RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Senator Barack Obama's hometown of Chicago, the controversy has confused some. That's because of the mainstream reputation of the church and its now-retired pastor. Ben Calhoun of Chicago Public Radio reports.
BEN CALHOUN: It was Obama's candidacy that first pushed Trinity United Church of Christ and Pastor Jeremiah Wright onto the national stage more than a year ago. It started with a newspaper story about how Wright was cut from Obama's campaign announcement. This became fodder for cable news shows.
(Soundbite of TV show)
Mr. SEAN HANNITY (TV Host): Quote, "afrocentric."
CALHOUN: At the time some of the most extreme characterizations came from Fox News host Sean Hannity.
(Soundbite of TV show)
Mr. HANNITY: Separatist and in some cases even drawing comparisons to a cult.
CALHOUN: That coverage drew a fair amount of puzzlement from some in Chicago, particularly some black politicians, pastors and scholars. But the attention faded, until recently when it exploded again around now-notorious video clips of Jeremiah Wright's sermons.
In Chicago, the controversy has once again been met with a certain degree of head scratching.
Mr. HOWARD BROOKINGS (Church Alderman): The church probably does trend more upper middle income, more affluent African-American.
CALHOUN: Chicago Alderman Howard Brookings has been a member of the church for 30 years, and he's baffled by characterizations of it as extreme or radical. Besides politicians, the congregation includes celebrities like hip-hop star Common, local officials, judges, university professors, and lots of professionals.
Mr. BROOKINGS: People who are pioneers in business and industry.
CALHOUN: But of course recent coverage has focused on the man who spoke from the pulpit, and the video clips from Wright's sermons that have become a vulnerability for Barack Obama.
Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Princeton University): Anyone who's gone to Trinity knows that it is an uplifting and beautiful and, you know, worshipful service. And for it to be displayed as this kind of hateful place is just inaccurate.
CALHOUN: Melissa Harris-Lacewell is a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. Before that she lived in Chicago and often attended Trinity. Harris-Lacewell says the controversy stems from the cultural segregation of Americans along racial lines and what she called segregated worship.
Harris-Lacewell says the message at Trinity was one of compassion and is now with current pastor Otis Moss III.
Reverend OTIS MOSS III (Trinity United Church of Christ): God loves you the way you are. You need to give God praise that you're good enough for God.
CALHOUN: But Harris-Lacewell says because many white people are not familiar with the traditions of black churches, the rhetoric can sound overly caustic.
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: The members of Trinity United Church of Christ love their country. I absolutely know that Barack Obama loves his country, and I suspect that Jeremiah Wright loves his country, but that all of us love it with, you know, that kind of clear-eyed critical love. We love it the way that Martin King loved this country and the way that Frederick Douglass loved this country. It's not uncritical.
Professor MARTIN MARTY (University of Chicago): Now, most of us in the white churches and other churches mix a good deal more of softness into it. We have it very good, we've had it very good. We were the victors and not the victims.
CALHOUN: Martin Marty is a professor emeritus from the University of Chicago and one of the country's top religion experts. Hillary Clinton, when she was first lady, invited Marty to speak at the White House, introducing him as the foremost interpreter of American religion. Marty is also a friend of Jeremiah Wright.
He says Wright can be abrasive but that Wright is squarely in the mainstream of the larger traditions of black American Christianity and black liberation theology.
Prof. MARTY: I could show you all over the place, including in white sermons - William Stone Coffin, the best known of the white preachers, sounds an awful lot like this. A lot of Jeremiah Wright's rhetoric matches that of Martin Luther King. When you hear King accusing a nation for an unjust war in Vietnam or for segregating, it's just as harsh.
CALHOUN: Marty says if people are concerned by Wright's rhetoric, they should go to a service at Wright's former church or seek out his full sermons. He also recommends reading about Wright's namesake, the prophet Jeremiah. Marty points out in the Bible Jeremiah was thrown into a pit and left to die because he didn't seem to love his country. But in reality it was Jeremiah's love for his country that drove him to point out his nation's problems.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Calhoun in Chicago.