Barack Obama has put his religion back into the headlines, trumpeting the power and salvation of faith and asking a church audience in South Carolina to help him become “an instrument of God” and join him in creating “a Kingdom right here on Earth."
But the Democratic contender's talk on Sunday of breaking down religious and political differences has some critics questioning the Illinois senator's own beliefs — and those of the man identified as his spiritual adviser — and whether his messages of spiritual inclusion and tolerance have remained consistent.
Obama has written and spoken about being inspired by the preaching of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., and his calls to “spur social change.” The title of Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” which essentially launched his presidential bid, was taken from a sermon by Wright.
Baptized in Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, Obama has been an active member for two decades, regularly attending services with his family under Wright's spiritual mentorship.
Some of Wright’s sermons, which often address themes of white supremacy and black repression, have come under scrutiny by those who interpret them as racially divisive. Such preaching, they believe, polarizes Americans rather than unites them.
“Wright’s preaching does promote a sort of racial exclusivity,” said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
“Statements that suggest you cannot truly understand God unless you are black or poor are exclusive.”
Remarks attributed to Wright that were posted on audio files on the Internet and cited in press accounts earlier this year may have prompted the criticism.
“Fact number one: We’ve got more black men in prison than there are in college.
"Fact number two: Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run.
"We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional killers. ... We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. ... We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. ... We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means.
"And ... And ... And! God! Has got! To be sick! Of this s***!"
Wright had been scheduled to speak at Obama’s Feb. 10 presidential announcement. But after news of the remarks were published, the senator apparently changed his mind the night before and chose the Rev. Otis Moss III, Wright’s successor at Trinity United Church of Christ. Moss declined the invitation.
A request for an interview with Wright was not granted. All requests for an interview were referred to the Obama campaign.
An Obama spokesman referred to Wright as “media shy," although Wright has routinely posted live webcasts of his sermons on Trinity United's Web site.
Obama met Wright after college while working with local churches in Chicago to tackle problems of drug abuse and unemployment in inner-city neighborhoods. Wright preached an Afrocentric theology that interpreted the Bible through shared suffering of African Americans.
For Obama, this experience was a spiritual turning point. He had been exposed to various faiths during his life but never formally adopted one until after meeting Wright.
“Inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones,” he wrote in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance."
“Those stories — of survival, and freedom, and hope — became our story, my story.”
Wright’s defenders say his theology has been misunderstood and taken out of context. They say Wright seeks only to give blacks a sense of dignity and identity, and that his philosphy and sermons are not racist.
“The idea that this preaching is divisive is absolutely ridiculous,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church in Chicago, who has known Obama for more than 20 years.
“The job of pastor is to shepherd his or her congregation, and that requires speaking to your congregants in the language and context they understand.”
For his part, Obama has said he does not agree with Wright on every issue, religious or political. But that doesn’t sit well with some.
“If Barack Obama has really submitted himself to his church like he’s claimed, why does he have a different expression of faith from his own pastor?” asks Anthony Bradley, theologian and research fellow at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Meanwhile, in a statement on his church’s Web site, Wright defends the principles of his theology:
“To have a church whose theological perspective starts from the vantage point of Black liberation theology being its center, is not to say that African or African American people are superior to any one else. …There is more than one center from which to view the world. In the words of Dr. Janice Hale, ‘Difference does not mean deficience’ [sic]. It is from this vantage point that Black liberation theology speaks.”