(photo credit: AP)
Barack Obama, who is battling Hillary Rodham Clinton in a tough race for the Democratic presidential nomination, denounced inflammatory remarks from his pastor, who has railed against the US and accused its leaders of bringing on the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by spreading terrorism.
Obama called the pastor's statements widely aired on television and the Internet "completely unacceptable and inexcusable" in a Fox News television interview Friday night and said they did not reflect the kinds of sermons he had heard from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright while attending services at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.
Obama, a member of the church since the early 1990s, said he would have quit Trinity had such statements been "the repeated tenor of the church. ... I wouldn't feel comfortable there."
Earlier Friday, Obama responded by posting a blog about his relationship with Wright and Trinity on the Huffington Post. Wright brought Obama to Christianity, officiated at his wedding, baptized his daughters and inspired the title of his book, "The Audacity of Hope."
Obama wrote that he has looked to Wright for spiritual advice, not political guidance, and he has been pained and angered to learn of some of his pastor's comments for which he had not been present. The Illinois senator told the cable television news station MSNBC that Wright had stepped down from his campaign's African American Religious Leadership Committee.
"I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies," Obama said in his blog posting. "I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it's on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Reverend Wright that are at issue."
Obama moved quickly to control any damage stemming from his relationship to Wright to avoid raising doubts among Democrats about his chances of winning the November presidential election. The presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was leaving Saturday on a congressional trip that will take him to Iraq, Israel, Britain and France.
Obama told MSNBC that he would not repudiate Wright as a man, describing him as "like an uncle" who says something that he disagrees with and must speak out against. He also said he expects his political opponents will use video of the sermons to attack him as the campaign goes on.
Questions about Obama's religious beliefs have dogged him throughout his candidacy. He has had to fight against false Internet rumors suggesting he is really a Muslim intent on destroying the United States, and now his pastor's words uttered nearly seven years ago have become an issue.
In a sermon on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Wright suggested the United States brought on the attacks.
"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," Wright said. "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 now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."
In a 2003 sermon, he said blacks should condemn the United States. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
Obama wrote on the Huffington Post that he never heard Wright say any of the statements, but he acknowledged that they have raised legitimate questions about the nature of his relationship with the pastor and the church. He wrote that he joined Wright's church nearly 20 years ago, familiar with the pastor's background as a former Marine and respected biblical scholar who lectured at seminaries across the country.
"Reverend Wright preached the gospel of Jesus, a gospel on which I base my life," he wrote. "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."
He said Wright's controversial statements first came to his attention at the beginning of his presidential campaign last year, and he condemned them. Because of his long and deep ties to the 6,000-member congregation church, Obama said he decided not to leave. He noted that Wright recently retired and the church has named a new pastor.
Also Friday, the United Church of Christ issued a 1,400-word statement defending Wright and his congregation. The statement lauded Wright's church for its community service and work to nurture youth and the pastor for speaking out against homophobia and sexism in the black community.
"It's time for all of us to say no to these attacks and to declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends," John H. Thomas, United Church of Christ's president, said in the statement.