DETROIT — Defending the black religious tradition in America as misunderstood, Sen. Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor told supporters of the NAACP here last night that he is not a political figure or interested in preaching for political gain, despite media criticism he says is to the contrary.
“I’m not here for political reasons. I am not a politician. I know that fact will surprise many of you because many in the corporate media have made it seem that as if I have announced that I am running for the Oval Office,” the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. told a crowd of about 10,000 gathered at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. “I’m not running for the Oval Office. I’ve been running for Jesus for a long time, and I’m not tired yet.”
Mr. Wright gave the keynote address to the NAACP’s 53rd annual Fight for Freedom Fund dinner, during which he sang, beat-boxed and did impressions of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
While others have labeled him divisive, Mr. Wright cited religious, political and cultural divisions that have kept nations and the faithful apart for too long.
“I believe that a change is going to come because many of us are committed to changing how we see others who are different,” he said. “Differences are not deficiencies.”
Mr. Wright arrived in Motown late yesterday afternoon, one of the many stops on a national tour that includes a speech at the National Press Club in Washington this morning. His public appearances come a little more than a month after Mr. Obama, the Illinois senator and Democratic presidential contender, was forced to distance himself from his longtime minister after clips of Mr. Wright’s sermons, described by some as anti-American and racially polarizing, were broadcast by national media.
Mr. Wright, 66, who formerly led Chicago’s 6,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ, defended the black religious tradition in America as one that has consistently fought against injustices similar to those challenging the NAACP. He also defended his church as he joked about detractors who said his worship style and preaching is “scaring up hate.”
“We just do it different, and some of our haters can’t get their heads around that,” he said to cheers last night.
“I come from a religious tradition that does not divorce the world we live in from the world we are headed to,” he said, noting that in his faith tradition, worshippers “shout in the sanctuary and march in the picket line, … where we give God the glory and Satan the blues … . The black religious tradition is different.”
Last night’s speech came two days after Mr. Wright appeared on Bill Moyers’ PBS program, during which he complained that the video clips of his sermons were taken out of context and deeply distorted who he is and what he said. On the show, he said the TV sound bites from his sermons were “unfair,” “unjust” and “untrue” and that they were aired for “very devious reasons” to hurt Mr. Obama’s candidacy.
“I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech,” and that the repeated airing of the sound bites were meant to “paint me as some sort of fanatic,” Mr. Wright said.
Reporters who closely cover Mr. Obama saw Mr. Wright’s re-emergence in the public arena as a new problem for Mr. Obama, who remains in a tight race with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Wright’s decision to headline an event at the Press Club — open to all the media — risks giving Obama’s critics more fodder, as if they don’t have enough already,” Lynn Sweet, the Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief, wrote last week.
“The backfire potential of Wright having any sort of public profile at this point seems obvious,” she said.