Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington (Courtesy C-Span)

Recognizing the severe political damage from Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s remarks at the National Press Club yesterday, Sen. Barack Obama struck a solemn tone, telling reporters he was angered and saddened his pastor put himself at center stage at the expense of the campaign for the White House with “a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth.”

The Democratic candidate declared his 20-year relationship with the pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago has been affected.

“There’s been great damage,” Obama said at a news conference in Winston-Salem, N.C. “It may have been unintentional on his part, but I do not see that relationship being the same after this.”

Yesterday in Washington, Wright affirmed some of the inflammatory sermon remarks aired last month in news reports, that the U.S. brought the 9/11 attacks on itself and American soldiers in Iraq have died “over a lie.” He called reporting of his sermons an attack on the black church.

When Wright stepped down from the Obama campaign’s spiritual advisory committee in March, Obama spoke warmly of the pastor, calling him a man “I’ve known for 17 years, [who] helped bring me to Jesus, helped bring me to church.”

Obama at the time said, “I strongly condemn” Wright’s statements, but “I would not repudiate the man.” Later, in a a major speech on race, he denounced the sermon rhetoric but refused to “disown” Wright. Today, he took a stronger stance, saying he was angered by the suggestion yesterday that his previous denunciation of the pastor’s remarks was merely political posturing.

“Anybody who knows me and knows what I’m about knows that I’m about trying to bridge gaps, and that I see the commonality in all people,” Obama said.

Asked why he had not come across so strongly until now, Obama said he had not seen the press conference until later. What he saw surprised him, he said.

“The person I saw yesterday was not the person I had come to know over 20 years,” Obama insisted. “He was pained and angered about what had happened previously during the first stage of this controversy. I think he felt vilified and attacked, and I understand he wanted to defend himself. I understand that he’s gone through difficult times of late and that he’s leaving his ministry after many years. That may account for the change.

“But the insensitivity and the outrageousness of his statements and his performance in the question and answer period yesterday I think shocked me; it surprised me,” the senator said.

Obama contended he had not ever “heard those statements or those views being promoted,” arguing “this is an individual who has built a very fine church, a church that is respected throughout Chicago.”

“I did not vet my pastor before I decided to run for the presidency,” he said. “I was a member of the church. I did not run my pastor through the paces or review every one of the sermons he made over the last 30 years. But I don’t think anyone can attribute those ideas to me.”

The senator sought to further downplay the relationship with Wright, agreeing with the pastor’s statement yesterday that media have inaccurately referred to the minister as a spiritual mentor and adviser.

“To some degree, I know one thing he said was true, he was never my spiritual adviser; he was never my spiritual mentor,” Obama said. “He was my pastor. To some extent, how the press characterized that relationship wasn’t accurate. He was someone who was my pastor who married Michelle and I and baptized my children, prayed with us when we announced this race. So, I’m disappointed.”

Sowing and reaping

Yesterday, Wright, answering reporters’ questions after a series of media appearances over the weekend, first was asked about his claim the U.S. was responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.

“If you heard the whole sermon, first of all, you heard that I was quoting the ambassador from Iraq,” Wright began. “But Number Two, to quote the Bible: ‘Be not deceived. God is not mocked, for whatsoever you sow, that you shall – ‘”

The pastor paused at that point, allowing some members of the audience to finish the citation with “reap.”

“Jesus said do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Wright continued. “You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles.”

Wright, regarded by Obama as a spiritual mentor and adviser, recently retired as senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

During the press conference, Wright scolded media for repeated airing of inflammatory remarks from his sermons, saying it is “not an attack on Jeremiah Wright, it is an attack on the black church.”

The session with reporters touched on the issue of Obama distancing himself from Wright’s speeches by claiming he was not in attendance to hear the anti-America and racially charged statements broadcast by media

A reporter asked whether Obama regularly attended church and paid attention during sermons.

“He goes to church about as much as you do,” Wright replied. “What did your pastor preach in the last week? You don’t know?”

Wright said he won’t stop criticizing the U.S. government if Obama becomes president, because the complaints are over policy, not the people.

The pastor told the candidate, he said, if elected and inaugurated, “I’m coming after you.”

“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.

Last month, after what he called a “firestorm” sparked by the sermon videos, Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia in which he denounced Wright’s sermon remarks but refused to “disown” him.

In a January 2006 sermon, Wright called America the “No. 1 killer in the world” and blamed the country for launching the AIDS virus to maintain affluence at the expense of the Third World. The pastor reportedly said in a sermon just after 9/11, “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” In a 2003 sermon, Wright encouraged blacks to “damn America” in God’s name and blamed the U.S. for provoking the 9/11 attacks by dropping nuclear weapons on Japan in World War II and supporting Israel since 1947.

At the National Press Club today, Wright addressed doubts about his patriotism.

“I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic?” he asked. “How many years did (Vice President Dick) Cheney serve?”

Last week, Wright gave his first interview since the controversy began, with Bill Moyers of PBS, then made an appearance at an NAACP event last night in Detroit. He is in Washington today and tomorrow for a symposium on the African-American religious experience.

The pastor told the NAACP audience last night he was not there “for political reasons.”

“I’m not a politician. I know that fact will surprise many of you, because many in the corporate-owned media made it seem like I am running for the Oval Office,” he said. “I am not running for the Oval Office. I’ve been running for Jesus a long, long time, and I’m not tired yet.”

Obama, meanwhile, spoke gave an interview to “Fox News Sunday” yesterday in which he admitted his relationship with Wright is a political issue.

“I think that people were legitimately offended by some of the comments that he had made in the past,” Obama told host Chris Wallace. “The fact that he is my former pastor I think makes it a legitimate political issue. So I understand that.”

Obama argued, however, “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. And I think that was done in a fairly deliberate way.”


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