Dr. King did this repeatedly, appeal to whites - if you believe that you're Christians, how can you not view us your fellow Christians as your brothers in Christ? That has been liberation theology. Reverend Wright has taken it to another extent when he starts talking about damn America. When he starts suggesting there's a conspiracy to spread AIDS or to kill people. That's what has sparked this controversy and this is why Barack Obama, a very smart guy, knew right away at the start of his presidential campaign, that having Reverend Wright by his side might be a complication.

And then of course Farai, the whole issue comes in you know, why was he in this church for so long? And I think the answer is, that Barack Obama wanted the association with Reverend Wright early in his career, because he wanted to establish himself in the black community and answer questions about who he was, about the fact that his mother white, that he was Ivy League educated. You know, even that question even dogged him at the start of this campaign, is he black enough?

That kind of thing I think was answered for him by saying, hey I'm a member of the Trinity Church and Reverend Wright, who you know, is strongly nationalistic in terms of black identity is my friend and my mentor. Now that very effort has come back to bite him.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well Juan, thank you so much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You're welcome Farai.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking to NPR's Senior Correspondent, Juan Williams. He joined us from our headquarters in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of Music)

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