Obama breaks with controversial church

ABERDEEN, South Dakota (Reuters) - Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama said on Saturday he quit his Chicago church in the aftermath of inflammatory sermons that could become a lightning rod in the November election.

Obama’s resignation from Trinity United Church of Christ, which he has attended for 16 years, was an attempt to put the nagging issue behind him as he closes in on the Democratic nomination to run against Republican John McCain for the White House.

“This is not a decision I come to lightly and frankly it’s one I make with some sadness,” Obama told reporters during a stop in South Dakota. “Trinity was where I found Jesus Christ, where we were married, where our children were baptized.”

The Illinois senator, who would be the first black U.S. president, cut ties last month with Trinity’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who angered many with anti-American and racially charged sermons.

Just as controversy over Wright had died down, a Roman Catholic priest mocked Obama’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton during a guest appearance at Trinity United.

In his sermon, the priest, Michael Pfleger, screamed and imitated Clinton and accused her of espousing “white entitlement.” Pfleger later apologized for his comments and was condemned by Obama and the archbishop of Chicago.

“It’s clear that now that I’m a candidate for president, every time something is said in the church by anyone associated with Trinity, including guest pastors, the remarks will be imputed to me even if they totally conflict with my long-held views, statements and principles,” Obama said.

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His campaign released a copy of a letter Obama and his wife, Michelle, sent to the church announcing their decision.

“Our relations with Trinity have been strained by the divisive statements of Rev. Wright, which sharply conflict with our own views,” the letter said.

The decision to quit the church appeared to be a sign that Obama wants to put the issue behind him before the general election.

Obama said he and his family would find another church, although he said they would not likely settle on one until early next year. Whoever wins in November will be inaugurated in January to succeed President George W. Bush.

In an effort to quell the controversy over Wright, Obama gave a widely praised speech in March calling for racial healing and offering a nuanced view of Wright, denouncing the pastor’s remarks but declining to disown him.

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But then Wright made a series of public appearances and stood by his inflammatory comments. He has blamed the U.S. government for the spread of the AIDS virus, declared “God damn America” and blasted the country’s history of racism.

Obama was reportedly furious and finally cut ties with Wright last month. He condemned the minister’s comments as “outrageous” and “appalling.”

Wright’s comments posed problems for Obama because they contradicted one of his campaign’s central messages -- that he can transcend past divisions such as those involving race.

Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, has attracted strong support in some heavily white states such as Wyoming, Iowa and Wisconsin. But he has struggled to win the votes of white, working-class voters in states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Political analysts have questioned whether Obama’s links to Wright might hurt him in the general election.

Editing by Patricia Wilson and Peter Cooney