As Inauguration Festivities Get Underway, the Rev. Wright Has Things to Say

By Dana Milbank
Monday, January 19, 2009

The good news for President-elect Barack Obama: More than a million people are in town for your inauguration. The bad news for President-elect Obama: One of them is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Obama's disowned minister booked himself at Howard University for church services yesterday, when he offered thousands of worshipers his thoughts on an election that turned a parishioner into a president, and a pastor into a pariah.

"The haters are coming!" Wright warned in his sermon, drawing lessons from his own recent experience. "The Lord blessed me -- and here come the haters."

"ABC -- hater!" he shouted.

"CNN -- hater!"

"NBC -- hater!"

The worshipers roared with laughter. "But I'm still here," Wright taunted.

That is unlikely to please the incoming president. He renounced Wright last spring after the pastor, among other things: hailed Louis Farrakhan; defended the view that Zionism is racism; accused the United States of terrorism; argued that the government created AIDS to extinguish racial minorities; and stood by his request that "God damn America."

Now Wright, who came close to dooming Obama's election, is resurfacing to celebrate the victory as a product of the candidate's finding of God, which happened under Wright's auspices.

"Barack got a new address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Wright preached. "He moved from lying on the corner of Woe Is Me and It's 'They' Fault. Check him out: He now lives in a mansion on the corner of Praise God Boulevard and Thank You Jesus Avenue."

Obama, shrewdly, decided to skip Wright's performance at Howard. He opted instead to be part of another predominantly African American congregation, Nineteenth Street Baptist, which had services at the same time. This allowed the president-elect to miss some choice phrases coined by his former preacher.

Wright spoke of the government's "egregious ménage à trois of racism, militarism and capitalism." He alluded to Thomas Jefferson's slave mistress, Sally Hemings: "Michelle Obama is the first African American sleeping in the White House legally."

Wright argued that "the murder of civilians in Gaza is a matter that calls our faith into question," and he spoke of "civilian Palestinians who are systematically stamped out by a military machine second to none." The minister found racism in the response to Hurricane Katrina, racism in the policy toward Darfur, racism in health care and racism in criminal justice.

"No more segregation!" he thundered. "No more degradation! . . . No more white supremacy!"

He was, as usual, a powerful preacher, and yet his message hasn't changed much from the one that caused his rift with Obama last year. Where Obama is conciliatory, Wright is angry, and after his public feud with Obama last year, he has more reasons for anger.

The first line of his biography in the church program hinted at some defensiveness: "The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. is a man of faith, a homiletic genius, a theological scholar and a pastor's pastor." The Howard alumnus often preaches at the university on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in his previous visits, the chapel dean, Bernard L. Richardson, said, "I'd often say that he didn't need an introduction. But circumstances have been that cause me to share with this congregation, indeed with the nation, what you have accomplished and who you are." Richardson, over soft piano music, testified to Wright's work for Africa, social justice, women, AIDS and gay rights.

Wright was a popular draw; he filled up three overflow rooms in addition to Howard's Cramton Auditorium, and his family members and members of his fraternity all came out for the services. Wright made mention of his youngest daughter, Jamila, "who had to keep it on the DL that she was my daughter because some of y'all said some ugly things about her father based on what you saw on television."

Before the sermon, the service was full of references to the inauguration: "The eve of what our forebears could only dream of. . . . Lord, you gave us the audacity to hope." The gospel choir sang "We Shall Overcome" with an up-tempo beat and ragtime syncopation.

When he stepped to the pulpit, Wright at first seemed to be avoiding talk about his former parishioner. He related the biblical story of Jesus meeting the infirm at the Pool of Bethesda -- "the blind, the lame, the paralyzed" -- and curing a man who hadn't been able to walk for 38 years. "When Jesus stepped into his story, the Lord gave him new ability," Wright said.

He gradually extended the parable so that the man Jesus cured became Obama. "The Lord stepped into that scrawny black kid's story and gave him new ability," Wright preached. "The half-Kenyan, half-Kansan said, 'Yes, we can.' He had a new attitude. The naysayers and the player haters said . . . you'll never win," but Obama was "saved by the man by the pool."

Like Obama, Wright traced the president-elect's triumph to "the foundation made for him by the faith of Rosa Parks and the blood of Martin Luther King Jr." But unlike Obama, Wright drew an explicitly racial message from this. "He said stand up -- stand up against devious racism!" Wright preached. "Stand up, black people! . . . Stand up, black man!"

Wright had gone on for nearly an hour. Music started to play, the way it does when a speaker goes on too long at the Academy Awards. "I'm thinking I'm through," he said.

Don't count on it. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it seems, won't be through anytime soon.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company