Obama Denounces Pastor, Continuing Circular Firing Squad

Barack Obama has denounced his pastor of twenty years, the man who performed his wedding ceremony, baptized his children, and served as the inspiration for his best-selling book, because his inflammatory comments got picked up in the press and caused him some political embarrassment.

Obama Denounces Wright Photo Trinity United Church of Christ, via Religion News Service Senator Barack Obama with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In the handful of years Senator Barack Obama has spent in the national spotlight, his stance toward his pastor has gone from glowing praise to growing distance to — as of Friday — strong criticism. On Friday, Mr. Obama called a grab bag of statements by his longtime minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., “inflammatory and appalling.” “I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue,” he wrote in a campaign statement that was his strongest in a series of public disavowals of his pastor’s views over the past year.

Earlier in the week, several television stations played clips in which Mr. Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, referred to the United States as the “U.S. of K.K.K. A.” and said the Sept. 11 attacks were a result of corrupt American foreign policy. On Friday, Senator John McCain’s campaign forwarded to reporters an article in The Wall Street Journal in which Mr. Wright was quoted as saying, “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run,” and accusing the United States of importing drugs, exporting guns and training murderers. Later in the day, Rush Limbaugh dwelled on Mr. Wright in his radio program, calling him “a race-baiter and a hatemonger.”

In the statement he released a few hours later, Mr. Obama, known for his uplifting messages about national unity, professed a certain innocence about his pastor’s most incendiary messages. “The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation,” he said.


Mr. Wright, 66, who last month fulfilled longstanding plans to retire, is a beloved figure in African-American Christian circles and a frequent guest in pulpits around the country. Since he arrived at Trinity in 1972, he has built a 6,000-member congregation through his blunt, charismatic preaching, which melds detailed scriptural analysis, black power, Afrocentrism and an emphasis on social justice; Mr. Obama praised the last quality in Friday’s statement.

His most powerful influence, said several ministers and scholars who have followed his career, is black liberation theology, which interprets the Bible as a guide to combating oppression of African-Americans. He attracts audiences because of, not in spite of, his outspoken critiques of racism and inequality, said Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, in an interview last year.


In the interview last spring, Mr. Wright expressed frustration at the breach in relationship with Mr. Obama, saying the candidate had already privately said that he might need to distance himself from his pastor. But perhaps the two could repair things, said Mr. Wright, pointing out that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, had faced worse. “At least there are no semen stains on any dresses,” Mr. Wright said, one of several digs he has taken at the Clintons. “That kind of frankness scares people in the campaign,” he added.

Wright strikes me as a nut but Obama’s pretense at being shocked by his rhetoric at this point is shameful. One doesn’t throw friends and mentors under the bus for the sake of convenience.

My strong sense is that Obama does indeed reject most of the outlandish things that Wright says for much the same reason that I do: Educated people who grew up in the post-segregation era simply think differently. My guess — and it’s just that — is that Obama was able to sit in Wright’s pews and reject the hateful framing of issues because he understood that black men of a certain age harbor a deep distrust of white society. One presumes, too, that the railing against whitey was a relatively small part of the message and that Wright preached it as part of a larger message of self-reliance and the need to take care of one another.

I understand why Obama felt he needed to distance himself from Wright, just as he needed to do so with Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton had to with Geraldine Ferraro. There’s a certain ruthless discipline that’s required of executive leaders and one doesn’t want subordinates to derail the focus on the larger mission. Personal loyalty can go too far, as President Bush has aptly demonstrated, but it’s also admirable.

I’m in full agreement with James Carville on this one: This game of “political hari-kiri” needs to stop.

The problem is that calls for resignation are becoming cries of “wolf” in US politics today. Every time one campaign’s surrogate says something mildly offensive about the other candidate, resignation calls are swift.


This sort of hyper-sensitivity diminishes everyone who engages in it, both the candidates and the media. Politics is a rough and tumble business, and yet there seems to be an effort by the commentariat to sanitise American politics to some type of high-level Victorian debating society.


It is not the attacks that are unprecedented; it is the shocked reaction to them. I think back to the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign, in which I played a role. The morning after the New Hampshire primary, Paul Begala, my colleague, began belittling the victory of Senator Paul Tsongas by arguing that Mr Clinton’s comeback was a much bigger story. In doing so, Mr Begala called Mr Tsongas a “son of a bitch”. Mr Clinton asked him to write an apology note but also requested that it not affect his aggressiveness. The story lasted one day.

Later in the campaign, my then girlfriend and now wife Mary Matalin called my client “a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger”. Naturally, someone made a perfunctory call for her to resign which got nowhere, and we all got a good laugh and moved on.

Near the end of that campaign, George H.W. Bush, the president, boldly asserted of Mr Clinton and Al Gore that “my dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos”. Thank God nobody asked Mr Bush to resign. Life as we knew it went along quite nicely because it was all part of that entertaining, rough and tumble endeavour we know as politics.

It has always been that way. In the late 1950s, Earl Long, the then governor of my home state of Louisiana and in my view its most courageous politician since the second world war, referred to one of his political enemies as “nothing but a little pissant”. Or consider the election of 1828, in which surrogates for John Quincy Adams called Andrew Jackson’s wife a bigamist and his mother a prostitute. And that was before television.

Maybe somebody should have resigned for that. But that is where we have lost perspective. Some comments are within bounds, while some are not. But by whining about every little barb, candidates are trying to win the election through a war of staff resignation attrition and Americans are losing the ability to distinguish between what is fair game and what is not.


Politics is a messy business, but campaigning prepares you for governing. It prepares you to get hit, stand strong and, if necessary, hit back. So our candidates need to buck up, toughen up and recognise that time spent whining and sniping is time not spent addressing the real concerns of the people.

Well said.

Barring some radical happenings between now and November, I’m not going to be voting for Barack Obama. But I’d have been perfectly happy had he come out and said, “I’ve known Jeremiah Wright for twenty years and love him like a father. He’s a good man who says some things that I strongly disagree with but he’s preaching larger truths that I applaud.” Or, “Samantha Power is a brilliant woman who said something stupid in the heat of battle. Neither she nor I think Hillary Clinton is a ‘monster.’ I’d be proud to have her in my administration.”

Smart, decent people occasionally say dumb, hurtful things. Do we really want to limit public service to people who have never said anything interesting?

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 2008 Election, Guns and Gun Control, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bornonthefourth says:

    This is exactly the Chicago style politics that has turned this nomination into a Mexican stand-off. Could it be possible that someone would be involved with an organization for twenty years and not understand the tenets of its foundation. Now after two Ivy league schools and a career in law you suddenly disagree, but your the best choice for the President?
    Birds Of A Feather Flock Together….

  2. JanetP says:

    It is scary to think that this hatred might be spewing from pulpits around the country. The tone is absolutely militant and anti-white.

    One cannot separate himself from the company he keeps and Obama’s association with Wright goes much deeper than simply a campaign worker or casual acquaintance. He is described as Obama’s mentor and spiritual advisor.

    Obama’s defense that he did not know of these sermons just falls flat and makes him appear to be either lying or the most naive person on the planet.

    With this background it is hard to imagine that Obama could be president of ALL the people. It appears that he is closer to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton than previously realized.

  3. Our Paul says:

    A thinking persons post Mr. Joyner!

    One wonders whether all the gentle souls that are jumping up and down with glee over this “controversy” are not tinged with what Obama’s pastor was preaching against. Simple test or two: Do they use the term Islamofacist? Do they believe that the United States is pre-ordained to be the leader of the world?

    Other tests could easily presented, but surely it is silly to argue that what one’s pastor says is the measure of the man who listens to him…

  4. Daniel says:

    Im sorry I cant let this post just go.

    Your post is ridiculous.

    Obama was damned if he did or damned if he didnt according to you. If he defended Wright, then Obama must condone Wrights views. If he comes out against Wrights statements, then hes throwing Wright under the bus?

    You say that Obama threw Wright under the bus, and what he should have done was say “I’ve known Jeremiah Wright for twenty years and love him like a father. He’s a good man who says some things that I strongly disagree with but he’s preaching larger truths that I applaud.”

    But… THAT IS WHAT OBAMA DID. Did you watch the interviews last night? Did you read Obamas essay on Huffington post? Obama didnt condemn Wright. He condmended some of his tatements. He said that Wright had been a great pastor, and he was still proud of many of his sermons, but that he prfoundly disagreed with the statements recfently circulated.

    This isnt throwing Wright under the bus. Its you finding anything and everything wrong with Obama.

  5. One doesn’t throw friends and mentors under the bus for the sake of convenience.

    What town do you think you’re living in?

  6. Daniel says:

    Ah I see where you made the critical mistake. Your headline is “Obama denounces pastor” and your link is titld “denounces pastor.” Problem is… the actual NY Times headline is “Obama denounces PASTORS’S STATEMENTS”

    Quality posting James Joyner.

  7. ftroop says:

    James, this is a preposterous post.

    Wright said God DAMN America. He blamed 911 on America.

    That alone could end Obama’s candidacy. It’s nothing like Feraro’s pinhead obstinancy, nor at the level of your post’s examples: Matalin’s or Begala’s quotes.

    Sullivan keeps hyping Obama’s great judgment. This is truly hate-America rhetoric that juices up the right. Just keep playing clips of Wright, that alone, and Obama would lose 10% of his votes among the Independents. He had to drop Wright. Hardly political expediency.

  8. Roy Mustang says:

    News Flash, Mr. Joyner. The young audience was cheering louldy after Rev. Wright, with a big smile on his face, told them how America deserved 9/11.

    No one booed. No one sat on their hands. They cheered. This isn’t just about the Reverened, it’s about the whole church. How Obama just sit there (assuming he weren’t cheering himself) is beyond the pale.

  9. JanetP says:

    In one of the debates Obama was asked which vote in the senate he would most like to take back. He answered by saying that his biggest regret was that he didn’t take a stand against the Senate interfering in the Terri Schiavo case. He went on to say that as a professor of constitutional law he knew better and that it was an inexcusable omission on his part.

    Well the Schiavo case was a one-time thing. The thing with this radical minister is that Obama has been following him for more than 20 years. As well, he has been a part of Obama’s campaign. If Obama feels like he should have taken a stand in the Schiavo case, then surely he had an obligation to speak up in opposition to the minister’s racial rants.

  10. yetanotherjohn says:

    I applaud Obama denouncing the hate field screeds of Wright. But I think there may be a bit of a disconnect between various statements said.

    In his denouncing, Obama says

    The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign.

    In press interviews, Obama went further and said that no one in the church mentioned that any of the controversial statements were made.

    OBAMA: And, as I said, Anderson, if I had heard any of those statements, I probably would have walked up, and I probably would have told Reverend Wright that they were wrong.

    But they were not statements that I heard when I was in church.

    COOPER: So, no one in the church ever said to you, man, last week, you missed this sermon; Reverend Wright said this; or…

    OBAMA: No.

    That is a pretty strong denial that Obama has any idea what was going on. He didn’t take the Joyner approach of “I condemn these statements but support the larger truths”. He has made an outright claim that he has not personally heard any of this, directly or indirectly, before his presidential campaign. If that is the case, then you might question his wisdom in not moving to disassociate himself at that time, but you certainly can’t hold him accountable for what he hadn’t heard, directly or indirectly. And as Obama says, If he had known, he would have confronted Wright. Fair enough.

    At his campaign kickoff Obama when Obama decided at the lost minute not to have Wright at the kick off he had this to say.

    After all, back in January, Mr. Obama had asked Mr. Wright if he would begin the event by delivering a public invocation.

    But Mr. Wright said Mr. Obama called him the night before the Feb. 10 announcement and rescinded the invitation to give the invocation.

    “Fifteen minutes before Shabbos I get a call from Barack,” Mr. Wright said in an interview on Monday, recalling that he was at an interfaith conference at the time. “One of his members had talked him into uninviting me,” Mr. Wright said, referring to Mr. Obama’s campaign advisers.

    Some black leaders are questioning Mr. Obama’s decision to distance his campaign from Mr. Wright because of the campaign’s apparent fear of criticism over Mr. Wright’s teachings, which some say are overly Afrocentric to the point of excluding whites.

    Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said the campaign disinvited Mr. Wright because it did not want the church to face negative attention. Mr. Wright did however, attend the announcement and prayed with Mr. Obama beforehand.

    “Senator Obama is proud of his pastor and his church, but because of the type of attention it was receiving on blogs and conservative talk shows, he decided to avoid having statements and beliefs being used out of context and forcing the entire church to defend itself,” Mr. Burton said.

    In Monday’s interview, Mr. Wright expressed disappointment but no surprise that Mr. Obama might try to play down their connection.

    “When his enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli” to visit Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Mr. Wright recalled, “with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell.” Mr. Wright added that his trip implied no endorsement of either Louis Farrakhan’s views or Qaddafi’s.

    Mr. Wright said that in the phone conversation in which Mr. Obama disinvited him from a role in the announcement, Mr. Obama cited an article in Rolling Stone, “The Radical Roots of Barack Obama.”

    According to the pastor, Mr. Obama then told him, “You can get kind of rough in the sermons, so what we’ve decided is that it’s best for you not to be out there in public.”

    So exactly what brought Obama to the conclusion that “his sermons can get kind of rough”? Why would the pastor be so unsurprised? Obama didn’t cite the Libya trip, he cited the “kind of rough” sermons. And Obama wanted to “avoid having statements and beliefs being used out of context “. What statements did he think would be out of context? Accusing the US of causing AIDS? Just what statements was Obama concerned about? Because remember, none of the “staments of controversy” where ever known by Obama prior to his presidential campaign.

    It would also be interesting to find out how the controversial statements came to light. Or to quote the Watergate dicta “What did he know and when did he know it”.

  11. Robert Campbell says:

    The pink elephant that wanders the room, however, is that because the Obama campaign, rightfully, will not lower itself to the garbage flinging attacks by both the Clinton campaign and the conservative Republicans some Obama supporters may feel they need to fill in the gap with attacks of their own where the official campaign does not choose to do so. It is a temptation many of us have had and we applaud Senator Obama for raising us all out of that mire.

  12. yetanotherjohn says:
  13. JanetP says:

    The media has been totally AWOL on this issue. They tout a pious role in their ‘obligation’ to report all sides and yet they have let this lie until it is probably too late to undo the harm. As well, it is probably handing the presidency to John McCain. This is scary.

  14. Sue says:

    I find it sad that the road to the white house has hit a bumpy road. The media, prodded by Hillary and the extreme right, are no longer focusing on the issues. What about the economy?? What about the security of the United States of America?

    Hillary knew she had no logical way of winning this nomination so they had to change course. An of has see. What better way to get the pressure off of her to release her tax records, pressure to validate her claims of “35 years” of experience (what was she doing at the age of 25?? to be considered experience for the job of US President?? make me pause and think. I would hope it stir such concern in my fellow Americans as well)
    These attacks that Obama is now suddenly a racist are ludicious! Did the American people forget he was raised by a white womin born in Kansas?? She, his mother, was the one constant influence in his life. Why don’t we examine his life instead of judging him by his pastors comments? By the way the Reverend Wright served in the US Marines, Can the rest of these hateful bloggers claim the same??
    I am white and have heard numerous racial comments made by members of my family, community and co-workers> It is not expected that I condemn each and everyone of them and live in complete solitude. Use your brains people and see the big picture.
    Foreclosures, Record high deficits, War, Economic divide, these are the issues that face the American people. It is time to put the hate from the past behind us and learn to heal together. Obama 2008

  15. JanetP says:

    I’m not exactly sure who exposed the video, but I think any American who had the video, or even knew of it, had an obligation to make it public. This man is running for the highest office on the planet.

    We should all just agree that the rants of Wright are indefensible and start the debate from that point. Those who offer up ANY defense of those deplorable and hate-filled sermons do themselves a disservice.

    It also does not work to try to change the subject. Obama has to answer for his failure to confront these rants for 20 years and bringing up Hillary’s short-comings does not diminish that duty.

  16. anjin-san says:

    While we are on the subject, here are some comments by Falwell & Robertson, Bush supporters and spiritual leaders on the right. Care to weigh in Janet?

    Here are their comments in context:

    Pat Robertson began the interview asking Falwell what his response has been to the terrorist attacks. Falwell said there had been a massive prayer gathering of members of his congregation along with students from Liberty University. He told the TV audience that they had humbled themselves before God, prayed for President Bush and his advisers and for the victims of the attacks.

    Falwell then likened the attacks to Pearl Harbor and that at that time, Hitler wanted to destroy the Jews and conquer the world. Now, “Islamic fundamentalists, radical terrorists, Middle-Eastern monsters” want to destroy Israel and conquer the world.

    The two men then talked about religious revival and whether the events of September 11 might spark spiritual renewal in America.

    Then Falwell said, “What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.”
    Robertson replied, “Well, Jerry, that’s my feeling. I think we’ve just seen the antechamber to terror, we haven’t begun to see what they can do to the major population.”
    Falwell said, “The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I’ll hear from them for this, but throwing God…successfully with the help of the federal court system…throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad…I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America…I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen.”
    Robertson said, “I totally concur, and the problem is we’ve adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we’re responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system.”
    Falwell added, “Pat, did you notice yesterday that the ACLU and all the Christ-haters, the People for the American Way, NOW, etc., were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress, as they went out on the steps and and called out to God in prayer and sang ‘God bless America’ and said, let the ACLU be hanged. In other words, when the nation is on its knees, the only normal and natural and spiritual thing to do is what we ought to be doing all the time, calling on God.”

  17. WR says:

    Yes, that quote is horrifying to many of us, Anjin-San. But you have to understand that the people screaming about Obama see a clear difference — Fallwell was blaming liberals, feminists, the ACLU, gays, and those who don’t believe his church should run our nation. You can say that in America. You just can’t say that American foreign policy might have inspired the 9/11 terrorists or that white men generally have the vast amount of power in this country. Because that’s hate speech.

    Because all these people who claim to “love America” so much really hate most of the people in it. They just like the ones who look like them. That’s why they’re so desperate to destroy Obama.

  18. mannning says:

    It is far too late to rub the black hate thoughts of 20 or more years out of Obama’s head, whether they came from Wright, his own ideas, or from other far left associates. Dismissing Wright is to me admission that Obama is attempting to purge those thoughts about him from the public mind, and to deny them himself eloquently, simply to get elected. Then, he would revert to type. He is a consummate actor, but he cannot divorce himself from his real beliefs.

    Those black hate thoughts continually rattling around in the mind of the president of our nation are revolting to contemplate. Not credible!

    20 years late.

  19. Bandit says:

    one thing’s fersure – Obama’s wife was paying a lot more attention during the sermons

  20. anjin-san says:

    Those are the types of statements that have led to MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson describing Wright as “a full-blown hater.”

    I once heard Carlson described as “a big dick”. It seems like a pretty accurate description…

  21. Grewgills says:

    Why six links to a single article?
    The fragmentary quotes (none complete, much less in context) did not rise anywhere close to the level of the comments being widely discussed. This leaves aside the blatant bias of the source in reporting Obama’s or anyone else’s presence or reactions.
    I doubt you would give much weight to links to a daily KOS diary as evidence.

  22. DL says:

    Ah -James Carville, the man who just a week or so ago blamed George Bush for Eliot Spitzer’s moral corruption, because they were investigating funny money transfers that the banks played whistle blower on -that James Carville -a man of character and vurtue indeed.

    Seriously -your point is well taken. What we have is a nation that is being self-censored by political correctness, the most deeadly weapon ever employed by the left belcause the right doesn’t yet realize that’s what it is.

    Most of what ever nasty has been said, is believed widely anyway in some sphere or another. I say get it out – we need to encourged truth coming foward, not silence it. That racism is taught in many (but not all)black churches is no suprise. It will not be exorcised until it undergoes public scrutiny and rejection. I say -investigate and expose it – at one point in time,before the “Age of Pravda West,” that was the job of an unaligned media.

    Is there anyone that doesn’t understand by now that these unacceptable comments made by campaign underlings, aren’t really the wishes of the candidate who for political purposes can’t say them him/herself?

  23. DL says:

    ooopps -that’s “are” really the wishes of the candidate.

  24. rpkinmd says:

    I think this has not played out yet. Senator Obama has now made statements that will no doubt cause him difficulty in the future. The first being that he was unaware of Pastor Wright’s inflammatory statements a year ago as he started his presidential campaign. Let me suggest that any campaign staff that did not secure every tape of Wright’s speaking in existence and determine the extent of the potential damage at that time was derelict. Obama’s staff has not demonstrated such amateurish performance to date and seriously doubt they did in this instance. It is only reasonable to expect the Senator was fully informed on Wright’s liability at that time and Obama knew the extent of Wright’s bigotry and anti Americanism.

    The second issue is that Obama made a very Clintonian response; carefully parsing his words-

    The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation.

    Notice he did not say I never heard those words before they became available in the news or that he did not hear them a year ago. Only that he never hear them while sitting in the pew or in private. Notice he did not say he never heard similar words or those thoughts expressed in different words.

    The first is potentially the most damaging if evidence of the Senator’s attendance at one of Wright’s rants is found. Then there have clear evidence of a flat lie and the attendant conclusions that he was not upset with the remarks, endorsed them or tolerated them, and he is a liar.

    The second is more likely to be the case that it will be discovered that the Senator was in attendance on another occasion, not yet identified when Wright was preaching on the topic. This situation is not covered by the Obama disclaimer above.

    I think the Senator has been disingenuous on this subject. Wright has publicly stated he embraces Black Liberation Theology (BLT) and has extolled the writings of Cole on the subject. BLT has as a core tenant that salvation is not remission of sin but delivery from an oppressive white culture and government. If this is a core theological belief of Wright’s it is difficult to believe that he did not preach on it frequently from the pulpit or at least intersperse it thought out he preaching. To do otherwise would be inconsistent.

    All except one of the inflammatory speeches was made in the congregation. To be fair, it appeared to me some members of the congregation were not pleased with the Pastor’s remarks. But if you look at the speeches, especially, the GD America diatribe, does it fit perfectly with the BLT?

    I predict this will dribble out over time and it will cost Senator Obama any chance of ever winning a national election. Bob

  25. Xrlq says:

    Carville’s point about embarassing statements and resignations is taken, but this seems to be more of a case of stopped clocks. Asking God to damn America, blaming 9-11 on America, and accusing America of creating the AIDS virus goes far beyond “[ever] having said anything interesting.” It’s beyond the pale, if indeed there is one.

    Suppose Obama’s association had been not with Wright but with his Muslim twin, Louis Farrakhan. Would Obama still be the front-runner in the Democratic Primary? Should he be?