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In a speech widely touted as one of the most important of his presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday denounced incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright but refused to disown his pastor of 20 years.

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Obama said at a 35-minute speech in Philadelphia. “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother–a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

“These people are a part of me,” Obama said. “And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

Obama’s speech came in response to video clips culled from past sermons of the 36-year senior pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ replayed on various media outlets in recent days. Controversial comments by Wright included that God should “damn” America for its treatment of blacks and that the United States brought on the 9/11 terrorist attacks with its own foreign policy.

For the first time, Obama acknowledged he had heard controversial comments by Wright sitting in pews at Trinity UCC, but his friend and spiritual mentor’s recently quoted remarks went beyond mere controversy, calling them “not only wrong but divisive.”

Obama said Wright’s mistake was that he “he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country–a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old–is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

Obama said the fact that so many people were surprised hear anger in Wright’s sermons “simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.”

He said similar anger exists in segments of the white community who perceive unfairness when their children are bused to faraway schools, they are passed over for job or educational opportunities available to people of color and are told they are prejudiced if they worry about crime in urban neighborhoods.

“Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition,” Obama said. “Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.”

Obama said America is stuck in a “racial stalemate” and faces a choice.

“We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism,” he said. “We can tackle race only as spectacle–as we did in the O.J. trial–or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina–or as fodder for the nightly news,” he said. “We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.”

“We can do that, but if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction,” he said. “And then another one, and then another one, and nothing will change.”

Another option, Obama said, is: “We can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.”

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said Obama could have gone further in distancing himself from Wright’s comments.

“Sen. Barack Obama failed today to explain why he remained silent about Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary and profane pulpit comments–comments that he now says he did hear in church,” Parham said.

“While Obama rightly distanced himself from Wright’s extreme statements and static social analysis, he wrongfully defended Wright with excuses about Wright’s generational vantage point and his own familial relationship with Wright,” Parham said. “Obama wrongly justified his acceptance of Wright by saying that many other people of faith accept mean-spirited sermons, a claim that diminishes the many good clergy who show restraint. Obama wrongfully justified Wright’s offensive remarks based on private racial comments by his own white grandmother, a morally incomparable observation. Obama mistakenly justified black anger because of white anger, an argument that will not move us toward the more perfect union for which Obama so eloquently advocates and that so many of us want. Obama’s moral calculus never gets beyond excuse-making, the equation that justifies wrongful words by other examples of wrongful words. He missed completely the ethic of Jesus in his speech and an opportunity to move away from divisive preaching.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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