WASHINGTON (JTA) – One of President Bush’s former White House spokesmen told a gathering of young Jewish activists here that he was deeply troubled by Barack Obama’s relationship with his pastor.
Several national media outlets have aired video clips of inflammatory remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the recently retired pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ, an Afrocentric church on Chicago’s South Side, where Obama has been a member since the early 1990s.
Obama, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, has denounced Wright’s harsh condemnations of American policy, which include an assertion that the United States brought the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks upon itself.
The U.S. senator from Illinois said he only learned of those comments from news reports during the presidential campaign.
But on Sunday, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said the pastor’s comments were still a cause for concern.
“The statements that your clergy make when you join give a little bit of an indication of your own sense of right and wrong, and you cannot just divorce from that,” Fleischer said during a plenary session of the United Jewish Communities’ Washington 15, a gathering of more than 1,000 donors younger than 45 who are active in the Jewish federation system.
“If my rabbi had made those statements, I would have left the synagogue immediately,” said Fleischer, an active board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “It really troubles me that Barack Obama only waited until now to speak out about this issue.
“He was like a typical politician: It became a controversy, so he distanced himself. This is a very worrisome sign to me.”
In response to such comments about Obama, liberal pundits have noted that the presumptive Republican nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has embraced the support of several Christian conservative clergymen, including John Hagee, who also have made offensive statements.
After several days of mounting criticism, McCain said that if Hagee indeed had ever made anti-Catholic remarks, then he condemned them.
The controversy over Wright primarily revolves around harsh criticisms he has made about U.S. foreign policy, as well as his claims that Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) fits the mold of “rich, white people” who control America.
In a sermon shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Wright said, “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards.”
And in a 2003 sermon, according to The New York Times, Wright said, “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people.”
He later said, “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”
Wright’s church last year honored Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan with a lifetime achievement award – a move Obama repeatedly has criticized.
Obama, a Trinity United member since the early 1990s, has credited Wright for bringing him toward Christianity. The pastor married Obama and his wife, and baptized their two children.
During a meeting last month with Cleveland Jewish leaders prior to the Ohio primary, Obama compared Wright to an uncle you love, but becaue of generational differences says things with which you strongly disagree. The candidate expressed a reluctance to criticize Wright at a time when he is retiring.
In recent days, however, as the media focus on the story intensified, Obama went further in speaking out against Wright’s remarks.
“Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy,” Obama said in a statement released to the liberal HuffingtonPost blog. “I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it’s on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue.”
Fleischer made his comments about Obama during a debate with Mark Mellman, a political pollster who is a consultant to the Democratic Congressional Leadership.
Mellman said the Wright controversy has been the toughest challenge for Obama, but the presidential nominee has responded appropriately.
“It’s not like Barack Obama would know every statement his pastor would have ever made,” Mellman said. “It is not a reasonable expectation. But once he became aware of the comment, he made it clear that he did not agree. I think that is the kind of response we want our candidates to have.”
Mellman said Fleischer was trying to indict Obama based on “guilt by association,” which he called a “scurrilous tactic.”
Fleischer countered that Obama put Wright on his religious advisory committee two months after his announcement, “knowing what he had said about 9/11, and only removed him last week when the controversy broke anew.”
“He says he doesn’t agree with what Rev. Jeremiah Wright said,” Fleischer added, “but he does not break with the man. He still has a fondness for the man. How can you have a fondness for a man who says G-D America?”
In his statement about Wright, Obama recounted what had attracted him to the pastor.
“I knew Rev. Wright as someone who served this nation with honor as a United States Marine, as a respected biblical scholar, and as someone who taught or lectured at seminaries across the country, from Union Theological Seminary to the University of Chicago,” Obama said.
Obama also praised Wright’s efforts at fighting AIDS, homelessness and other social ills plaguing the South Side, saying that he “preached the gospel of Jesus, a gospel on which I base my life.”
“In other words, he has never been my political adviser; he’s been my pastor,” Obama said. “And the sermons I heard him preach always related to our obligation to love God and one another, to work on behalf of the poor, and to seek justice at every turn.”
Obama said that when he learned of the remarks at the start of the campaign, he decided against leaving the church because Wright was on the verge of retirement.
“And while Wright’s statements have pained and angered me,” Obama concluded, “I believe that Americans will judge me not on the basis of what someone else said but on the basis of who I am and what I believe in; on my values, judgment and experience to be president of the United States.”