DETROIT — The former pastor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told a Detroit crowd Sunday that he was "running for Jesus," not public office, and that Americans should know by now that "different does not mean deficient" when it comes to the African American church.
"If I were pushing one particular candidate I would say, 'Yes, we can,' " the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. told 10,000 people at the NAACP's 53rd annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner. "But since this is a nonpartisan gathering and since this is neither a mosque, a synagogue nor a sanctuary, just let me say, 'We can do it. . . . We can make a change if we try.' "
Wright pointed out that hundreds of black congregations had helped start the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People nearly a century ago and continued to share its mission of establishing equal rights for all.
Wright, 66, who will retire as senior pastor from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago next month, has gained national notoriety in recent months after controversial sound bites of past sermons in which he was critical of national policies began circulating on the Internet.
In North Carolina, the Republican Party is set to air a new television ad this week featuring a video clip in which Wright declares, "Not God bless America, God damn America."
Wright assured the audience in Detroit that he wasn't there for political reasons.
"I am not a politician," he said. "I know that fact will surprise many of you because many of the corporate-owned media have made it seem like I have announced I am running for the Oval Office. I am not running for the Oval Office. I've been running for Jesus a long, long, long time, and I'm not tired yet."
But the pastor's series of public appearances this weekend and still to come -- he is scheduled to speak today to the National Press Club in Washington -- resemble a campaign to quell the controversy that has rocked the Illinois senator's presidential bid and remains in the public eye in the run-up to the Indiana and North Carolina primaries. Wright granted his first interview to TV journalist Bill Moyers last week.
Shortly after Wright's controversial sound bites surfaced, Obama delivered a speech on race in which he condemned the remarks but did not disown the pastor. In the Moyers interview, Wright praised Obama's historic speech on race as a promising sign of the change to come.
But the pastor dismissed the senator's condemnation of his remarks as the language of a politician. In Detroit, he defended his passion in the pulpit, which many have interpreted as anger unbecoming of a clergyman on Sunday morning.
"I come from a religious tradition that does not divorce the world we are living in with the world we are headed to," he said. "The black religious tradition is different. We do it a different way."
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, said that was precisely why the organization invited Wright to speak.
"The hottest brother in America right now, besides Barack Obama, is Jeremiah Wright," Anthony said. "It's about speaking truth to power. We must not allow anyone to dictate what can be said from the pulpit of the African American church or any church."