Barack Obama, today:
I know that one thing that [Wright] said was true, was that he wasn’t — you know, he was never my, quote-unquote, “spiritual adviser.”
He was never my “spiritual mentor.” He was — he was my pastor. And so to some extent, how, you know, the — the press characterized in the past that relationship, I think, wasn’t accurate.
If the press mischaracterized that relationship, such as in this Chicago Sun-Times profile of Obama from April 5, 2004, it is mysterious as to how the press got that idea, considering how the article’s portrait of Obama’s faith, and its description of his relationship with Wright, appear to be based on an interview with Obama.
Still, Obama is unapologetic in saying he has a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” As a sign of that relationship, he says, he walked down the aisle of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ in response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s altar call one Sunday morning about 16 years ago.
The politician could have ended his spiritual tale right there, at the point some people might assume his life changed, when he got “saved,” transformed, washed in the blood. But Obama wants to clarify what truly happened.
“It wasn’t an epiphany,” he says of that public profession of faith. “It was much more of a gradual process for me. I know there are some people who fall out. Which is wonderful. God bless them…. I think it was just a moment to certify or publicly affirm a growing faith in me.”
These days, he says, he attends the 11 a.m. Sunday service at Trinity in the Brainerd neighborhood every week — or at least as many weeks as he is able. His pastor, Wright, has become a close confidant.
… Friends and advisers, such as the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church in the Auburn- Gresham community on the South Side, who has known Obama for the better part of 20 years, help him keep that compass set, he says.
“I always have felt in him this consciousness that, at the end of the day, with all of us, you’ve got to face God,” Pfleger says of Obama. “Faith is key to his life, no question about it. It is central to who he is, and not just in his work in the political field, but as a man, as a black man, as a husband, as a father…. I don’t think he could easily divorce his faith from who he is.”
Another person Obama says he seeks out for spiritual counsel is state Sen. James Meeks, who is also the pastor of Chicago’s Salem Baptist Church. The day after Obama won the primary in March, he stopped by Salem for Wednesday-night Bible study.
If the relationship between Wright and Obama has been mischaracterized, it is interesting that this is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time Obama has complained about the way it has been described in the press.
Another reference: Jodi Kantor, in the New York Times, March 6, 2007: “The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., senior pastor of the popular Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and spiritual mentor to Senator Barack Obama, thought he knew what he would be doing on Feb. 10, the day of Senator Obama’s presidential announcement.”
UPDATE: The Rolling Stone profile that persuaded Obama to disinvite Wright from that announcement:
This is as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, as much Malcolm X as Martin Luther King Jr. Wright is not an incidental figure in Obama’s life, or his politics. The senator “affirmed” his Christian faith in this church; he uses Wright as a “sounding board” to “make sure I’m not losing myself in the hype and hoopla.” Both the title of Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, and the theme for his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 come from Wright’s sermons. “If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from,” says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a leader of the religious left, “just look at Jeremiah Wright.”
Obama wasn’t born into Wright’s world. His parents were atheists, an African bureaucrat and a white grad student, Jerry Falwell’s nightmare vision of secular liberals come to life. Obama could have picked any church — the spare, spiritual places in Hyde Park, the awesome pomp and procession of the cathedrals downtown. He could have picked a mosque, for that matter, or even a synagogue. Obama chose Trinity United. He picked Jeremiah Wright. Obama writes in his autobiography that on the day he chose this church, he felt the spirit of black memory and history moving through Wright, and “felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.”
Obama has now spent two years in the Senate and written two books about himself, both remarkably frank: There is a desire to own his story, to be both his own Boswell and his own investigative reporter. When you read his autobiography, the surprising thing — for such a measured politician — is the depth of radical feeling that seeps through, the amount of Jeremiah Wright that’s packed in there.