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Rev. Wright, in PBS Interview, Defends Sermons and Calls Coverage 'Unfair'


PBS's Bill Moyers sits down with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright for an interview airing April 25, 2008. (Christian Hettinger Photo )

By Shailagh Murray
Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, told PBS host Bill Moyers that inflammatory statements from his sermons were taken out of context, but he said he didn't begrudge the Democratic candidate for denouncing them.

"He's a politician, I'm a pastor. We speak to two different audiences. And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. But they're two different worlds," said Wright, who recently retired from Trinity United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago, where Obama has attended services for 20 years.

Wright's interview with Moyers, excerpted today, is scheduled for broadcast Friday night on PBS and represents his first high-profile appearance after the firestorm broke. He will speak at the National Press Club on Monday, seeking to put his remarks in context of African American religious traditions.

Referring to Obama's race speech in Philadelphia last month, delivered after Wright videos became an Internet and cable TV sensation, the former pastor told Moyers, "What happened in Philadelphia where he had to respond to the sound bytes, he responded as a politician."

Wright is a well-known preacher and theologian, but often combative at the pulpit. He has been a lightening rod for Obama since the start of the Illinois senator's campaign, but he has kept a low profile, even as the current controversy unfolded.

Wright delivered his most notorious sermon the Sunday after Sept. 11, 2001, when he suggested that the U.S. had brought on the attacks by committing its own acts of terrorism. "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," he said in the Sept. 16 service.

A 2003 sermon became another flashpoint. "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, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," Wright told the Trinity congregation. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

Obama strongly denounced these statements and others, and has repeatedly asserted that he only became aware of them recently. He characterizes Wright as an elderly African American man who is reflective of an earlier, more difficult era. But supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton now point to Wright as serious baggage for Obama as a general election candidate.

Wright defended his sermons, telling Moyers, "the persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly ... those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic."

He said his critics' motives are clear: to undermine Obama. "I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ. And by the way, guess who goes to his church, hint, hint, hint?"

But he added, "They know nothing about the church. They know nothing about our prison ministry. They know nothing about our food ministry. They know nothing about our senior citizens home. They know nothing about all we try to do as a church and have tried to do." Focusing only on the snippets, he said, "was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue. I felt for those who were doing that, were doing it for some very devious reasons."

Wright told Moyers that he didn't talk politics with Obama. "He goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician. I continue to be a pastor who speaks to the people of God about the things of God."

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 24, 2008; 7:26 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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