Opinion: Why Oprah quit Jeremiah Wright’s church and Barack Obama didn’t


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Early in the 1980s rising television star Oprah Winfrey was looking for a local church in Chicago. Not surprisingly, she like many blacks including four years later a community organizer named Barack Obama, was attracted to Trinity United Church of Christ and its dynamic, outspoken pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

That South Side church was THE place for upwardly mobile Windy City blacks to connect and it had an aggressive community outreach program. And attendance continued Winfrey’s childhood connection with black churches and their shared sense of community and support.

As The Ticket noted Sunday morning, the same reasons caused other black clergy to steer the young Obama there, saying he’d have more luck connecting with black churches in his urban organizing efforts if he actually belonged to one himself. Obama’s friends later added that alighting at Trinity with its forceful male leader was also part of the mixed-race Obama’s exploration of his black identity in the absence of his father.


Things went along fine for several years, as Oprah’s fame and fortune exploded and as Obama laid the groundwork in local efforts and political connections for his political career.

But something began bothering Winfrey. By the....

...late 1980s, she was an infrequent attendee at Trinity’s services and by the early 1990s she had stopped going altogether.

According to a revealing article, headlined ‘Something Wasn’t Wright,’ in the new Newsweek by Allison Samuels, a major reason was Winfrey’s concern with Wright’s inflammatory sermons, her association with them through church membership and the potential impact on her widespread popularity.

Samuels’ quotes unnamed sources as saying that, Winfrey, now a multi-billionaire, knew her audience was mainstream and while Wright’s anger-filled rants may have been familiar to lifelong black churchgoers, they would be nothing close to mainstream in the minds of Winfrey’s millions of fans.

Ironically, while Winfrey protected herself against negative associations with Wright, her endorsement of and active campaigning for Obama last year has hurt her popularity, as noted in two recent Ticket items here and the other one here.

Questions have arisen over why Obama as an astute budding politician would have remained in the same church environment for 20 years and when Wright’s shocking sermon snippets initially emerged weeks ago deny having heard them.


He clearly was aware of the danger of association with Wright, having disinvited the pastor from giving the public invocation at Obama’s campaign announcement in Springfield in February of 2007 because, reportedly, Obama said Wright’s sermons could come across as a little ‘rough.’

Yet in his recent speech on race in Philadelphia, Obama said: ‘As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthens my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother.’

Yet five weeks later after Wright’s National Press Club speech and news conference performance, Obama had this to say: ‘I am outraged by the comments that were made, and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.

‘They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans, and they should be denounced. And that’s what I’m doing very clearly and unequivocally here today.’

Tim Russert on ‘Meet the Press’ Sunday asked Obama about defending Wright a full year after he indicated Wright’s words could be trouble for his campaign and what he’d learned in the five weeks between his Philadelphia remarks and last week’s denunciation of Wright? The same question has been raised by numerous Ticket commenters in recent weeks.

At one point Obama said he was like millions of Americans: ‘My commitment, as I said, Tim, is to the church, not to a pastor.’

Obama also replied:

‘Well, you know, previously, there were a bunch of sermons that had been spliced from a collection of sermons for 30 years. And that’s not who I thought he was. That’s not what I thought defined him. He’s somebody who’s a Marine, he’s somebody who has served
on city colleges boards, somebody who was a respected pillar in the community.

‘And so I thought it was important to--for him to explain or at least provide some context for some of the things that he had said previously. But when he came out at the press conference of the National Press Club, not only did he amplify some of those comments and defend them vigorously, but he added to it.

‘He put gasoline on the fire. And what that told me was not only was he interested in using this platform to continue to make statements that I fundamentally disagree with and that offend me, but also that he didn’t have much regard for the moment that we’re in right now here
in the United States where we can’t be distracted or engaged in this divisive, hateful language.

‘Instead, we’ve got to bring the country together to solve problems. And, so in that sense, what became apparent to me was he didn’t know me as well as I thought he did, and I certainly didn’t know him as well as I thought I did. And, and that, you know, was disappointing, but something that I had to clearly speak out about.’

The complete Obama transcript is available here. And the full hour video is available here. The parts concerning Wright are in the first 17 minutes.

Does Obama’s most recent explanation of his relationship with Wright assuage any concerns you may have had? The comments section below is open.

--Andrew Malcolm

Photo Credits: AP and Trinity United Church of Christ