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Obama-Wright rift reveals divided loyalties in black church

Associated Press Modified: May 1, 2008 at 6:56 pm •  Published: May 1, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama's break with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is putting black pastors and their congregations in a difficult position, their loyalties divided between a politician who could be the first black president and a celebrated preacher who many believe has been vilified.

The situation is complicated, ministers say, because there's a sense that both men have been treated unfairly - and that both have made mistakes.

Many black ministers defended Wright when his more incendiary remarks became an Internet sensation in March, saying context was needed to understand the black church's tradition of challenging injustice.

But Wright lost some of that support after his Monday appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, during which he claimed the U.S. government was capable of planting AIDS in the black community, praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and suggested that Obama was acting like a politician by putting his pastor at arm's length while privately agreeing with him.

The performance was enough for Obama to denounce Wright's comments as "divisive and destructive." That was just six weeks after he portrayed Wright, in a well-received speech on race, as a family member he couldn't disown.

"What I am disappointed in is Rev. Wright's continuing to be in the public eye," said Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, senior pastor of 6,500-member Greater Grace Temple in Detroit. "If he has a point to get across, make your point. We as ministers have to be very careful about our timing."

Another pastor in Detroit - where Wright received a standing ovation Sunday at a dinner for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - directed his anger at the Democratic senator.

The Rev. William Revely, pastor of 300-member Holy Hope Heritage Church, questioned Obama's truthfulness in claiming he had not heard some of Wright's contentious remarks from the pulpit.

"Anybody who has heard Jeremiah preach has heard that," said Revely, who has known Wright since the 1970s. "Jeremiah, he's a pastor, and as a pastor you have to see things as they are. Politicians see things as they want them to be."

The punches and counter-punches thrown by Obama and Wright are leaving black churchgoers angry at both, said the Rev. Bennie Whiten, a retired United Church of Christ minister.

People want to embrace Obama's candidacy but worry about recent stumbles and wonder whether he fully understands racial divides still exist, Whiten said. They admire Wright but question his timing and tone.

"I think we've got two very good men, two very strong men, who find themselves in an almost impossible situation from which neither can extricate himself," said Whiten, who lives in Chicago and has worshipped as a visitor at Trinity United Church of Christ.

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