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Ticket Special Report: How and why Barack Obama allied himself with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

May 4, 2008 |  1:14 am

The day Barack Obama first appeared in the church office of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., more than 20 years ago, the pastor warned him that getting involved with Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ might not be "a feather in your cap."

Obama was a community organizer then trying to build support for his group on the South Side of Chicago, and a friendly minister at another church had suggested that he'd have more luck with black clergy support if he actually joined a congregation himself.

Controversial minister Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ became spiritual mentor and community supporter for Illinois Sen and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama who's now had to distance himself from the pastor

"Some of my fellow clergy don't appreciate what we're about," Wright told him that day, as Obama would later recount it. "They feel like we're too radical. Others [think] we ain't radical enough."

Obama ended up joining, a story he tells in his memoirs, and later was influenced enough by Wright to derive the title of a subsequent book, "The Audacity of Hope," from one of the pastor's sermons.

Some have speculated that Wright became a father figure for Obama, whose father had left the family and returned to Africa. As The Ticket noted the other day, others believe Obama was attracted by Wright's cerebral nature, as opposed to other less-educated black ministers on Chicago's South Side.

But despite the warning, the association did not seem to be a terribly risky one for Obama, given the arc of the career he was beginning to craft even then.

He was carefully constructing his resume as a street-savvy community organizer while also applying for admission to law school. Within the walls of Trinity, he found a connection to the African American community he'd lacked as a child raised by his white mother and grandparents, an important cultural marker for a biracial candidate who later would try to appeal to black and white voters alike.

He'd share church membership with some of Chicago's influential thinkers and leaders, among them lawmakers, judges and Oprah Winfrey. And in Wright he would find ...

an inspirational messenger -- not to mention one of Chicago's most prominent black ministers -- in an urban political culture and setting where church affiliation can form part of a person's political pedigree.

For someone thinking of running for mayor, governor, senator or any statewide office, being part of Trinity would be an asset.

On the national stage, however, that asset has become a certain liability. Obama's association with Wright has sent his once-soaring presidential campaign into a strategic tailspin, thanks to controversial statements from old sermons that the minister publicly repeated at high volume over the past few weeks.

As Wright's remarks filled the airwaves and Internet and blogosphere, many wondered why Obama remained a member at Trinity for so many years if those remarks were so bothersome, as he now says.

He claims he wasn't present at church for some of the most outrageous comments, yet there were signs that Obama and his campaign were aware that an association with Wright could be controversial. Obama last year in effect disinvited Wright from giving an invocation when he announced in Springfield, Ill., that he was running for president.

Some of Wright's more controversial sermons burst into public view in March, and Wright's appearance at the National Press Club last week seemed to reveal a strong provocative streak. Wright voiced anger over what he depicted as an attack on the black church as a whole.

"My thinking is, how can you sit in a congregation for 20 years and not pick up on some of this?" said Lois Capps, a Linden, N.C., voter who attended a Bill Clinton rally near her home this past week, asking one of the most persistent questions in the Wright story.

Obama hasn't directly addressed the question of why he stayed at Trinity, though he may be gearing up to do so in a lengthy interview this morning on NBC's "Meet the Press," just two days before the crucial Indiana and North Carolina Democratic primaries.

But in Chicago, the choice to attend Trinity for so long is a little less of a puzzle, given Obama and Wright's shared history on the city's South Side and the spiritual and cultural haven the church and pastor offered the aspiring politician.

Membership at Trinity is often taken as a progressive credential, a sign that a person is attuned to issues of social justice and equality and supportive of issues important to its gay and lesbian members.

"Rev. Wright is more sophisticated intellectually than many pastors," said Kwame Raoul, the state senator who took Obama's place in the Illinois Legislature and is a member at Trinity. "He's well-read; he takes the theology seriously. He doesn't just make quick references to the Bible but offers a very deep analysis and an application to current events."

As a community organizer on Chicago's South Side Barack Obama now a senator and Democratic presidential candidate was advised to ally himself with a black church to help his work and he chose Trinity United Church of Christ whose influential and controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright warned him of a cost In an interview in early 2007, Obama said Wright had affected his politics by nurturing his connection to the historically black church and his understanding of the obligations of his faith.

"He's been somebody who has helped me feel comfortable with some of my doubts when it comes to faith and how to work those through," Obama said at the time. "His scholarship is very rigorous, and his sense of social justice is very keen."

Theologically, Trinity has always stood apart from the constellation of black churches in Chicago, many of which offer a more socially conservative message. Wright questions the common sense of Scripture, ordains women, defends gay rights and preaches a theology of black liberation, which seeks to make the Gospel relevant to the historical black experience.

The Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a longtime member of Trinity, said that Wright has always defied boundaries by cultivating an array of black religious traditions.

Visitors on a typical Sunday morning might see and hear flavors of Pentecostal worship, prophetic preaching, political activism, self-empowerment and individual salvation and healing.

"Rarely historically and rarely today in church circles does one get a combination of all those things," Hopkins said. "You can see someone doing the holy dance in that church and talking about the war in Iraq. Those usually don't go on together under the same roof."

The Rev. James Cone, the father of black liberation theology and a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, said that Wright has taken his work a step further. In fact, Wright has generated what Cone considers valid critiques of his work.

"I would regard Jeremiah Wright's church as the really contemporary embodiment of all the things I've tried to say," Cone said.

That theology is reflected in Trinity's "unashamedly black, unapologetically Christian" credo, a point visually emphasized in some of Wright's televised sermons by his wearing of Afrocentric clothing.

That sensibility appealed to Obama as he was making his way toward church membership for the first time in his adult life. As he listened to the words of Wright's "Audacity" sermon, Obama recalls imagining the stories of ordinary black people merging with the Biblical stories of trial and tribulation. Their stories "became our story, my story," he wrote.

His roots at Trinity and in his wife's South Side family helped transform him from a transplant into a member of the community, politically and personally.

Obama carried that credential with him as he made his way up through the political ranks. He would sometimes greet black churches by ostentatiously bringing greetings from his pastor, mentioning him by name.

The relationship with Wright began to fall apart more than a year ago, as Obama was preparing to launch his White House campaign. Wright had been asked to give a public invocation, but then Obama asked him instead to simply pray with him privately beforehand.

But it wasn't until news stations began to air snippets of some of Wright's most controversial sermons in March that the relationship truly deteriorated. In one, Wright said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were the "chickens coming home to roost" because of U.S. foreign policy.

In another, he uttered the now-infamous words "God damn America." Obama publicly disagreed with the sentiments in a carefully crafted Philadelphia speech about race, in which he said he could no more disown Wright than he could disown a family member.

Last week, though, Wright launched a personal media campaign to explain himself, culminating with the National Press Club speech in which he repeated many of the incendiary remarks that had stirred up the most controversy. A day later, Obama denounced the remarks and said he didn't know Wright as well as he had thought.

Oddly enough, Obama once wondered if Wright was willing to be controversial enough. As a young community organizer, he wrote that he wasn't sure if a pastor trying to maintain unity within a church could take forceful stands on public matters.

"[If] men like Rev. Wright failed to take a stand," he wrote, "if churches like Trinity refused to engage with real power and risk genuine conflict, then what chance would there be of holding the larger community intact?"

As it turned out, Obama would be the one to value unity over conflict. He made that clear in the recent news conference when he distanced himself from Wright.

"I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people," Obama said. "That's who I am. That's what I believe."

-- Christi Parsons and Manya A. Brachear

Parsons and Brachear write for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau.                             Photo Credits: Trinity United Church of Christ

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