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Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., condemned racially charged sermons by his former pastor Friday and urged Americans not to reject his presidential campaign because of “guilt by association.”
Obama’s campaign announced that the minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., had left its spiritual advisory committee after videotapes of his sermons again ignited fierce debate in news accounts and political blogs.
Obama did not clarify whether Wright volunteered to leave his African American Religious Leadership Committee, a loose group of supporters associated with the campaign, or whether the campaign asked him to leave.
“I think there was recognition that he’s obviously on the verge of retirement, [that] he’s taking a sabbatatical and that it was important for him to step out of the spotlight in this situation,” Obama said in an interview on MSNBC's “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”
Wright was the latest in a series of advisers to Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who have stepped aside as supporters of both candidates trade racially charged accusations.
Obama rejects comments
Obama spoke warmly of Wright, who retired last month as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Wright is a man “I’ve known for 17 years, [who] helped bring me to Jesus, helped bring me to church,” he said.
“I strongly condemn” Wright’s statements, but “I would not repudiate the man,” Obama said. “He’s been preaching for 30 years. He’s a man who was a former Marine, a biblical scholar, someone who’s spoken at theological schools all over the country.
“That’s the man I know,” Obama said. “That’s the man who was the pastor of this church.”
But Obama acknowledged that “there’s no doubt this is going to be used as political fodder, as it has been in the past.”
“What I hope is [that] what the American people will trust is what I believe,” he said, that “my values, my ideas, what I’ve spoke about in terms of bringing the country together will override a guilt by association.”
But the sermons, at least one of which was delivered long before Wright retired last month, revived uncomfortable questions about Obama’s ties to the minister, whom conservative critics have accused of advocating black separatism.
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A videotape of one sermon captures Wright using a harsh racial epithet to argue that Clinton could not understand the struggles of African Americans.
“Barack knows what it means, living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people,” Wright said on Christmas Day of last year. “Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain’t never been called a [N-word]!”
In another sermon, delivered five days after the 9/11 attacks, Wright seems to imply that the United States had brought the terrorist violence on itself.
“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York, and we never batted an eye,” Wright says. “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 brought right back in our own front yards.”
In a later sermon, Wright revisits the theme, declaring: “No, no, no, not God bless America — God damn America!”
Obama: I didn’t hear inflammatory sermons
Obama took the title of his 2006 autobiography, “The Audacity of Hope,” from a sermon by Wright, who baptized him and officiated at his wedding. He has called Wright “a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible.”
In his remarks on MSNBC, Obama expanded on a brief posting that was made under his name earlier Friday afternoon on the Huffington Post Web site.
“The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation,” the posting said, adding that over the years, “Rev. Wright preached the gospel of Jesus, a gospel on which I base my life.
“In other words, he has never been my political advisor; he’s been my pastor. And the sermons I heard him preach always related to our obligation to love God and one another, to work on behalf of the poor, and to seek justice at every turn.”
Obama wrote that he had known of similar statements by Wright over the years, which he strongly condemned. He wrote that he chose to remain in the church because “Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community.”
Clinton adviser gives Obama a pass
There was no formal reaction from the Clinton campaign, but Lanny Davis, a senior adviser, said he took Obama at his word.
“I give Senator Obama completely — completely — the benefit of the doubt that he has nothing to do with this bigotry that’s being spewed forth by this man,” Davis said on MSNBC’s “Tucker.” “For me, that’s all he has to say.
“I think we should stop this guilt-by-association thing, because some of our supporters say stupid things,” Davis said.
But the videos created a firestorm among political observers and commentators.
“Mr. Obama obviously would not choose to belong to Mr. Wright’s church and seek his advice unless he agreed with at least some of his views,” Wall Street Journal columnist Ron Kessler, publisher of the conservative Web site NewsMax.com, wrote Friday.
Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of the Web site of the conservative magazine National Review, wrote Friday that “now we know he’s contributed money to, voluntarily listened to, and publicly defended a cleric who peddles racial warfare.”
Others saw an attempt to “smear” Obama.
“How come righteous Republicans are rarely asked about the views of their spiritual advisers? Or why wasn’t George W. Bush (and the presidents preceding him) forced to distance himself from the anti-semitic comments of Billy Graham?” Ari Berman wrote Friday on the Web site of the liberal magazine The Nation, for which he is a contributing writer.
Why are sermons an issue now?
The videotapes of Wright’s sermons have long been available for sale on the church’s Web site, raising questions about why they suddenly became an issue again late Thursday, NBC’s Ron Allen reported.
Although both candidates have disavowed them, recent exchanges between supporters of Obama and Clinton have focused on themes of race and sex.
Geraldine Ferraro , the Democrats’ 1984 vice presidential nominee, resigned as an adviser to Clinton’s campaign Wednesday after she was quoted last week in a California newspaper suggesting that Obama owed his popularity to his race.
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she said, according to the Daily Breeze of Torrance. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position.”
Last week, Obama’s foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power , a public policy professor at Harvard University, stepped down from the campaign after she was quoted in an interview with a Scottish newspaper calling Clinton a “monster [who] is stooping to anything.”
“You just look at her and think, ‘Ergh,’” Power said, according to The Scotsman.
Last month, Adelfa Callejo, a longtime Latino activist in Texas who supports Clinton, suggested that Latino voters would never accept Obama because of his race. “They never really supported us, and there’s a lot of hard feelings about that,” Callejo said.
And after Obama won the South Carolina primary, Clinton’s husband, the former president, dismissed the significance of his victory by saying it was to be expected because “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice.”
Advisers said Obama and Clinton were distressed by the exchanges and had agreed in a brief conversation on the Senate floor Thursday to work together to put a stop to them.
“They approached one another and spoke about how supporters for both campaigns have said things they reject,” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign. “They agreed that the contrasts between their respective records, qualifications and issues should be what drives this campaign, and nothing else.”
The Associated Press reported that an adviser to Obama, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave a similar account of the conversation.
With Keith Olbermann and Tucker Carlson of MSNBC, Ron Allen of NBC News and NBC affiliates WMAQ of Chicago and KXAS of Dallas.