Unlike the gospel singer, however, Obama’s former pastor isn’t known to harbor anti-gay views
"God damn America" was the phrase that so quickly riveted the country’s attention this month — and it came not from some Islamic terrorist but from the former pastor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people," said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the church where Obama is a member. "God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human."
The remarks, and others like them, were from sermons delivered and videotaped as long as seven years ago and broadcast on ABC News on March 14. The report concluded with reporter Brian Ross’s remark that Wright, who retired in February as pastor of the church, "left a lasting impression on [members of the congregation] and Sen. Obama."
The report triggered a flood of excerpts, on YouTube and other Internet venues, from other sermons by Wright. In one of the more recent excerpts, Wright favored Obama for president because his chief party rival, a white woman (Hillary Clinton), "ain’t never been called a nigger."
For the LGBT community, the controversy — and Sen. Obama’s response to it — echoed a similar conflict last year. In October, the Obama campaign hosted a gospel concert tour in South Carolina that included a headliner, Donnie McClurkin, who’d made numerous public statements that homosexuality is "abominable" and a danger to children.
"Homosexuality has really ravished our children," McClurkin said in an interview posted on the FamilyChristian.com Web site.
The National Black Justice Coalition, a gay political organization, said McClurkin and two other performers on the Obama gospel tour were "three of gospel music’s most openly homophobic artists."
Obama didn’t pull the performers from the concert line-up. But eight months earlier, he had pulled Wright from the line-up for his presidential announcement event.
The thing Obama did in both cases, however, was to denounce the speakers’ harsh statements and call for greater understanding between the African-American community and others.
The degree to which Obama is willing to disassociate himself from supporters who make discriminatory statements was an issue in a debate with Clinton last month, too, when Obama was asked whether he would reject the endorsement of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
"I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments. I think they are unacceptable and reprehensible," replied Obama.
Clinton took the opportunity to note that, in her 2000 Senate campaign, she explicitly "rejected" the support of an anti-Semitic group.
Obama replied: "I have to say, I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. But if the word ‘reject,’ Sen. Clinton feels, is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."
Alexander Robinson, chief executive officer of the National Black Justice Coalition, says the controversies and the desire of many citizens to hear Obama denounce, reject, and remove himself from association with people who have espoused discriminatory views, is understandable.
"We do use these surrogates to fill out our picture of someone, of who we expect this person might be," said Robinson.
But Obama’s response to each of these controversies, he says, reflects a reality about the African-American community in general.
"We don’t have that luxury to just completely disassociate ourselves," said Robinson. "For all their faults, people such as Farrakhan, Wright and McClurkin, often do important community service work."
McClurkin, for instance, organizes events for youth. Wright has taken a leadership role in addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the black community.
But unlike Farrakhan and McClurkin, Wright is not known to harbor anti-gay views. Rick Garcia, head of Equality Illinois, told The Washington Blade that Wright and the Trinity church have been very supportive of gays. And a gay member of the Trinity congregation said Wright was very supportive of gay church members’ creation of a gay singles ministry.
While the fact that Wright has been supportive of gays might soften the blow of his "God damn America" pronouncements for gay people, political commentators expressed the belief it could hurt Obama’s campaign for the White House, depending on how he handles it.
Polls, both national and those in Pennsylvania, suggest Obama may have lost a couple of percentage points of support in the days following the initial ABC News report.
Among Democratic voters in Pennsylvania in late February, a Quinnipiac University poll found Clinton had a six-point (49 to 43 percent) lead over Obama (with a 2.7-point margin of error). Between March 10 and 16, that lead had doubled to 12 (53 to 41 percent), with much of the shift showing up among white voters.
A daily Gallup Poll of more than 1,200 Democratic voters nationally showed Obama with a high of 50 percent to Clinton’s 44 percent on March 13, but a steady decline in Obama support starting March 14. The slide in support ended — at 42 percent — on March 18, the day Obama gave a speech addressing the controversy and racism in America.
In that speech, delivered in Pennsylvania, Obama addressed both racism generally and specific criticisms of his association with Wright.
"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy," said Obama, adding that the remarks were "not only wrong but divisive" and "racially charged."
Obama said he understood that some people would not consider his statements of condemnation to be enough.
"I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork," said Obama. "But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now."
And he urged the American people to work together to "move beyond some of our old racial wounds."
It was a response very similar to the one he gave when the gay community criticized him over the McClurkin controversy. He denounced McClurkin’s anti-gay comments but urged the community to work with the African-American community to reach a better understanding of each other.
Clinton, responding to a question from a Pittsburgh newspaper’s editorial board, said about the controversy: "You know, we don’t have a choice when it comes to our relatives. We have a choice when it comes to our pastors and the churches we attend."
Â© Lisa Keen. All rights reserved.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 28, 2008.