Democrat presidential contender Barack Obama may have distanced himself from his former pastor after video clips many criticized as hateful and racist were broadcast by the media, but a group of influential black ministers and religious scholars are refusing to budge, saying Rev. Jeremiah Wright is only “guilty of loving the United States enough to tell the truth.”

Wright had been scheduled for several months to be honored at the State of the Black Church Summit last night, sponsored by Fort Worth’s Brite Divinity School, located on the campus of Texas Christian University, but the retired Chicago pastor announced he would not attend over security concerns. Wright also declined to attend a banquet tonight in his honor, since moved to Paul Quinn College in Dallas for security reasons, reported the Fort Worth Star-Telegram..

While most of the summit was not open to the media, about 20 attending pastors and scholars held a news conference today at Dallas’ Friendship West Baptist Church to defend Wright and the black church.

“What is eminently clear is the degree to which the black church is still largely misunderstood and routinely caricatured in U.S. popular culture. … We now realize why the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week,” said Stacey Floyd-Thomas, who teaches ethics and directs black church studies at Brite.

“It’s news to you,” she said. “Black America has long known about the tradition of religious formation within mainline white congregations. Now, for the very first time in history, mainline America, white America is finding out something about its black church.”

Wright’s sermons, the summit pastors said, were a continuation of the same long-standing black tradition of “prophetic preaching” that produced Dr. Martin Luther King.

“If Martin Luther King Jr. were pastoring a church today, it would look very much like Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Ill., and the sermons you would hear him preach would sound very much” like Wright’s, Rev. Frederick Haynes III, senior pastor at Friendship West Baptist Church, said.

King, Floyd-Thomas noted, once called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” adding that the slain civil rights leader had been scheduled to deliver a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell” on the Sunday after he was assassinated in 1968, the Dallas Morning News reported.

“Standing in the rich tradition of the African-American church, if he is guilty of anything, this loving father, this prophetic pastor, this former U.S. Marine is guilty of loving the United States enough to tell the truth,” she said.

Also speaking on behalf of the embattled pastor was his cousin Rev. Dennis Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., who defended Wright’s sermons, noting that when he speaks, “he has done his research. He will not just talk off the top of his head.”

As WND has reported, Wright used his pulpit to accuse the U.S. of knowing about the planned attack on Pearl Harbor prior to the 1941 Japanese attack and to blame the government for developing the HIV virus to target blacks.

“We have learned in recent days that you cannot reduce any black church to a monolith, much less a sound bite,” said Haynes, who charged the press with reducing the black church to a stereotype.

“We recognize that the body of the work of Jeremiah Wright Jr. is not limited to a sound bite that has been taken out of context for the political pretext of those who have agendas that are contrary to the healing of our nation,” he said.

Haynes, who is a close friend of Wright, said he had spoken by phone with the former pastor Thursday night and said Wright and his family are hurt by the media coverage.

“He’s very human,” Haynes said. “He’s hurt that the portrayal in the media has his daughters crying.”

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