An unapologetic Jeremiah Wright said Monday his former parishioner, Barack Obama, had to distance himself from some of Wright's remarks because "he would never get elected" to the White House if he didn't.
The Chicago minister whose fiery sermons forced Obama to tackle the issue of race on the presidential campaign trail got a rock star's welcome from an audience of mostly black religious leaders at the National Press Club in Washington. The crowd repeatedly cheered and applauded Wright and jeered the questions, submitted in writing, by the press.
Wright accused "corporate media" of taking snippets of his sermons out of context to portray him as unpatriotic and hostile to white Americans. "I served six years in the military," he said. "How many years did Cheney serve?" The reference was to Vice President Cheney, who obtained a draft deferment during the Vietnam war.
Obama's former pastor, who recently retired after nearly four decades in the pulpit of the church the Illinois senator attends on Chicago's South Side, said he decided to break weeks of silence about the controversy surrounding his fiery sermons to defend his religious traditions.
"This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright," he said. "This is an attack on the black church."
In his prepared remarks, Wright expressed a hope that the controversy he has engendered will have a beneficial outcome. "Maybe now, an honest dialogue about race in this country will begin," he said. Wright said he hopes the nation will come to appreciate a black religious tradition that "in far too many instances still is invisible to the dominant culture."
Wright said his church welcomes people of all races and practices "a theology of liberation" that "frees the captives and it frees the captors."
Even so, he did not take back remarks that Obama has described as offensive, including a post-9/11 sermon that suggested that the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were payback for U.S. "terrorism" against minorities at home and civilians abroad. "As ye sow, so shall ye reap," he said, quoting the Bible.
Wright also refused to distance himself from Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Nation of Islam leader. Wright said Farrakhan's anti-Semitic remarks were made "20 years ago" and added that while he does not always agree with Farrakhan "he is one of the most important voices in the 20th or 21st century."
His former parishioner also came in for some criticism. Wright said Obama distanced himself from his pastor's remarks "without having listened to the sermon." Obama has said he was not in church for some of Wright's more controversial orations.
Outside the National Press Building, protesters demonstrated against Wright's appearance. "Obama's chicken has come home to roost," said one sign, a reference to a line from Wright's post-9/11 sermon in which the minister said: "America's chickens have come home to roost." At his National Press Club appearance, Wright said he was quoting the Iraqi ambassador.
Wright's appearance was organized by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, an ecumenical group of black religious leaders that he helped found five years ago. It came after a weekend of appearances by the minister, beginning with an hour-long interview Friday on PBS and including two sermons in Dallas and a speech to the Detroit branch of the NAACP on Sunday.
In the audience for Wright's appearance at the Press Club: noted African American studies scholar Cornel West.