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Easter Sunday: Voters ponder Obama and Rev. Wright. What do YOU think?

March 23, 2008 |  2:25 am

One of the most remarkable things about the ongoing controversy over Barack Obama's angry pastor is the sharply differing reactions, even among those whoIllinois Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his controversial Chicago pastor of 20 years from the Trinity United Church of Christ the Rev Jeremiah Wright before videos of Wright's racial sermons circulated blaming the U.S. government for, among other things, starting the AIDS epidemic to kill blacks seem to have so much else in common.

New polling suggests the wildfire Internet spread of the newly-retired Rev. Jeremiah Wright's most inflammatory sermons has scorched off some national popularity of Obama, who's based so much of his political message on being "post-racial," not militant, not angry, pro-unity.

But that now can seem contradictory to many with Obama's intimate 20-year association with a black nationalist who rages about "the U.S. of KKK-A," suggests the country invited or deserved the 9/11 attacks and believes the AIDS epidemic is a government conspiracy to kill blacks.

For a sample video of Wright's sermons, click on the Read more line below.

Then, Obama continued to expose his two young daughters to such views In a congregation whose loud, demonstrative cheers clearly endorsed such extreme statements, while claiming he'd not heard them.

(UPDATE: In his sunrise Eastern sermon at the Trinity United Church of Christ, titled "How to Handle a Public Lynching," the replacement for Rev. Wright, the Rev. Otis Moss III, did not mention his predecessor by name but likened his recent public treatment to that received by Jesus, who was crucified. "You picked the wrong folk to mess with," a defiant Moss told the enthusiastic holiday congregation. He also appealed for donations to a special "Resurrection Fund," which he did not describe.)

As reported here last week, Obama's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, admitted being sufficiently worried more than a year ago that they un-invited the pastor from giving the invocation at Obama's campaign announcement in February, 2007.

At the same time, some black and white voters say they were moved by Obama's ensuing speech as a long-awaited invitation to begin an honest, calm and cleansing national dialogue on race.

It's a topic clearly on the minds of voters in Pennsylvania, one of the largest....

states to weigh in on race and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, who's trailing in money, delegates and the popular vote but leading in Pennsylvania and using Obama's success to raise more money.

Recent items on the issue in The Ticket have elicited many hundreds of Comments, baring feelings of sympathy and support, naked anger and even racism that had not been expressed in that forum before the sermon videos unlocked the issue for public debate. To see such Comments, click on virtually any of the links in this item. And check that section at the end of this item.

Just as talk radio and television are preoccupied with the matter, so were a surprising number of shoppers and employees this weekend in the mega-mall known as King of Prussia, in the Pennsylvania town of the same name.

Dereck Cummings is an openly gay man and a former Jehovah's Witness who says he isn't in the habit of judging other people on their lifestyles or religion. But Cummings can't shake the disturbing feeling there's something worrisome in the incendiary sermon highlights, something that keeps nagging at him as he tries to decide how to vote in

his state's Democratic primary election April 22. "If that's been your priest for that many years, it affects who you are," said Cummings, an assistant store manager in the suburban shopping mecca outside Philadelphia. "Those thoughts come across, Sunday after Sunday, and that just scares me."

His co-worker, Stacey Hermann, couldn't care less, saying the statements fade given her concerns over taxes and education. "He isn't responsible for what another person says," Hermann said, shrugging.

King of Prussia mall is the commercial center for a sizable population of swing voters, whose willingness to go back and forth between Republican and Democratic presidential nominees makes them crucial in general elections.

So their take on the latest bruising to Obama matters for the upcoming primary and signals how fertile the ground is for Clinton or, later, Republicans to try to take advantage of the issue politically. Since the controversy erupted, for instance, polls show Obama support plunging sharply among white males.

In the mall's food court, several self-described swing voters said they were not bothered by Wright's words, though they did not like them. "It's unfortunate," said Judy Wolstenholme, a retired phys ed teacher.

"You don't want someone out there with a history of preaching hatred. I think it might hurt [Obama]. He should have been a little stronger in putting down those theories. But it only bothers me if I believe he isn't smart enough to rise above that message, and I don't think that right now."

Still, Wolstenholme, a registered Republican, said she likes both Hillary Clinton and likely Republican nominee John McCain better than the Illinois senator, as does her husband.

Joshua Snyder, a theology professor at nearby Villanova University, said he thinks the Wright sermons probably sounded very different in church than they do blasting out of computer and television screens.

"When people preach, they tend to get bombastic," Snyder said. "You can use it as a sound bite, and especially in white suburbia, that helps to perpetuate a stereotype."

But in the construction site of a new jewelry store in the mall, union workers said they were deeply offended. "It was unbelievable the way the reverend was talking," said David Terrano, a carpenter. "It makes me worry that, if Obama's president, he's going to be thinking about things that way."

Cummings and Hermann work together at the Ann Taylor store, where another co-worker said the off-duty conversation frequently veers toward politics.

"I listen to what Rev. Wright said, that we brought 9/11 on ourselves," said Myisha Upshur, a Philadelphia resident. "It sounded very callous. If I were listening to that and I lost someone in the 9/11 attacks, I would be very hurt."

Still, she said, "I appreciate that Sen. Obama didn't say, `I'm never going back there to church.' We all have friends we don't agree with. That doesn't mean we should turn our backs." Hermann said she's voted for Republicans and Democrats and that her decision next month won't be affected by Obama's church history.

But Cummings' gay life experience teaches him differently. He said he was "dis-fellowshipped" from the church of his childhood when he came out of the closet but that he still finds traces of those early influences in his thinking. He wondered, can Obama really avoid being influenced by Wright's angry words the same way?

"It rubs off," said Cummings. "And that doesn't go away easily."

Now, it's YOUR turn. Click on Post a Comment below here and let's see how you feel and what others have to say.

--Christi Parsons

Christi Parsons writes for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau.

                                        Photo Credit: AP Photo/Trinity United Church of Christ

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