In a defiant appearance before the Washington media, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright said Monday that criticism surrounding his fiery sermons is an attack on the black church and he rejected those who have labeled him unpatriotic.
"I served six years in the military," Barack Obama's longtime pastor said. "Does that make me patriotic? How many years did (Vice President Dick) Cheney serve?"
Wright spoke at the National Press Club before reporters and a supportive audience of black church leaders beginning a two-day symposium. He said the black church tradition is not bombastic or controversial, but different and misunderstood by the "dominant culture" in the United States.
He said his Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago has a long history of liberating the oppressed by feeding the hungry, supporting recovery for the addicted and helping senior citizens in need. He said congregants have fought in the military, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"My goddaughter's unit just arrived in Iraq this week while those who call me unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service while sending over 4,000 American boys and girls to die over a lie," he said.
Wright seemed to relish the chance to speak out after weeks of being derided in the press. He reveled in his retorts, high-fiving an audience member, pointing and winking at his supporters and mocking descriptions of him as Obama's spiritual mentor.
"I'm a pastor, he's a member. I'm not a spiritual mentor. Voodoo," he said, leaning into the microphone and wiggling his fingers in the air like he was conducting a seance.
Wright has been Obama's pastor for more than 20 years. Wright brought Obama to Christianity, inspired the title of his book "The Audacity of Hope," officiated at his wedding and baptized his daughters. Wright also told reporters Monday that he prayed privately with the family right before Obama announced he was running for president, although he didn't appear with them publicly.
Obama has said he disagreed at times with Wright, but video clips of some of the preacher's most controversial remarks have widely been distributed on television and the Internet and been damaging to Obama's campaign.
In a sermon days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Wright said "America's chickens are coming home to roost" after the United States. Asked what he meant by that, Wright challenged the reporter questioning him.
"Have you heard the whole sermon?" he responded. "No. You haven't heard the whole sermon. That nullifies that question."
He said criticism comes from people who only have heard sound bites playing repeatedly on television and have never listened to his entire sermons.
Wright said he's told Obama that if he is elected in November and is inaugurated in January, "I'm coming after you." He said that's because his differences are not with the American people, but U.S. policies.
"Whether he gets elected or not, I'm still going to have to be answerable to God on November 5 and January 21," Wright said. But he rejected the suggestion that Obama was denouncing him or distancing himself. "He had to distance himself because he's a politician," Wright said.
Wright said he hopes the controversy will spark an honest dialogue about race in America. Wright says black church traditions are unknown to many Americans, as they have been throughout the country's history. He said he hopes the controversy "just might mean that the reality of the African-American church will no longer be invisible."
"It is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright — it's an attack on the black church," he said to applause.
Wright's appearance was his third in four days, keeping alive a story that continues to dog Obama's campaign and at points creating further controversy.
At the press club, he jokingly offered himself as Obama's running mate and embraced Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan even though he said he doesn't always agree with him. He criticized the U.S. government as imperialist and stood by his suggestion that the U.S. invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide against minorities. "Based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything," he said.
"God damns some practices and there's no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done," he said. "That doesn't make me not like America or unpatriotic."