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Wright denies political ambition
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.
Video: Obama's former pastor speaks to NAACP
"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.
Donna Brazile, the veteran Democratic campaign strategist, disagreed, saying that any further focus on "Wright's remarks may do less damage to Obama than its potential to harm race relations in this country."
"Obama has addressed the issue and shown he can weather the storm. There's no indication that people who voted for Obama were voting for Reverend Wright," she said Friday.
Republican National Committee officials declined to comment on the pastor's return to public life. "We've stayed clear of Wright stuff here," an RNC official said.
On "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, Mr. Obama repeated his denunciation of Mr. Wright's anti-American remarks and said he never heard such statements while attending services at Mr. Wright's church.
But Mr. Obama said one must look at the entire picture to make a fair assessment.
"I think that it is also true that to run a snippet of 30-second sound bites, selecting out of a 30-year career, simplified and caricatured him and caricatured the church," he said. "I go to church not to worship the pastor, to worship God. And that ministry, the church family that's been built there, does outstanding work, has been, I think, applauded for its outreach to the poor. He built that ministry, and I think that, you know, people need to take a look at the whole church and the whole man in making these assessments."
Mr. Obama said voters should consider his 20 years of community service when examining his "values," not his pastor or whether he wears an American flag lapel pin.
"Do they look at how I've raised my children, and how I speak about my family? That's a reflection of my values," he said. "I don't think that the issue of Reverend Wright is illegitimate. I just think that the way it was reported was not, I think, a reflection of both that church that I attend and who I am."
While the TV sound bites that were constantly played on news programs often used only brief parts of his most incendiary remarks, the full statements from which they were taken were often broadcast or published in full context by numerous newspaper and periodical accounts at the height of the controversy that they sparked last month in the senator's campaign.
Among the full statements Mr. Wright has made in his sermons:
• "The government gives [black men] drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," he said in a 2003 sermon. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
• "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," Mr. Wright said in a sermon five days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."
Questions remain about Mr. Obama's relationship with the church.
Mrs. Clinton of New York raised the issue in her campaign and in their last primary debate with Mr. Obama in Philadelphia.
For "Pastor Wright to have given his first sermon after 9/11 and to have blamed the United States for the attack ... would have been just intolerable for me. And, therefore, I would have not been able to stay in the church," she said.
• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this article. Donald Lambro reported from Washington.
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