Obama quits Chicago church after race rows

Democrat Barack Obama said on Saturday he had quit his long-time Chicago church after months of controversy over racially laced pulpit rhetoric that still threatens to tarnish his White House hopes.

The Illinois senator said he and his wife, Michelle, were withdrawing from the 8 000-strong congregation of the Trinity United Church of Christ, following a new uproar over a priest’s mocking attack on his rival, Hillary Clinton.

“This is not a decision I come to lightly, and frankly it is one I make with some sadness,” said Obama, who was welcomed into Christianity by the church’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, two decades ago.

“I have no idea how it will impact my presidential campaign. I know it’s the right thing to do for the church and for our family,” said the Democratic frontrunner to take on Republican John McCain in November’s election.

“The recent episode with Father [Michael] Pfleger reinforced that view that we don’t want to have to answer for everything that is stated in a church,” Obama told reporters in South Dakota.

“On the other hand we also don’t want a church subjected to the scrutiny that a presidential campaign legitimately undergoes,” he said, praising anew the largely African-American church’s work for social justice.

Obama again condemned remarks made last Sunday by Father Pfleger, a guest preacher and thorn in the side of the Catholic hierarchy, who had ridiculed Clinton for appearing to cry days before the New Hampshire primary in January.

In a dramatic sermon that now has nearly 400 000 hits on YouTube, the white priest said the former first lady had been on the verge of tears because she felt “there is a black man stealing my show”.

“She just always thought, ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife, I’m white and this is mine.’ ...
And then out of nowhere came him, Barack Obama,” said Pfleger, who has expressed remorse for his comments.

The Clinton campaign had accused Obama of not going far enough in renouncing the comments, which drew new controversy to the African-American politician following incendiary sermons by Reverend Wright himself.

Wright had said the United States brought the September 11 attacks of 2001 upon itself, and exhorted blacks to sing “God damn America” over racism and allegations that Aids was spread by the US government.

Target

The sermons and Obama’s former allegiance to the church are likely to be a major target for Republicans, should he clinch the Democratic presidential nomination and face Senator McCain in November’s general election.

Attack ads run by state Republican parties have revived the Wright rhetoric in recent local elections, including in North Carolina and Mississippi, and right-wing groups are also using them as political fodder.

But McCain has also been dogged by turbulent pastors. Last week the Republican rejected the endorsement of a second evangelical leader, Rod Parsley, who had reportedly called Islam an “anti-Christ religion”.

In a statement cited by the Chicago Tribune, the Trinity church was conciliatory about the Obama family’s decision.

“Though we are saddened by the news, we understand that it is a personal decision. We will continue to lift them in prayer and wish them the best as former members of our Trinity community,” it said.

Obama initially declined to turn his back on Wright, one of whose sermons called the “Audacity of Hope” became the title of a best-selling political treatise by the senator. The preacher had also officiated at the Obamas’ wedding, and baptised their two daughters.

Instead, Obama used the row to make a wider statement about race in America in a well-received speech in March. Later, however, he repudiated his former friend, after a round of media appearances by the pastor reignited the affair.

At his briefing in South Dakota, Obama said he and Michelle had been agonising over leaving the church ever since Wright gave a combative speech at Washington’s National Press Club in late April.

The Democrat said they were now searching for a new congregation to join but were unlikely to make a decision until January—when the next president will be inaugurated.—AFP

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