The Origin of Obama's Pastor Problem

The candidate's own critical, questioning road to faith also led him straight to a controversial mentor

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Alex Brandon / AP

In Philadelphia Obama called for blacks and whites to move beyond the "racial stalemate"

Long before the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright became instant hits on YouTube and talk-show fodder for the cable news channels, Barack Obama knew he had a preacher problem. On the eve of launching his campaign for the White House in February 2007, Obama abruptly withdrew an invitation to Wright to deliver the invocation at his announcement speech in Springfield, Ill. Wright had been Obama's pastor for nearly 20 years. He had brought Obama into the church, helped him find his faith in God, officiated at Obama's wedding and baptized both his children. But Wright had also said a lot of incendiary things from his pulpit about America over the years, things that would be awkward to explain away for a politician hoping to unite the country and become the first African-American President of the United States.

For a year, Obama didn't have to explain his relationship with Wright; he didn't even have to deliver a speech outlining his views on race relations. After all, one of the animating forces behind Obama's campaign was the notion that he, and we, had somehow transcended the old racial divisions in America, that he wasn't "the black candidate" for President but a presidential candidate whose race was only part of his much broader appeal. Then on March 13, video clips emerged of Wright in earlier sermons, shouting "God damn America!" and calling 9/11 a case of "America's chickens ... coming home to roost." It became a story that threatened to capsize Obama's front-running campaign with the speed of a Wall Street bankruptcy. Obama issued a statement denouncing Wright's comments but soon realized he had to do more. And so he ordered his staff to make arrangements for him to give the speech--the speech he'd been turning over in his mind for much of his adult life. "There wasn't a discussion," says spokesman Robert Gibbs. "He made a decision." Obama went home to Chicago that night, and after his wife and two daughters were asleep, he started composing.

The speech he delivered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia was an artfully reasoned treatise on race and rancor in America, the most memorable speech delivered by any candidate in this campaign and one that has earned Obama comparisons to Lincoln, Kennedy and King. But that doesn't mean it will succeed in its more prosaic mission of appealing to voters who have their doubts about Obama and his preacher. It left unanswered a crucial question: What attracted Obama to Wright in the first place?

The Preacher and the Pol

When Obama joined Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ in 1988, the Afrocentric church and its pastor held particular appeal to a 27-year-old son of an African father he barely knew and a white mother from Kansas. Obama was searching for an identity and a community, and he found both at Trinity. And he found a spiritual guide in Wright.

Much of white America is unfamiliar with the milieu of the black church. When clips from Wright's sermons began circulating, many whites heard divisive, angry, unpatriotic pronouncements on race, class and country. Many blacks, on the other hand, heard something more familiar: righteous anger about oppression and deliberate hyperbole in laying blame, which are common in sermons delivered in black churches every Sunday. The Rev. Terri Owens, dean of students at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says the black church tradition has its roots in the era of slavery, when African Americans held services under trees, far from their white masters. "Churches have always been the place where black people could speak freely," she says. "They were the only institutions they could own and run by themselves."

In his books, Obama says he might not have become a Christian--his mother was a skeptical secularist and his absent father an atheist--if not for the special character of the black church. "Out of necessity, the black church had to minister to the whole person. Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation," he writes in The Audacity of Hope. It also matched his intellectual curiosity. "Perhaps it was out of this ... grounding of faith in struggle that the historically black church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts."

That desire for a more challenging faith helps explain the appeal of Trinity, despite its potential for controversy. The church, which has ministered to poor South Side families and Oprah Winfrey alike, isn't fringe, but neither is it a likely home for someone plotting a political career in Chicago. "If you're black and you're trying to get ahead in politics, you're not going to join Trinity," says Dwight Hopkins, a Trinity member who is also a professor at U. of C.'s Divinity School. "Not because it's radical--it isn't radical in its context. But it would be safer to join a North Side ecumenical church--the sort of place where people are quiet. They stand up, sit down, listen and leave."

As Obama's political career blossomed, he could have quietly left Trinity for one of those more staid black churches, but he chose to stay. In his speech, he said he disagreed with Wright strongly, and yet he didn't leave the church (or even criticize his pastor until Wright's sermons became a campaign issue). He didn't explain why he stayed, but by trying to show black and white resentment as the backdrop for Wright's comments, Obama suggested that his response to controversy isn't to walk out of the room but to try to understand what's fueling the fire. He also drew a distinction between political advice and spiritual guidance, arguing that many Americans know what it's like to disagree with something their pastor or priest or rabbi says.

By asking voters to understand the context of Wright's anger, though, Obama is counting on voters to accept nuance in an arena that almost always rewards simplicity over complexity. Politicians tend to offer deliberately banal choices: Either we move forward or we fall backward, either we let the economy falter or we help it grow, either we succumb to our enemies or we defeat them--the choice is up to you, America! Obama's formulation was different. Explicitly asking Americans to grapple with racial divisions and then transcend them--that's a bolder, riskier request.

After he delivered his speech, Obama found his wife Michelle backstage. She was weeping. He shared a quiet, emotional moment with her. Then Obama was all business again. "What's next?" he asked, as if anyone knew the answer.