The racially inflammatory remarks of a second preacher connected to Sen. Barack Obama have reignited a divisive racial debate that undermines his candidacy's unifying theme and appears to be hurting his chances in the general election this fall.
"This is manna from heaven [for the GOP]. ... It raises the risk factor around this young man who would be the first African-American president," NPR senior political analyst Juan Williams said today.
"People identify Obama as young, energetic, telegenic, intelligent, talking about change and unifying the races. Then the second thing that comes to mind is, 'Gee, what about this Rev. Wright? What about Father Pfleger? Why is he associated with these people who are so inflammatory and mean-spirited and even racial?'"
Williams was referring to a recent sermon by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, an Obama friend and white Catholic priest who, while visiting Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ recently, openly mocked Hillary Clinton as predominately black churchgoers cheered him on.
"I'm white. I'm entitled. There's a black man stealing my show," Pfleger said, impersonating Clinton and then feigning tears to an enthusiastic audience.
Obama, who said he was disappointed in Pfleger's "divisive, backward-looking rhetoric," quit Trinity United Friday, where he has been a member for 20 years. Obama cited, among other things, the uproar surrounding this most recent incident and the earlier comments by the church's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"Barack Obama's favorability ratings have been sinking, especially with the swing voters as we head toward the general election: white women, Jews, Latinos; it's a real problem," Williams said.
A recent Pew poll shows that the Democratic presidential candidate's lead has slimmed dramatically to 47-to-44 percent in a hypothetical general election matchup against presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The tightening coincides with a dip in Obama's favorability ratings, which have slipped 8 percentage points to 51 percent since late February, just before the Wright controversy broke.
Racial Fury or Misunderstanding?
Pfleger also said during the sermon that "racism is still America's greatest addiction. ... I also believe that America is the greatest sin against God."
Some black church leaders and other supporters said that to understand these kind of comments and the positive reactions they elicit, one needs to understand that this is a church forged in repression and forced separation.
"When you deal with the issue of racism in America, sometimes the recalling of how black people were treated ... causes one to become angry and often take rhetoric to a place that it might turn off not only whites, but even some blacks," said Calvin Butts, the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.
Father Edward Beck, a white priest and host of ABC News Now's "Faith Matters," defended Pfleger's intentions but said he understood why some white people "may be a bit frightened" by such negative language.
"You have to understand beneath it there is real sentiment," he said. "There is a feeling of being disenfranchised. Let's not pretend there is still not a race issue in America."
NPR's Williams disagreed with that assessment of Pfleger's remarks, calling his sermon a "minstrel show."
"Yes, there's a history of bitter segregation in a city like Chicago, but what are these ministers doing? They're stirring people up, appealing to their most base racist sentiments. What you saw from Father Pfleger looked like a minstrel show put on for black people and I thought he was mocking, bitter," he said.
"Mocking of Hillary Clinton goes beyond any black liberation theology. That's putting down somebody who has a fairly progressive record on race in America. It sounds more like, the whole thing about God, and America coming from Rev. Wright again. It stirs up all those feelings again."
Beck acknowledged that such perceived white-bashing or reverse-racism has some whites he knows worried that this kind of controversy would erupt again if Obama were president and that they "are little bit afraid of it."
Having worked with Pfleger for nearly three years, Beck also said that the characterization of him as a bad parody of an African-American preacher was unfair. He pointed out that Pfleger had been "arrested for injustice against African-American people and adopted an African-American child."
Despite Obama's attempt to quell the racial debate surrounding his candidacy with a speech in Philadelphia in March, this latest round of controversy shows there is still a reservoir of racial tension that has yet to be fully explored.