Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama sought to defuse a brewing political controversy Tuesday when he condemned inflammatory statements made over the years by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago. Obama's remarks came during a speech on race in America delivered in Philadelphia. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
Senator Obama condemned racially charged comments made by Reverend Wright in some of his sermons, calling his view of the United States profoundly distorted.
Over the years, Reverend Wright accused the U.S. government of being the source of the AIDS virus and said the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States were retribution for U.S. foreign policy.
Obama is seeking to become the first African-American president and said Wright's comments offended both blacks and whites and have the potential to widen the racial divide in America.
"Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course," Obama said. "Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely, just as I am sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
Wright retired recently and was known for fiery sermons, like this one in 2003 that focused on what he believed were U.S. government efforts to mistreat blacks.
"The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing God Bless America," Wright said. "No, no, no, not God Bless America, God damn America! That is in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human!"
Obama met Wright more than 20 years ago and described him as someone who helped introduce him to his Christian faith.
Despite his criticism of Wright's racially-tinged comments over the years, Obama said he will not disown his former minister.
"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me," Obama said. "He strengthened 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 my white grandmother."
Obama also attempted to spark a frank discussion of race as an issue in U.S. politics. Obama acknowledged that blacks and whites had different views of the state of the problem, but said the answer was openly confronting those differences to bring the country together.
"I would not be running for president if I did not believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country," Obama said. "This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected."
The controversy over Wright's comments has been a major distraction for the Obama campaign in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination with Senator Hillary Clinton.
Obama and Clinton next face off in the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. A new poll gives Clinton a 12 point lead in Pennsylvania as she tries to overcome Obama's continuing lead in the delegate count.