Barack Obama said Saturday he has resigned his 20-year membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago “with some sadness” in the aftermath of inflammatory remarks by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and more recent fiery remarks at the church by a visiting priest.
“This is not a decision I come to lightly … and it is one I make with some sadness,” Obama said at a news conference after campaign officials released a letter of resignation he sent to the church on Friday.
“I’m not denouncing the church and I’m not interested in people who want me to denounce the church,” he said, adding that the new pastor at Trinity and “the church have been suffering from the attention my campaign has focused on them.”
Obama said he and his wife have been discussing the issue since Wright’s appearance at the National Press Club in Washington last month, which reignited the furor over remarks Wright had made in various sermons at the church.
“I suspect we’ll find another church home for our family,” Obama said.
“It’s clear that now that I’m a candidate for president, every time something is said in the church by anyone associated with Trinity, including guest pastors, the remarks will imputed to me even if they totally conflict with my long-held views, statements and principles,” he said.
“I have no idea how it will impact my presidential campaign but I know it was the right thing to do for me and my family,” he said.
“This was a pretty personal decision and I was not trying to make political theater out of it,” he added.
For months, Obama has been hamstrung by the rhetoric of Wright, whose sermons blaming U.S. policies for the Sept. 11 attacks and calls of “God damn America” for its racism became fixtures on the Internet and cable news networks.
Initially, Obama said he disagreed with Wright but portrayed him as a family member he couldn’t disown. The preacher had officiated at Obama’s wedding, baptized his two daughters and been his spiritual mentor for some 20 years.
But six weeks after Obama’s well-received speech on race, Wright claimed at the Press Club appearance that 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 next day, Obama denounced Wright’s comments as “divisive and destructive.”
Remarks by Wright inflamed racial tensions and posed an unwanted problem for Obama, front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, as he sought to wrap up the party’s nod.
More recently, racially charged remarks from the same pulpit by another pastor, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, kept the controversy alive and proved the latest thorn in Obama’s side. As a guest speaker at Obama’s church, Pfleger mocked Obama rival Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Although Obama condemned comments by both Wright and Pfleger, the controversy persisted.
Obama made clear he wasn’t happy with Pfleger’s comments — in which the Catholic priest pretended he was Clinton crying over “a black man stealing my show” — and said he was “deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger’s divisive, backward-looking rhetoric, which doesn’t reflect the country I see or the desire of people across America to come together in common cause.”
Pfleger issued an apology, saying he was sorry if his comments offended Clinton or anyone else.
The timing of Obama’s decision broke late Saturday, while most of the political attention was focused on the Democratic National Committee’s struggle to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan.
Republican John McCain also has had his woes with religious leaders.
Earlier this month, McCain rejected endorsements from two influential but controversial televangelists, saying there is no place for their incendiary criticisms of other faiths.
McCain spurned the months-old endorsement of Texas preacher John Hagee after an audio recording surfaced in which the preacher said God sent Adolf Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land. McCain called the comment “crazy and unacceptable.”
He later repudiated the support of Rod Parsley, an Ohio preacher who has sharply criticized Islam and called the religion inherently violent.
“This was one I didn’t see coming,” Obama said Saturday when he asked if he had anticipated the firestorm that would erupt over his relationship with Wright.