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Putting Wright In Context

In one of his final TNR pieces last year, Ryan Lizza fleshed out Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright:

On a Sunday morning two weeks before he launches his presidential campaign, Obama is at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side, gently swaying from side to side under a giant iron cross. From the outside, the church looks more like a fortress than a house of worship, with high whitewashed brick walls topped with security cameras. Inside, Trinity is the sort of African American community that the young Obama longed to connect with when he first came to Chicago. The church's motto is "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian," and sunlight streams through stained glass windows depicting the life of a black Jesus. The Reverend Doctor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Trinity's pastor since 1972, flies a red, black, and green flag near his altar and often preaches in a dashiki. He has spent decades writing about the African roots of Christianity, partly as a way to convince young blacks tempted by Islam that Christianity is not "a white man's religion."

On this particular Sunday, the sea of black worshippers is dotted with a few white folks up in the balcony, clutching copies of The Audacity of Hope they've brought for Obama's book-signing later. Obama, sitting in the third row with his wife and two daughters, Malia and Natasha, stands, claps, prays, and sways along with the rest of the congregation. During the sermon, he watches the preacher carefully and writes notes. When asked by Wright to say a few words, Obama grabs the microphone and stands. "I love you all," he says. "It's good to be back home." The 150-person choir breaks into a chorus of "Barack, Hallelujah! Barack, Hallelujah!"

This adulation is a far cry from how Obama was received by Wright when they first met in the mid-'80s, during Obama's initial round of one-on-ones. Like Smalls, Wright was unimpressed. "They were going to bring all different denominations together to have this grassroots movement," explained Wright, a white-haired man with a goatee and a booming voice. "I looked at him and I said, Do you know what Joseph's brother said when they saw him coming across the field?'" Obama said he didn't. "I said, Behold the dreamer! You're dreaming if you think you are going to do that.'"

From Wright and others, Obama learned that part of his problem as an organizer was that he was trying to build a confederation of churches but wasn't showing up in the pews on Sunday. When pastors asked him the inevitable questions about his own spiritual life, Obama would duck them uncomfortably. A Reverend Philips put the problem to him squarely when he learned that Obama didn't attend services. "It might help your mission if you had a church home," he told Obama. "It doesn't matter where, really. What you're asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophesy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you're getting yours from."

After many lectures like this, Obama decided to take a second look at Wright's church. Older pastors warned him that Trinity was for "Buppies"--black urban professionals--and didn't have enough street cred. But Wright was a former Muslim and black nationalist who had studied at Howard and Chicago, and Trinity's guiding principles--what the church calls the "Black Value System"--included a "Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.'"

The crosscurrents appealed to Obama. He came to believe that the church could not only compensate for the limitations of Alinsky-style organizing but could help answer the nagging identity problem he had come to Chicago to solve. "It was a powerful program, this cultural community," he wrote, "one more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than my own brand of organizing."

As a result, over the years, Wright became not only Obama's pastor, but his mentor. The title of Obama's recent book, The Audacity of Hope, is based on a sermon by Wright. (It's worth noting, however, that, while Obama's book is a coolheaded appeal for common ground in an age of political polarization, Wright's sermon, "The Audacity to Hope," is a fiery jeremiad about persevering in a world of nuclear arms and racial inequality.) Wright is one of the first people Obama thanked after his Senate victory in 2004, and he recently name-checked Wright in his speech to civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama.

--Michael Crowley