Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s controversial ex-pastor in Chicago has largely supported gay rights and has welcomed gays into his 8,000-member congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ, according to activists who know him.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who recently retired as the Trinity Church pastor, has been hit with a firestorm of criticism after news media outlets began airing video recordings of some of his fiery and racially charged sermons, including one in which he blamed U.S. foreign policy for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Obama distanced himself from Wright’s strident political positions but refused to “disown” his pastor of nearly 20 years, reiterating his praise for Wright as his spiritual mentor.
With Obama competing with rival presidential contender Hillary Clinton for gay votes in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary, revelations of Wright’s controversial sermons have raised questions among some activists about whether Obama’s longtime pastor was among the preachers who delivered fire-and-brimstone sermons attacking homosexuality.
“Absolutely not,” said Rick Garcia, political director of Equality Illinois, the Chicago-based state gay rights group.
“Trinity has been among the strongest supporters of LGBT rights,”
Garcia said. “I have the highest regard and admiration for Rev. Wright.”
Gay Chicago resident Ronald Wadley, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, said Wright enthusiastically backed suggestions by gay church members to create a gay and lesbian singles ministry as part of the church’s existing ministry to heterosexual singles.
“We call it the same-gender loving family ministry,” Wadley said. “It’s a ministry that was formed to allow people to have an outlet to reconcile their sexuality with their spirituality,” he said.
“He has always been supportive on gay issues,”
Wadley said of Wright. “He has a stance that we all go by, under the credence of John: 16 — that we are all created by God.”
‘He stuck up for me’
Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks, pastor of Washington’s Inner Light Ministries, which has a mostly black gay congregation, said Wright has given him strong support and encouragement in Cheeks’ role as an openly gay minister in the 17 years that the two have known each other.
“When I was on a panel with him at a religious conference [in Alabama], some ministers expressed anti-gay views,” Cheeks said. “He stuck up for me. He defended me and spoke out on my behalf.”
Cheeks noted that Wright started one of Chicago’s first church-run AIDS ministries at Trinity and has boasted about having a sizable number of gays in his congregation.
Tracy Baim, editor of Windy City Times, a gay newspaper in Chicago, said Wright has never carried any religious objections to same-sex marriage into the political sphere in Illinois, where the City of Chicago and the state legislature have passed far-reaching gay rights laws.
“He has never been a barrier to gay rights at all,” Baim said.
Baim said any hint that Obama’s support for gay rights has been curtailed because of his affiliation with Wright or Trinity Church would be completely false. She noted that Obama has been a strong supporter on gay issues since he first entered politics as a candidate for the Illinois State Senate.
With the exception of same-sex marriage, which both Obama and Clinton have declined to support, Obama has backed virtually all other gay-related issues pushed by gay rights organizations, Baim said.
She noted that both Obama and his wife, Michelle, have regularly attended gay community events in the state.
“There’s been a great comfort level,” Baim said, that Barack and Michelle
Obama have shown in their encounters with both gay men and lesbians.
Ben LaBolt, a spokesperson for the Obama campaign, said Obama recognizes that Wright and Trinity Church have an inclusive policy toward gays and people with HIV.
“Sen. Obama has made it clear that he views Rev. Wright as a religious adviser who introduced him to his Christian faith, not a political adviser,” LaBolt said.
‘Good News for Homosexuals’
Cheeks, of D.C.’s Inner Light Ministries, said Wright has championed gay rights causes by speaking out on behalf of gays in religious forums for nearly two decades
, a development that Cheeks said provides a counterbalance to claims by critics that Wright has delivered divisive sermons.
In one of his sermons of the early 1990s, titled, “Good News for Homosexuals,” Wright told of how he believes God does not limit his love to heterosexuals.
“I refuse to limit my God, to lock God into my cultural understandings because culture is fickle,” Wright said. “And culture is often wrong. Culture was wrong about slavery. Culture was wrong about women. Culture was wrong about Africans and Indians, and culture was wrong about Christ,” he said. “I have been the pariah among many of my clergy colleagues who somehow see me as defective or not quite saved because I won’t join them in their homophobic gay bashing and misquoting of scripture.