WASHINGTON -- In a painful episode of his quest for the White House, likely Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama said Saturday his family withdrew their membership at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.
The damage control came as his church -- and controversial sermons from the Trinity pulpit -- were increasingly becoming a target that threatened Obama's presidential bid.
"This is not a decision I came to lightly, and frankly it's one that I make with some sadness," Obama said.
Obama cut the cord to the church where he found Jesus Christ, where he was married, where his daughters were baptized--and whose pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, gave him the title of his best-seller, The Audacity of Hope -- following months of controversy, first over Wright's inflammatory rhetoric. The triggering event was the Rev. Michael Pfleger's sermon last Sunday where he ridiculed Sen. Hillary Clinton from the Trinity pulpit.
Obama and wife Michelle sent a letter Friday to Wright's successor, the Rev. Otis Moss III: "Our relations with Trinity have been strained by the divisive statements of Reverend Wright, which sharply conflict with our own views."
" ... These controversies have served as an unfortunate distraction for other Trinity members who seek to worship in peace, and have placed you in an untenable position as you establish your own ministry under very difficult circumstances."
After a day of campaigning in South Dakota, Obama called a last-minute press conference in Aberdeen after Chicago journalist Monroe Anderson, a contributor to ebonyjet.com, broke the news on his Web site that the Obamas were leaving Trinity.
A source in the Obama campaign said Obama had been having conversations with Moss for weeks over his concerns that the scrutiny the church was experiencing because of his candidacy was causing problems -- and that Trinity should not provide a platform for inflammatory rhetoric, which is exactly what happened last Sunday.
Obama joined Trinity after moving to Chicago about 20 years ago to work as a community organizer and took up the suggestion that if he was working with South Side churches, he ought to join one. That began a close relationship with Wright that ended April 29 after Obama denounced him following a Wright press conference at the National Press Club that Obama called "appalling" and a show of "disrespect" to him.
Wright surfaced as a major problem for Obama after videotapes of his sermons surfaced. one in which Wright said "God damn America." However, Obama knew Wright was a potential liability from the first day of his campaign in February 2007, when he dropped him from his campaign kickoff program in Springfield, Ill.
When Wright first became a campaign issue, Obama in March gave him "the benefit of the doubt" in delivering a major speech about race relations in Philadelphia. Obama hoped then he put the problem behind him, but he didn't.
Obama took care to praise Trinity's work to "help the hungry and homeless and people in need of medical care" and said he had "tremendous regard" for Moss.
"But it's clear that now that I am a candidate for president, every time something is said in the church by any one associated with Trinity, including guest pastors, the remarks will be imputed to me even if they totally conflict with my long held views, statements and principles," Obama said.
He then turned to Pfleger, the crusading pastor at St. Sabina's who stunned the Obama team after a videotape of Pfleger mocking Clinton last Sunday from the Trinity pulpit -- "I'm white! I'm entitled! There's a black man stealing my show!'' was being played nonstop on cable news networks, with Moss praising Pfleger at the end.
But even before Pfleger's lapse, Obama said "It's also clear that Rev. Moss and the church have been suffering from all of the tension my campaign has visited on them. We have these news organizations harassing members at their homes and workplaces."
At his press conference, Obama was asked about whether he was denouncing Trinity.
"I am not denouncing the church. I am not interested in people who want me to denounce the church because it's not a church worthy of denouncing. And so if they've seen caricatures of the church and accept those caricatures despite my insistence that's not what the church is about, then there's not much I can do about it," Obama said.
Obama said he and Michelle would look for a new church and would sample others on Sundays. Obama said they would not make any decisions until January--implying that's when his family may be moving into the White House.