CHICAGO (Reuters) - Presidential candidate Barack Obama on Friday repudiated what he called “inflammatory and appalling remarks” made by his Chicago pastor, seeking to quell another campaign controversy tinged with race.
The Democrat from Illinois, who would be the first black president, used stronger words than he has in the past to distance himself from widely circulated sermons by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side.
In Wright’s sermons over the years, which have been circulated in the media and on the YouTube Web site, he has called the September 2001 attacks retribution for U.S. foreign policy, cited the U.S. government as the source of the AIDS virus, and railed against a racist America.
“I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy,” Obama said in statement, responding to persistent media coverage of Wright’s sermons.
“I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country ... 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,” he said.
Obama, who is locked a close race with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he had not been present during the sermons in question. Obama joined Wright’s church 20 years ago, before starting his political career.
“Had I heard them in church I would have expressed that concern directly to Rev. Wright,” Obama told MSNBC, adding that Wright was no longer on the campaign’s spiritual advisory council, the African American Leadership Committee.
At the time he learned of the sermons, he said did not leave the church where he was married and his daughters were baptized because Wright was retiring.
Previously, Obama has sought to distance himself from Wright’s comments by chiding him as “an uncle you don’t always agree with.” But Friday’s repudiation was reminiscent of one he made after Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, known for making anti-Semitic and racist comments, declared his support.
Earlier this week, 1984 vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro resigned from Clinton’s campaign after saying that Obama’s success was due to his race. Obama refused to condemn those comments as racist because he said they were not meant that way.
In a sermon late last year, Wright, who is black, talked about why he believed voters would support Clinton over Obama.
“Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people,” Wright said. “Hillary! Hillary can never know that. Hillary has never been called a nigger.”
Several commentators, including one in the Wall Street Journal, said Wright’s sermons were alarming as they come from the man Obama has referred to as his spiritual confidant and the source of one his books’ titles, “The Audacity of Hope.”
But others said it was unlikely to be a serious problem for Obama’s campaign ahead of the next state nominating contest against Clinton in Pennsylvania on April 22.
“There may well be Clinton and (presumed Republican nominee John) McCain supporters who’ll try to push the issue but I don’t think it will settle in because too many Americans are churchgoers of one sort or another and have heard their pastor say something about ‘hellfire’ or whatever, and they don’t agree with it,” said political analyst Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Obama praised Wright, a former U.S. Marine, as a “respected biblical scholar” who has “preached the gospel of Jesus, a gospel on which I base my life. In other words, he has never been my political advisor; he’s been my pastor.”
Editing by Stuart Grudgings