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Rev. Wright more than sound bite, Obama's ex-pastor

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Obama sharply criticizes his former pastor, says he's "outraged"
  • Reverend performed Sen. Barack Obama's marriage, baptized his children
  • Jeremiah Wright's motto is "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian"
  • Wright predicted in 2007 that Obama would have to distance himself from his pastor
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By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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(CNN) -- Jeremiah Wright has been a lot of things -- husband, father, author, composer, outspoken minister and spiritual confidant to Sen. Barack Obama.

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The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is known for injecting politics into his fiery sermons.

However, the retired pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ has recently become better known by two titles you won't find on his lengthy resume: hero and pariah.

To those who applaud the reverend's credo of being "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian," he is a man with the courage to say things typically only whispered in close company.

To those incensed by his call to "God damn America" because of its treatment of blacks, or his assertion that the United States brought the 9/11 terrorist attacks on itself, he is a racist, anti-American firebrand and a millstone around Obama's neck.

Wright, who performed Obama's marriage and baptized both of his children, appears unremorseful about the fiery sermons that made their way on to YouTube and led to his ouster from an advisory committee the Obama campaign. Video Watch Wright talk about preaching in black churches »

But Wright, long critical of the establishment Obama must embrace in his Oval Office bid, knew it was coming. He predicted as much in a New York Times interview more than a year ago.

"If Barack gets past the primary, he might have to publicly distance himself from me," Wright told the newspaper with a shrug in April 2007. "I said it to Barack personally, and he said, 'Yeah, that might have to happen.' "

Obama has said that if Wright hadn't announced his retirement, he "wouldn't have felt comfortable" remaining a member of Trinity, where the senator has worshipped for two decades.

Wright's retirement becomes effective June 1. Until then, he is on sabbatical, a church spokeswoman said, and is no longer involved in the day-to-day ministries of the church.

Until Tuesday, Obama had been careful not to disown the preacher, even if he flatly disavowed some of his messages.

"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me," Obama said last month. "He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."

Obama, who has been close to Wright since law school, has likened him to an "old uncle" who sometimes says disagreeable things. He titled his book, "The Audacity of Hope," after one of Wright's sermons.

On Tuesday, Obama said he was "outraged" by comments Wright made a day earlier at the National Press Club and "saddened by the spectacle."

"I have been a member of Trinity Church since 1992. I have known Rev. Wright for almost 20 years," he said at a news conference in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "The person I saw yesterday is not the person I met 20 years ago."

He added, "What particularly angered me was his suggestion, somehow, that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing."

Wright, he said, had shown "little regard for me" and seemed more concerned with "taking center stage."

But despite the recent flap, Wright -- a husband and father of five -- has not always been such a controversial character.

Wright was born on September 22, 1941, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and took an interest in religion at an early age. According to a Howard University biography, his parents, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Sr. and Dr. Mary Wright, challenged him to balance "the intellectual with the spiritual."

After finishing his elementary and high school years in Philadelphia, Wright attended Virginia Union College, a historically black school in Richmond. He studied there for more than three years before joining the U.S. Marine Corps, the Trinity church Web site says.

He later went to the U.S. Navy, where he was a cardiopulmonary technician, according to his church biography. Afterward, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the historically black Howard University in Washington, according to the Trinity Web site. He received a second master's degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School.

At the United Theological College, where Wright earned his doctorate of divinity, he studied under the Rev. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wright also has written four books and composed songs for the Trinity Choral Ensemble, including "Jesus is His Name" and "God Will Answer Prayer."

In 1972, he became pastor at Trinity, which had only 87 adult members at the time. It now boasts about 8,000, and Wright is credited with creating 70 ministries, including prison, domestic violence, information technology and Africa ministries. The latter offers grants for those wanting to travel to the continent.

The edgy topics of Wright's sermons have included the income gap between whites and African-Americans and the inaccuracy of African-American history taught in public schools. Video Watch Wright's comments on terrorism and 9/11 »

Named one of the country's top black preachers by Ebony magazine in 1993, he also regularly injects his views on the Bush administration into his discourse from the pulpit.

The Obama controversy has not made Wright more timid about his convictions. If anything, it has emboldened him.

In remarks to the National Press Club on Monday, Wright maintained that the United States had committed terrorism in other countries.

"Jesus said, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic principles," he said.

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Asked about Obama separating himself from Wright, the pastor made clear the senator distanced himself from the remarks and not the pastor.

"He had to distance himself, because he's a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was un-American," Wright said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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