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The Obama and Wright controversy
The Obama and Wright controversy
by Lisa Keen - Keen News Service "God damn America" was the phrase that so quickly riveted the country's attention this month and it came, not from some Islamic terrorist, but from the former pastor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"God damn America - that's in the Bible - for killing innocent people," said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the church where Obama is a member. "God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human."

The remarks, and others like them, were from sermons delivered and videotaped as much as seven years ago and broadcast on ABC News March 14. The report concluded with reporter Brian Ross's remark that Wright, who retired in February as pastor of the church, "left a lasting impression on [member of the congregation] and Senator Obama." The report triggered a flood of excerpts, on YouTube and other internet venues, from other sermons by Wright. In one of the more recent excerpts, Wright favored Obama for president because his chief party rival, a white woman (Hillary Clinton), "ain't never been called a nigger."

For the LGBT community, the controversy - and Senator Obama's response to it - echoed a similar conflict last year. In October, the Obama campaign hosted a gospel concert tour in South Carolina and included a headliner, Donnie McClurkin, who had made numerous public statements that homosexuality is "abominable" and a danger to children.

"Homosexuality has really ravished our children," said McClurkin, in an interview at the FamilyChristian.com website.

The National Black Justice Coalition, a Gay political organization, said McClurkin and two other performers on the Obama gospel tour were "three of gospel music's most openly homophobic artists."

Obama did not pull the performers from the concert lineup, but eight months earlier, he did pull Rev. Wright from the lineup for his presidential announcement event. The one thing Obama did in both cases, however, was to denounce the speakers' harsh statements and call for greater understanding between the African American community and others.

The degree to which Obama is willing to disassociate himself from supporters who make discriminatory statements was an issue in a debate with Clinton last month, too, when Obama was asked whether he would reject the endorsement of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

"I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments. I think they are unacceptable and reprehensible," replied Obama. Clinton took the opportunity to note that, in her 2000 Senate campaign, she explicitly "rejected" the support of an anti-Semitic group. Obama, then, added:

"I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. But if the word 'reject,' Sen. Clinton feels, is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."

Alexander Robinson, chief executive officer of the National Black Justice Coalition, says the controversies and the desire of many citizens to hear Obama denounce, reject, and remove himself from association with people who have espoused discriminatory views, is understandable.

"We do use these surrogates to fill out our picture of someone, of who we expect this person might be," said Robinson.

But Obama's response to each of these controversies, he says, reflects a reality about the African American community in general.

"We don't have that luxury to just completely disassociate ourselves," says Robinson. "For all their faults, people such as Farrakhan, Wright, and McClurkin, often do important community service work, said Robinson. McClurkin, for instance, organizes events for youth. Wright has taken a leadership role in addressing the AIDS epidemic in the black community."

But unlike Farrakhan and McClurkin, Wright is not known to harbor anti-Gay views. Rick Garcia, head of Equality Illinois, told The Washington Blade that Wright and the Trinity church have been very supportive of Gays. And a Gay member of the Trinity congregation said Wright was very supportive of Gay church members' creation of a Gay singles ministry.

While the fact that Wright has been supportive of Gays might soften the blow of his "God damn America" pronouncements for Gay people, political commentators expressed the belief it could hurt his campaign for the White House, depending on how he handles it.

Polls - both national and those in Pennsylvania - suggest Obama may have lost a couple of percentage points of support in the days following the initial ABC News report. Among Democratic voters in Pennsylvania in late February, a Quinnipiac University poll found Clinton had a six-point (49 to 43 percent) lead over Obama (with a 2.7 point margin of error). Between March 10 and 16, that lead had doubled to 12 (53 to 41 percent), with much of the shift showing up among white voters. A daily Gallup Poll of more than 1,200 Democratic voters nationally showed Obama with a high of 50 percent to Clinton's 44 percent on March 13, but a steady decline in Obama support starting March 14. The slide in support ended - at 42 percent - on March 18, the day Obama gave a speech addressing the controversy and racism in America.

In that speech in Pennsylvania, Obama addressed both racism generally and specific criticisms of his association with Wright.

"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy," said Obama, adding that the remarks were "not only wrong but divisive" and "racially charged."

Obama said he understood that some people would not consider his statements of condemnation to be enough.

"I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork," said Obama.

"But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now." And he urged the American people to work together to "move beyond some of our old racial wounds."

It was a response very similar to that which he had when the Gay community criticized him over the McClurkin controversy. He denounced McClurkin's anti-Gay comments but urged the community to work with the African American community to reach a better understanding of each other.

Clinton, responding to a question from a Pittsburgh newspaper's editorial board, said about the controversy: "You know, we don't have a choice when it comes to our relatives. We have a choice when it comes to our pastors and the churches we attend," she said.

© Lisa Keen. All rights reserved.

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