What Did Obama Know about Wright and When Did He Know It?

Many observers saw Hillary Clinton's 9-point defeat of Barack Obama in Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania as evidence that the Illinois Senator has, among other things, not satisfactorily answered questions that have been raised about his 20-year relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright and his Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC).

The latest evidence that Obama and his campaign still consider the candidate's 20-year pastor and "sounding board" a problem with voters is Wright's appearance this coming Monday at the National Press Club. Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times described this event as a "press offensive." Another part of that offensive is a previously announced Wright interview with PBS's Bill Moyers that will be broadcast on Friday evening.

Wright has been the pastor at TUCC on Chicago's South Side since 1972. The pastor and his church became a nationally visible campaign issue on March 13, when ABC News aired "Obama's Pastor: God Damn America, U.S. to Blame for 9/11."

Here is the essence of what ABC reported:

Rev. Wright married Obama and his wife Michelle, baptized their two daughters and is credited by Obama for the title of his book, "The Audacity of Hope."

An ABC News review of dozens of Rev. Wright's sermons, offered for sale by the church, found repeated denunciations of the U.S. based on what he described as his reading of the Gospels and the treatment of black Americans.

"The government gives them (African-Americans) 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," he said in a 2003 sermon. "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."

"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," Rev. Wright said in a sermon on Sept. 16, 2001.

"We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost," he told his congregation.

Some other sermon content (here and here) includes Wright calling the United States "The US KKK of A," and claiming that the AIDS virus was developed by the government "as a means of genocide against people of color."

Wright's Current TUCC Status Vague

Descriptions of Wright's current status at TUCC have varied.

In that March 13 ABC story, Brian Ross and Rehab El-Buri reported that Wright "announced his retirement last month." But over a year earlier, a January 21, 2007 story in the Chicago Tribune indicated that Wright had just announced "plans to retire in May 2008."

On March 14, Obama, in an entry at the Huffington Post ("On My Faith and My Church"), wrote that Wright "recently preached his last sermon and is in the process of retiring." That same day, he told Major Garrett of Fox News that Wright was "on the brink of retirement," had "preached his last sermon," and had "taken a sabbatical."

But on March 18, in his "More Perfect Union" speech, Obama described Wright as "my former pastor." On March 21, in an e-mail reported as received by JTA Jewish and Israeli News, Obama said that Wright "retired this year."

According to the press release announcing Wright's Monday National Press Club speech, Wright "will retire from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in June."

As of last Wednesday evening, TUCC's web site gave no indication as to whether or when the Rev. Wright will retire at its "Pastor" or "Pastoral Staff" links.

Of course, inconsistencies in the details surrounding the minister's retirement are not the most important Wright-related matters weighing on the Obama campaign, whose candidate has now lost three big-state primaries in a row (Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania).

The campaign's biggest concerns are over the controversial content of the pastor's sermons, similar and additional content in TUCC's weekly church bulletins, and the degree to which Obama knew about, or should have known about, what he now says he "vehemently condemn(s)."

The concerns remain relevant because Obama has stated that he and his family will continue to attend TUCC. This is the case, even though the church's new pastor, Otis Moss III, has given no public indication that he intends to vary significantly from the Black Liberation Theology (described here by Margaret Tavel of McClatchy Newspapers) that forms much of the foundation of TUCC's belief system, including its "Black Values System." That theology appears to have been an important influence that informed Wright's more controversial statements.

The Sermons

The ABC story reports that in early March, Obama stated that "I don't think my church is actually particularly controversial," and that Rev. Wright is "like an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with."

After the ABC story broke, Obama insisted that he was not aware of the content of any of the problematic sermons, stating in his Huffington Post entry that:

The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation.

He further told Fox's Garrett that if he had heard Wright's controversial statements in person, "I would have quit."

It appears that no one has been able to determine or to find someone who will disclose whether or not Obama was present or absent on the Sundays when Wright made his most controversial remarks. Though he answered "Yes" to Garrett in response to a question about whether he donated frequently when he attended, no one has come forward to show that Obama did or did not make donations on any of the controversial Sundays in question.

As to Obama's knowledge of Wright's most contentious beliefs, it is not known whether the Illinois senator has ever purchased, or has been given, any of the Wright sermon videotapes that TUCC offered for sale. These videos are where ABC and later others found the controversial content from Wright's sermons.

Finally, there is the question of whether Obama might have become aware of any of Wright's controversial statements or beliefs by any other available means. An April 30, 2007 article in the New York Times ("A Candidate, His Minister and the Search for Faith") noted that:

When Mr. Obama arrived at Harvard Law School later that year (1988), where he fortified himself with recordings of Mr. Wright's sermons, he was delivering stirring speeches as a student leader in the classic oratorical style of the black church.

It appears that no one has asked the candidate or otherwise looked into whether those sermon recordings contained any of the content leading to the current controversy.

The Bulletins

It may be that the weekly church bulletins TUCC distributes to attendees before services begin will prove more difficult for Obama to convincingly disavow.

I have obtained roughly 100 church bulletins, in PDF format, that were, and perhaps still are, available at TUCC's web site. These bulletins represent roughly 60% of those that I expect were published between December 2004 and March 2008.

While bulletins at many churches are 2-4 page publications that provide only basic information about service schedules, group activities, prayer intentions, and the like, TUCC's bulletins are typically 30-plus page productions.

Almost every week at TUCC, at least two of those pages are devoted to "Pastor's Pages," where Wright and his pastoral assistants hold forth on various topics. What has been revealed thus far about the content of these "Pastor's Pages" has been seen by many of those familiar with it as being at least as controversial as what is in the more widely-known sermons.

Among the most controversial bulletin items disclosed thus far are these:

  • Two pages in the July 22, 2007 bulletin (pictured here) were given over to reprinting an op-ed column that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times by Hamas political director Mousa Abu Marzook. The US government considers Marzook a terrorist. (Reported at BizzyBlog on March 17)

  • In an introduction to an article on "Progressive Muslims" by an Omid Safi, Wright wrote this:

    wrightonprogrmuslims070807.jpg

    Wright's quotation marks around "War on Terror" and the "state of Israel" have given rise to objections that Wright doesn't take the war on terror seriously, and that he does not support Israel's right to exist. (Reported at BizzyBlog on March 17)

  • TUCC's June 10, 2007 bulletin gave space to Ali Baghdadi, a self-described "Arab-American activist, writer, (and) columnist." Baghdadi made the following claim (his full article is at graphics here and here) (Reported by Sweetness & Light on March 24)
  • tuccbulletin061007ethnicbomb.jpg

  • On April 12, Wright delivered a eulogy at TUCC for a local judge. The eulogy included an assertion, found in an audio file at the Chicago Sun-Times and reported by Fox News, that Thomas Jefferson "had babies by a 15 year-old slave girl. (I) think the judges call that pedophilia." Wright also made that claim in the November 6, 2005 TUCC bulletin (relevant pages pictured here). In that same bulletin, he also called Jefferson a rapist, and claimed that George Washington fathered a slave's child. (Reported at BizzyBlog on April 15)

Thus far, Barack Obama and his campaign have only specifically condemned the inclusion of the Palestinian terrorist's op-ed. I am not aware of any condemnation of the other three items noted above.

It would appear that if Obama wishes to put the Wright controversy behind him, he needs to convince the voting public that, as he claims is the case with Wright's sermons, he was not aware of any church bulletin content that would, if he had known about it, have caused him to leave TUCC.

A March 19, 2007 article in the New Republic by Ryan Lizza would seem to cast doubt on such a claim.

I called TUCC late last week, and asked to speak to a person involved with the weekly bulletin. That person I spoke to after being transferred confirmed that the bulletins are indeed given to each attendee before services begin. (In the process, I also learned that TUCC has stopped posting new bulletins to its web site indefinitely.)

Each bulletin I have seen contains a half- to full-page section called "Sermon Notes" - that is nothing but blank lines. These "Sermon Notes" are usually just before or just after the "Pastor's Pages" discussed earlier.

Lizza's New Republic piece shows that, at least on one Sunday, Barack Obama was taking notes during a Wright sermon:

On this particular Sunday, the sea of black worshippers is dotted with a few white folks up in the balcony, clutching copies of The Audacity of Hope they've brought for Obama's book-signing later. Obama, sitting in the third row with his wife and two daughters, Malia and Natasha, stands, claps, prays, and sways along with the rest of the congregation. During the sermon, he watches the preacher carefully and writes notes.

But where was Obama recording his notes? If it was in that week's bulletin, it would confirm that, at least this one time, he was one turn of the page away from the "Pastor's Pages." However, where Obama actually took his notes is not known. Two voicemail messages left for Lizza, who now works for The New Yorker, went unreturned.

* * * * *

It appears, based on the facts known, that the Obama campaign still lacks what it needs to get past the Jeremiah Wright controversy behind it. As other possible bulletin revelations loom, Tuesday's results in Pennsylvania indicate that a continued failure to do so may seriously harm the Illinois Senator's candidacy.

Tom Blumer owns a training and development company based in Mason, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati. He presents personal finance-related workshops and speeches at companies, and runs BizzyBlog.com.