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Obama renounces pastor's remarks

The candidate writes an online column that condemns his church leader's incendiary statements.

March 15, 2008|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Sen. Barack Obama took the unusual step Friday of posting an online column to further distance himself from his longtime Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose incendiary sermons have spurred renewed controversy in recent days.

Obama's relationship with the minister has come under fresh scrutiny as videos of Wright's sermons have appeared on television and been posted on YouTube -- including one from last Christmas when he railed against Obama rival Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single-parent home -- Barack was," Wright said in the Christmas sermon, delivered from the pulpit at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.

"Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary! Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a nigger! Hillary has never had her people defined as non-person."

In another recently aired video, Wright referred to the United States as the "U.S. of K.K.K.A." He also drew parallels between the tragedy of the Sept. 11 attacks and the suffering of blacks through years of American history. The remarks have drawn intense criticism from conservative bloggers and commentators.

In a column published Friday afternoon on the Huffington Post, Obama noted that Wright is retiring from his pulpit and added that he has drawn attention recently because of "some inflammatory and appalling remarks he made about our country, our politics and my political opponents."

"I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy," Obama wrote.

The Illinois senator added that he had not heard Wright make the controversial statements from the pulpit or in private conversation.

Still, Obama acknowledged that he had been disturbed by the minister's comments before, and previously condemned remarks made by Wright, but "because Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community, where I married my wife and where my daughters were baptized, I did not think it appropriate to leave the church."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton declined to offer further details. Mario Ruiz, Huffington Post spokesman, said the column was written exclusively for the site but would not say how Obama came to publish it there rather than release it as a statement through his campaign.

Wright also previously drew criticism when his church magazine honored the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan.

Obama began distancing himself from Wright early last year, when he withdrew an invitation to the minister to deliver a public invocation at the senator's official announcement of his candidacy for president.

David Doak, a Democratic strategist who supports Clinton, said the controversy over Wright could hurt Obama if he is the party's nominee in the fall.

"It's the kind of thing that in the general election the Republicans will really work him over on," Doak said.

The presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, faced a religion-related uproar of his own last month when he was endorsed by San Antonio-based pastor John Hagee.

The conservative Catholic League put out a statement calling on McCain to "retract his embrace" of Hagee, who Catholic League President William Donahue said had "waged an unrelenting war against the Catholic Church."

Donahue noted that Hagee, a televangelist and founder of Cornerstone Church, had called the Catholic Church "the great whore," "the anti-Christ" and a "false cult system."

McCain initially avoided specifically commenting on Hagee's statements. Two days after the Feb. 27 endorsement, McCain said Hagee's support "does not mean that I embrace everything that he stands for and believes."

He stressed he was proud of Hagee's "spiritual leadership to thousands of people" and praised his commitment "to the independence and the freedom of the state of Israel."

It was not until a week later -- after Catholic groups, the Democratic National Committee and its chairman, Howard Dean, kept the drumbeat of criticism going -- that McCain explicitly told the Associated Press he rejected and repudiated any anti-Catholic statements, including Hagee's.

The controversy over Wright underscored the racial sensitivities that have emerged in recent days amid a historic race in which the Democratic Party is poised to select either a woman or an African American man as its nominee for the fall presidential race.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was forced to quit Wednesday as a fundraiser for the Clinton campaign after saying that she believed Obama's political rise likely would not have been possible were it not for his race.

And black ministers have begun talking about disillusioned African Americans disengaging from the general election if Obama is not the Democratic nominee.

The racial divide was clear in Tuesday's Mississippi Democratic primary, which Obama won handily. Exit polls showed that Obama carried 90% of the black vote and Clinton won 70% of the white vote.

In another issue that has put the Obama campaign on the defensive, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday that the senator said in an interview that indicted Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko had raised as much as $250,000 for his earlier political campaigns.

That amount is more than previously believed. A Times analysis this month found that Rezko had raised at least $200,000.

Rezko, a longtime Obama friend and political supporter, is on trial on federal corruption charges not related to the candidate. Obama has given funds raised by Rezko to charities.

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scott.martelle@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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