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Wright Defends Sermons as Debate Over Race Continues

April 28, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama's longtime pastor, defended the fiery sermons that have become an issue on the campaign trail Monday and criticized what he called an "attack on the black church." A panel of columnists and analysts discuss Wright's impact on the presidential race.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and what they might do to the presidential hopes of his former parishioner Barack Obama. Reverend Wright spoke this morning at the National Press Club in Washington.

MODERATOR: Reverend Wright, the floor is now yours.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The National Press Club in Washington was packed this morning, with black church leaders and, of course, the news media.

In opening remarks, Reverend Wright said recent criticism of his sermons was directed at something larger than him personally.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT, Former Head of Trinity United Church of Christ: This most recent attack on the black church is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright; it is an attack on the black church.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wright’s appearance marked the start of a two-day symposium at the Press Club on the role of religion in public life. During his speech, Wright charged that the traditions of the black church in America have been misunderstood.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Black worship is different from European and European-American worship. It is not deficient; it is just different.

Black preaching is different from European and European-American preaching. It is not deficient; it is just different. It is not bombastic; it is not controversial; it’s different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Press Club format permitted audience questions, submitted in writing and read by the moderator. Many of the questions concerned video clips of Wright’s sermons that have drawn heavy news coverage.

MODERATOR: You have said that the media have taken you out of context. Can you explain what you meant in a sermon shortly after 9/11 when you said the United States had brought the terrorist attacks on itself, quote, “America’s chickens are coming home to roost”?

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Have you heard the whole sermon? Have you heard the whole sermon?

MODERATOR: I heard most of it.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: No, no, the whole sermon, yes or no? No, you haven’t heard the whole sermon? That nullifies that question. Well, let me try to respond in a non-bombastic way.

If you heard the whole sermon, first of all, you heard that I was quoting the ambassador from Iraq. That’s number one.

But, number two, to quote the Bible, “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. For whatsoever you sow, that you also shall reap.” Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles.

Responsibility to religion

MODERATOR: Some critics have said that your sermons are unpatriotic. How do you feel about America and about being an American?

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: I feel that those citizens who say that have never heard my sermons, nor do they know me. They are unfair accusations taken from sound bites and that which is looped over and over again on certain channels.

I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other questions focused on Barack Obama's attempts to separate himself from Wright's statements.

MODERATOR: Senator Obama has tried to explain away some of your most contentious comments and has distanced himself from you. It's clear that many people in his campaign consider you a detriment. In that context, why are you speaking out now?

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: On November the 5th and on January 21st, I'll still be a pastor. As I said, this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.

And why am I speaking out now? In our community, we have something called playing the dozens. If you think I'm going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, you've got another thing coming.

MODERATOR: What is your motivation for characterizing Senator Obama's response to you as, quote, "what a politician had to say"? What do you mean by that?

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever's doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they're pastors. They have a different person to whom they're accountable.

As I said, whether he gets elected or not, I'm still going to have to be answerable to God November 5th and January 21st. That's what I mean. I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama campaign officials have said they have no control over Wright's actions or statements, but acknowledge his media blitz is likely to have a negative effect.

Wright's role in the election

Hugh Price
Brookings Institution
Senator Obama is his own man. He's running for president on a very different platform, obviously. The key is for him to move on with his campaign and the reason why he's running and to not get caught up in what Reverend Wright has to say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Asked late today about Wright's speech, Senator Obama told reporters in Wilmington, North Carolina, quote, "I have said before and I will say again that some of the comments Reverend Wright has made offend me, and I understand why they have offended the American people. Certainly what the last three days indicates is we are not coordinating with him."

Now, for reaction to Reverend Wright's statements, and for that we're joined by Earl Hutchinson. He's a political analyst and syndicated columnist. He joins us from Los Angeles.

Hugh Price is the former head of the National Urban League. He's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He joins us from New York.

And with us here is E.J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist and author of "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right."

Welcome, all three of you gentlemen. Appreciate you being with us.

Earl Hutchinson, to you first. Why is Reverend Wright saying what he's saying over these last few days?

EARL HUTCHINSON, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think there's pressure on him to speak out. Reverend Wright said at the Press Club, you know, I have a right to speak out. This is something that I feel I need to do.

And I think, when you really look at so many African-Americans, over the last month since the controversy broke over Reverend Wright, there's a deep sense on the part of many that Reverend Wright is saying the things that need to be said and that he has a right to say them.

So I think the timing is everything, as we well know in politics, but nonetheless Reverend Wright made it clear over and over again, Barack Obama is a politician. He's running for an office. I'm a pastor. I don't have that obligation; I don't have that responsibility.

So I think when you really look at it, the big question, though, whether Wright speaks out now or whether he kept silent, the fact of the matter is, as Barack has said many times and said as recently as today, it is having a negative effect on the campaign and him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to get to that in just a minute. But just first to the words of Reverend Wright.

Hugh Price, do you agree he's saying what needs to be said?

HUGH PRICE, Brookings Institution: Well, I think it's certainly understandable that he would feel the need to defend his viewpoint, his church and the black church. And it's not surprising that it would happen.

So I think we have to push past that. Senator Obama is his own man. He's running for president on a very different platform, obviously. And I think that the key is for him to move on with his campaign and the reason why he's running and to not get caught up in what Reverend Wright has to say.

Obama's angle of response

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
The biggest problem for Obama is that he has wanted to transcend the old racial divide in the country. And the Reverend Wright controversy kind of pulls us back to the late '60s or early '70s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, still on what Reverend Wright is saying -- and we've been looking over this, E.J. Dionne here with me here in Washington -- not only what we just heard today, but then the speech last night, he talked about -- he mocked, in essence, the speaking style of President John Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson. What are we to make of all of this?

E.J. DIONNE, Columnist, Washington Post: I don't think the Reverend Wright is interested in making new friends this week. I think he is more interested in standing up to what he sees as unfair attacks.

And up to a point, he's got a point, that his statements in the context don't look quite as negative as they do. On the other hand, some of those statements I think can never really stand up for most people.

No matter how you cut it, a statement that seems to justify or at least explain 9/11 for a lot of Americans will diminish it, no matter what the context is. And I saw it in the context.

I think this puts Obama in a terrible position. He can't win on this, because he can't denounce an old friend. And it is true that there is a strong tradition of prophetic preaching, which is often angry preaching.

Martin Luther King in 1968 about the Vietnam War said, he said that God would say to America, "I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power." A lot of the people attacking Reverend Wright would attack him.

And yet Obama obviously cannot identify with these statements. I think the biggest problem for Obama is that he has wanted to transcend the old racial divide in the country. And the Reverend Wright controversy kind of pulls us back to the late '60s or early '70s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earl Hutchinson...

HUGH PRICE: But Obama has no control over that, so all he can do is press on with his campaign. He has unquestionably hit turbulence. He's hit some air pockets. He's got to take his plane back up where he wants it to be. And the country can cover Reverend Wright all it wants, but he's got to move on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying...

EARL HUTCHINSON: I don't think it's that easy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earl Hutchinson?

EARL HUTCHINSON: I don't think it's that easy.

HUGH PRICE: I don't think he has a choice, though.

EARL HUTCHINSON: I think, unfortunately for Barack Obama, he's joined at the hip with Reverend Wright, for better or for worse.

Yes, it's easy to say he must go on with the campaign. It's easy to say that he must move forward with the issues. And he should; there's no debate about that.

However, as long as the press puts a microphone in front of the Reverend Wright, as long as the Reverend Wright feels the need to speak out, and as long as there's that connection -- we certainly see it in North Carolina with the hit ads against Obama and we'll see it in other places, as long as that connection is there, unfortunately for Mr. Obama, the Wright issue is always going to be a red herring for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we heard Obama, a quote, a statement from Obama late today. And I'll turn back to you, Hugh Price. He said, "Some of his comments offend me. I know they offend many Americans. I understand that. And we're not coordinating with each other." Is there more he could say at this point?

HUGH PRICE: I don't think there's any more he can say or do. He does not have control over Reverend Wright's speaking schedule, much less what comes out of his mouth.

So I think he's got to move on and remind people of why he's running in the first place, remind people of the priority issues that they need to be worrying about, the economy, security, et cetera, and talk about why he will make a difference as president and why he should be elected.

He has no control over what Reverend Wright says, nor does he have much control over the extent of media coverage that he gets, not to mention how much coverage he gets on YouTube. Barack Obama has no control over that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J. Dionne, can Senator Obama just go back to talking about the issues as if this never happened?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think if...

HUGH PRICE: I didn't say as though it never happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I'm stretching it to make a point. Thank you.

E.J. DIONNE: I don't entirely disagree with you. I think he's right that Obama has got to get over this. But I think, if the media coverage continues and the Reverend Wright continues to seek this attention, Obama has got to blast through it somehow.

And one of the great tragedies for Obama here is he, like Mrs. Clinton, in fact, has sort of sung a new song about religion. He said some really powerful things in the past that really created a connection with religious people in the country. He's getting his support from a lot of young evangelicals.

And now the discussion of religion has been mired into a controversy over whether you agree with this or that passage from the Reverend Wright or, you know, knocking down stories that aren't true about your being a Muslim.

I think Obama has developed a sympathy for Job in recent days. I think that perhaps he does need another pass at this in order to get to the point that Hugh Price described.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earl Hutchinson, what are we learning about Barack Obama...

EARL HUTCHINSON: I take issue -- well, just one thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, go ahead. Make your comment.

EARL HUTCHINSON: OK, very quickly. I do take issue about the young evangelicals. You know, I've seen other surveys and polls.

Even though there are some trends away from the old hard-line positions, by and large, on election day, they're still in the GOP camp. But...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But go ahead.

E.J. DIONNE: But, well, I think that if you ask the question, will white evangelical Christians vote majority Republican this year? I agree.

EARL HUTCHINSON: They will.

E.J. DIONNE: If you're asking a different question, which is, are some segments of the evangelical community more open to voting the other way, I think that's also true.

Because of all the other issues the young evangelicals have a position for, notably the poor -- I mean, the one thing people agree with the Reverend Wright on is when he talks about Christianity as involving liberation and transformation are also the environment.

So I think there's an opening there, not that he's going to get a majority, but he's going to do better potentially than other Democratic candidates.

EARL HUTCHINSON: Well, that remains to be seen.

HUGH PRICE: To paraphrase those wonderful segments on National Public Radio, this I believe, I think Barack Obama ought to drive home this I believe about race, this I believe about religion, and this I believe about the agenda and, frankly, challenge the media to cover him with his agenda and his judgment.

Challenges ahead for Obama

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The Hutchinson Political Report
The bottom line is: Race still is a factor in America. It is still a very divisive element in America. And it certainly rammed itself in big terms into the campaign and I think every step of the way, as Barack knows and his advisers know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean -- and you're not saying make another speech like the one -- like he made a few weeks ago about race, something...

HUGH PRICE: No, maybe they ought to chop up that speech and run it as sound bites as ads. It was a remarkable speech about race in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earl Hutchinson...

EARL HUTCHINSON: I think he has been challenged. And I think he's been challenging the media to get over it, just as we've said over and over again, and really get back to the issues. In fact, all candidates have done that.

But we have to be realistic when you look at the media and how things are shaped and how spins are being made.

The fact is Reverend Wright was tailor-made for this, because what has happened is, instead of talking about the issues, you talk about personalities and you talk about everything but the issues. So along comes a Reverend Wright. It would have been something else.

So I'm not surprised that it's there. The challenge is for Barack Obama, challenge the media, challenge the voters, challenge everyone. Stay on point on the issues, but be mindful of one thing: He doesn't have any control over Reverend Wright, nor does he have any control over the media.

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J. Dionne, what are we learning right now about Barack Obama through this episode?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think we're learning about him and about the African-American church. If I could just say one thing about that.

Sherrilyn Ifill, Gwen Ifill's cousin, who's very active in the AME Church, talked to my students at Georgetown this week, and she made a point that race is always part of the dialogue in an African-American church because race is so central to the identity of African-Americans.

This is not true in white churches or synagogues. And I think that's something that all of us have to begin to understand so that I hope we do start thinking more about what this division means and why African-American preaching is what it is.

About Obama, I think we learn that he...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I guess, to back up, my question is, how does that relate to the immediate circumstances Barack Obama finds himself in? I mean, a week from tomorrow, he's facing the voters again.

E.J. DIONNE: Well, and that's the problem with a controversy like this. Creating that kind of understanding takes a year, not a week between now and the Indiana primary.

EARL HUTCHINSON: He doesn't have a week. He doesn't have a year.

E.J. DIONNE: I think that what we learn about Obama is that this was a serious part of his life, that Reverend Wright was very important to him. And no matter what the political cost is, he still isn't willing to throw him in entirely.

Reverend Wright made that a little easier the last three days, but I don't think he's going to do it. And that may cause some short-term pain.

EARL HUTCHINSON: He couldn't do it anyway.

E.J. DIONNE: But it says something about him nonetheless that some might find attractive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even if the reverend is doing him harm?

E.J. DIONNE: Exactly.

EARL HUTCHINSON: Which he is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hugh Price, what do you think we're learning about Barack Obama through all of this?

HUGH PRICE: Well, I think we're finding out whether or not he can transcend race, which was the point of his campaign in the first place, that it's possible for someone of his background to reach out and persuade the American people that issues of safety, and fighting terrorism, and dealing with economic woes transcend race.

Now, that is his calling card. If he can persuade the American people that it's worth voting for him for that reason, and he's got a heck of a sales job to do, then we will learn a lot about his agenda and his character.

If he cannot transcend that, then we will find that he is mired and he is sort of trapped in race. And we'll also learn a lot about ourselves as American people as to whether or not we'll let him go and campaign at that altitude, instead of keeping him mired in the questions of race.

E.J. DIONNE: Maybe this is a gift and it just doesn't look like it now, because if he can figure out how to meet this challenge, then he'll do exactly what you suggest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the clock is ticking.

Earl Hutchinson, how do you address that? What are you learning about him?

EARL HUTCHINSON: I think it's not so much what we're learning about him. Barack does what he has to do. All the candidates do what they have to do. They're politicians; they're running for an office.

I think, really, it's a mirror and a window on ourselves. The bottom line is: Race still is a factor in America. It is still a very divisive element in America. And it certainly rammed itself in big terms into the campaign and I think every step of the way, as Barack knows and his advisers know.

And they worried about this from day one. It is the x-factor. It will dog him. It will be there all the way until November 5th.

HUGH PRICE: And I think voters generally should understand, in a week when you get the acquittal of the officers in the Sean Bell killing in New York City, that these issues of race and the intersection with society, reverberate across the country. They're obviously reverberating in the church. We have to deal with those issues but also push beyond them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And because of the political calendar, we'll be seeing how they reverberate in Indiana and North Carolina over the next days.

E.J. DIONNE: Right. And I think that in Indiana will be a very interesting test. And I think he needs to spend a lot of time with white working-class voters who have eluded him up to now to talk about those transcendent things that Hugh Price talked about.

He's got to make a connection with them that's stronger than the one he's made to get over this Wright hump.

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J. Dionne...

HUGH PRICE: He's not electable if he can't make that connection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J. Dionne...

EARL HUTCHINSON: Unfortunately, it's already had a negative impact in Pennsylvania and Ohio. And I think it will have a negative impact in Indiana.

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J. Dionne, Hugh Price, Earl Hutchinson, gentlemen, we thank you all three.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

HUGH PRICE: Thank you.

EARL HUTCHINSON: Thank you.