Obama's spiritual mentor
Powerhouse Chicago preacher draws attention, and plenty of controversy
By Michael Hill
January 16, 2008
The packed house at Trinity United - some 3,000 in all - had been in the pews for almost two hours, energized by a 200-voice choir and a rousing dance performance Sunday, when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright stepped up to speak.
Wright is well-known in Chicago and in the black church world for taking over a small United Church of Christ congregation in 1972 and turning it into an 8,000-member powerhouse. More recently, his name has become familiar as the longtime spiritual mentor of Barack Obama, who joined the church in 1988 - a move Obama says was important to shaping his identity as an African-American.
The connection has thrown a spotlight on some of Wright's more controversial remarks in a church that advertises itself as "unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian" - at times espousing a black liberation theology that can sound as exclusionary as Obama's message is inclusionary. He has also equated Zionism with racism.
On Sunday morning - amid intensified crossfire between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama over the use of race in the Democratic presidential campaign - Wright was preaching from the Gospel of John, using his powerful style to link the story of the loaves and fishes to a contemporary political message.
Man should not put limits on what God can do, but that's what people always do, he told the crowd. Just as God made five loaves and two fishes feed thousands, God has provided liberators for blacks in the past - from Nat Turner to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and now Barack Obama. But, Wright said, there were always reasons not to follow them.
Some argue that blacks should vote for Clinton "because her husband was good to us," he continued.
"That's not true," he thundered. "He did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky."
Many in the crowd were on their feet, applauding - amazed, amused and moved by the fiery rhetoric of their preacher, who is about to retire.
It is just such rhetoric that has made Wright's remarks an occasional staple on conservative talk shows. They often make the rounds in anti-Obama e-mail.
On occasion, the Illinois senator has distanced himself from Wright. In the past, the campaign has issued statements saying that Obama does not agree with all of Wright's comments. An invitation to Wright to give the invocation at Obama's announcement of his presidential candidacy last year was rescinded at the last moment, reportedly to keep the spotlight on Obama and not on Wright.
Just yesterday, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen noted that a magazine associated with Trinity United once named Louis Farrakhan as its person of the year, praising the Nation of Islam leader. Cohen called on Obama to denounce such praise of Farrakhan, known for statements deemed anti-Semitic.
In a statement released by his campaign last night, Obama responded to questions about Wright's comments on Sunday.
"As I've told Reverend Wright, personal attacks such as this have no place in this campaign or our politics, whether they're offered from a platform at a rally or the pulpit of a church," he said. "I don't think of the pastor of my church in political terms."
Like a member of my own family, there are things he says at times with which I deeply disagree," he said. "But as he prepares to retire, that doesn't detract from my affection for Reverend Wright or appreciation for the good works he has done."
As in the past, Obama did not completely denounce Wright. The candidate's 1995 book Dreams From My Father depicts Obama's decision to join Trinity United as a fundamental step in affirming his identity as an African-American. Obama's mother was white, he was raised in large part by her parents and he spent much of his youth in Indonesia with his mother's second husband. He only met his father, a Kenyan, once.
Obama took the title of his more recent book, The Audacity of Hope, from the first sermon he heard preached by Wright, whom Obama met while working in Chicago as a community organizer.
In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote of his reaction on hearing that sermon in 1988: "In that single note - hope! - I heard something else: At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and the Pharaoh, the Christians in the Lion's Den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church on this bright day seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world."
Dwight Hopkins, a professor in the divinity school at the University of Chicago who is a member of Trinity United, was not surprised by Wright's comments about the Clinton administration on Sunday.
Bill Clinton, he said, may have been from the South and appointed blacks to his Cabinet and opened an office later in Harlem, "but if you really look at the policies he backed, many were worse for blacks than those of the pre-civil rights days."
Hopkins pointed to Clinton's welfare reform policies and the criticism of activist Randall Robinson of Clinton policies toward black Caribbean countries such as Haiti.
"That's what [Wright] was talking about," Hopkins said.
If Wright's rhetoric costs Obama some votes, others believe that would be more than offset by voters moved by Obama's ability to bring religion back into the liberal political message.
Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, notes that Obama is getting the support of many black preachers who flirted with the Republican Party during the Bush administration, finding its position on cultural issues such as gay marriage and abortion appealing."
Jeremiah Wright is one of the most influential and well-known black preachers in America," Walters said. "His church is in the center of black culture. It is not some cult. It is not something out of the way. It is a quintessential black church."
Hopkins says those who condemn Wright's message as anti-white do not understand it. For one, he notes that this is the largest congregation, and the largest contributor, in the United Church of Christ, a white church."
And what he says is not against anybody, it is against the internal evils within the black community itself, the need to deal with those and confront them with strong values," Hopkins said."
The idea that one would come to Trinity and see symbols or rituals that are anti-white America or hear a Wright sermon against white people is very curious to me," he said. "It's impossible to hold 8,000 people together talking against white people."
I just tell people if they want to come to Trinity, bring their dancing shoes," he said of the music-filled services that can last three hours.
On Sunday, Wright seemed incensed over a column by avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens that had run the day before in the Chicago Sun-Times. Hitchens decried Obama for giving "his allegiance to a crackpot church with a decidedly ethnic character."
Several times Wright singled out "white reporters" for criticism. He talked of blacks being held down by attitudes of white supremacy, criticizing blacks who obediently follow whatever path whites tell them to. But the scores of whites in the pews were warmly welcomed by the black congregation.
And Wright also spoke of breaking down the barriers that had separated people by class, gender and race. He ended with a blessing on all of God's people, black, white, yellow, red and brown.
Wright, who is about to retire, took over Trinity United in 1972. It was an odd black congregation, since the United Church of Christ is a mainly white denomination, predominantly in New England, that traces its ancestry back to the Puritans. Over the years, it developed a liberal reputation based in part on the independence of its individual churches.
"They call it Wrightville," Hopkins said of the neighborhood around Trinity United, "though he doesn't like that.
"That's because the church is active in so many areas - from Boy Scouts to financial advice to running a school in the hardscrabble area of low-rise projects and small storefront businesses bisected by a train track.
"He has built one of the most substantial institutions in the city of Chicago and in the country and predicated it on service to the community," Walters said. "I can think of some mega-churches that are not that involved in the community. But Trinity United is.
"Before his sermon, Wright had identified a member of the congregation who was running for judge, saying that she was going to have a tough time because the Democratic machine had endorsed another candidate.
"I would like to say more," he said of that race. "But I'd better not."
It was about the only time in the service that he held his tongue.