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Between the pulpit and pews, a gulf on Wright

Image: The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., teaches parishioners about the roots of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s style of ministry. Jeremy M. Lange for The New York
/ Source: The New York Times

The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., under fire for statements that have embarrassed Senator Barack Obama’s campaign, has found staunch support in the pulpits of black churches around North Carolina. The people in the pews, however, are far less accepting.

In interviews at churches in cities and towns including Charlotte, Greensboro, Lumberton and Goldsboro, ministers expressed the view that Mr. Obama and Mr. Wright had been attacked by a superficial and biased news media. Many said they were teaching Mr. Wright’s sermons in Bible study classes. They are delivering lectures on the roots of Mr. Wright’s style of ministry and preaching against what they see as attempts to make Mr. Wright a divisive figure.

“People get fired up when they see people trying to scapegoat a presidential candidate because of a pastor,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro and the president of the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “And No. 2, the fact that you’re beating up on someone that’s very profound and very prophetic.”

Separating the spiritual from the political
But many parishioners are not nearly as sympathetic to Mr. Wright, saying they are disappointed with him for taking a personal dispute public with little concern for the harm it would do to the Obama campaign. (This sentiment is particularly strong among younger voters.) Others call Mr. Wright arrogant and untrustworthy, and still others say he is fighting old fights.

“He needs to take the political and keep it separate from the spiritual,” said Rita Harrison, 48, an Obama supporter who was cutting hair at Allison’s Salon in Whiteville. “Why would you risk this man’s campaign because of some personal comments? Because that’s what it is, it’s personal.”

Nonetheless, many black voters maintain that the situation has come about because of a double standard that holds Mr. Obama accountable for Mr. Wright’s views while white political figures are not always held accountable for controversial opinions of their associates. They add that it makes them all the more motivated to support Mr. Obama.

A motivated base
While the number of white voters registering in North Carolina has been rising steadily, black voters have been registering at a faster rate. State election statistics show that of the nearly 65,000 African-Americans who have registered this year, two-thirds signed up after March 15, around the time the most controversial of Mr. Wright’s statements began being broadcast on the news.

It is impossible to say whom these newly registered voters are supporting or why they registered. But several pastors said the Wright controversy had been driving voter participation, which churches have been particularly active in encouraging.

“It galvanizes them politically,” said the Rev. Dr. Ricky A. Woods, the senior minister of the 140-year-old First Baptist Church-West in Charlotte. “There was a sense that the church was still a faith zone where the double standard didn’t apply. Now they see double standards going on there, too, and that’s what’s causing all this galvanization.”

Though their views are not necessarily representative of those of black ministers elsewhere, many pastors here describe Mr. Wright, who belongs to the liberal, predominantly white United Church of Christ, as a friend and role model. He is a frequent guest in North Carolina pulpits, and has been a voice in state social issues for decades.

For some, an episode of race-baiting
Pastors like Dr. Barber are teaching quizzical parishioners about Mr. Wright’s place in the prophetic tradition, a style of preaching that combines spiritual guidance with often harsh social criticism and has its roots in Old Testament prophets.

While the congregation is learning the background of Mr. Wright’s sermons, Dr. Barber said, church members have expressed anger over their belief that Mr. Wright’s words have been twisted and taken out of context in the campaign.

“Like this ad that has come out in our state that has taken a snippet of a sermon of Wright,” Dr. Barber said, referring to a television advertisement from the state Republican Party that ties the Democratic candidates for governor to Mr. Obama and, by extension, to Mr. Wright. “It’s a form of race baiting, and many of them have seen it before.”

But not everyone is so quick to leap to Mr. Wright’s defense. Some are offended by the notion, put forth by Mr. Wright, that an attack on him was an attack on the black church itself.

“He don’t speak for all black people, at least not for me,” said Loreen Morman, 47, of Evergreen, a supporter of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s Democratic rival.

Truth and consequences
More common, at least judging from call-in shows on black radio stations and interviews in and around Lumberton, is the opinion that Mr. Wright made a serious error this week when he spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, days before Mr. Obama was to face a tight primary next Tuesday against Mrs. Clinton here and in Indiana.

“There’s some truth to the things Reverend Wright spoke about,” said Rodney Singletary, 40, an associate pastor of Walking by Faith ministries in Chadbourn. “And the Bible says the truth shall set you free. But the Bible also says there is a time to speak and a time to be silent.”

Many black voters, including some of Mr. Wright’s detractors, fault the news media for pushing the story. But whether the coverage is viewed more as sensationalism or racism may depend on the generation of the voter.

Frances M. Cummings, 67, a former state legislator who was the first black teacher at Lumberton High School, said younger people did not understand the social forces that were working against them. “They don’t know anything about not being served at a restaurant or not going to college where you wanted to go,” Ms. Cummings said.

While she called Mr. Wright’s timing poor, Ms. Cummings said the news media “put him in the opposing corner, and he had to come out swinging.”

At Clawson’s barbershop, a small blue building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive with Obama signs taped to the windows, the older clientele recalled having to sit outside doctor’s offices and take Constitution tests to vote. But, to nods of agreement, Sandell F. Clawson Jr., 71, the owner, said Mr. Wright’s comments risked bringing old, contentious issues to a campaign that was trying to move past them.

“Where he’s coming from is good,” Mr. Clawson said. “He’s just late coming.”

This article, Between the Pulpit and Pews, a Gulf on Obama’s Ex-Pastor, originally appeared in The New York Times.