For those who, for partisan or non-partisan reasons, have been most critical of Barack Obama’s religious affiliation, the refrain has been, “Why did he stay in that church so long?” The implication being that he either believes the worst that Jeremiah Wright had to offer, or is too morally obtuse not to have been offended enough to leave. So the fact that he’s left now will cut no ice with them. There will also be those who give Obama bad marks for doing a purely political thing, ridding himself of an association that at any moment (e.g. Fr. Pfleger) could cause him trouble.
So far as I know, never has a presidential candidate’s particular house of worship–as opposed to his religion–received the kind of attention that Trinity UCC has. Obama himself invited the scrutiny, by writing about the importance of the church in his life, by giving his second book a title taken from his pastor. As much as for any candidate in history, personal biography has been central to Obama’s electoral pitch, and that biography put the religion he found at Trinity front and center.
That said, no one who has not been through a presidential campaign can have any idea what the full blast of media attention is like. At the outset, Obama knew enough to put a little distance between himself and Jeremiah Wright, by keeping him away from the announcement of his candidacy. And perhaps, in a pre-Internet, pre-YouTube age, that would have been enough. Reports of Wright’s more radical views would have bubbled up from time to time, but would hardly have been able to dominate the primary campaign for weeks.
Obama’s press conference account of his separation from Trinity is, on its face, an acknowledgment of the realities–a recognition that as long as he remained a member of the church, nothing that happened there would pass without his being linked to it. The remarks are notable for Obama’s readiness to talk about what he’ll be looking for in a new church: socially engaged, African-American worship style, accepting of gays and lesbians–like Trinity, in short, but led by a different kind of pastor:
I would expect that I would have a pastor who would not shy away from speaking out on those issues when he or she saw fit. Now, but I also think that it’s got to be – you know, it’s a very personal decision for Michelle and I to find somebody who reflects a wisdom that ultimately is about reconciliation and unifying people and expressing a spirit of mercy along with a spirit of justice, a spirit of understanding along with a sense of righteous indignation about injustice. You know, hopefully we will find something that approximates that.
Whatever role his close and sustained encounter with the likes of Jeremiah Wright has played in his life, he’s putting it behind him.