Five years ago, Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, delivered a sermon in which he repeatedly told his congregation: "God damn America."
Those and other incendiary words uttered over the years by Wright -- and brought to light this week -- ignited what Obama on Friday called "a firestorm" and prompted the candidate to condemn his minister's words as "inflammatory and appalling."
Wright has long been an influential friend and mentor of the Illinois senator and a controversial figure on the periphery of Obama's campaign. But until ABC News this week broadcast several provocative samplings from his sermons, the minister hadn't become a flash point in the campaign.
"They want us to sing 'God Bless America' -- no, no, no," Wright said during his 2003 sermon. "Not 'God Bless America.' God damn America. That's in the Bible. For killing innocent people, God damn America. For treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
In the first sermon Wright delivered after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he implied that the United States had brought the attacks on itself. "The stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards," he said. "America's chickens are coming home to roost."
And earlier this year, Wright brought up the presidential campaign: "It just came to me within the past few weeks, y'all, why so many people are hating on Barack Obama. He doesn't fit the model. He ain't white, he ain't rich and he ain't privileged. Hillary fits the mold. Europeans fit the mold."
Obama has long tried to distance himself from his pastor's more controversial statements, going so far as to disinvite Wright from the formal announcement of his campaign last year. He has taken to likening Wright to "an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with."
On Thursday, confronted with his pastor's newly reported comments, Obama said he disagreed with them, but added, "here is what happens when you just cherry-pick statements from a guy who had a 40-year career."
Less than 24 hours later, Obama sharpened his criticism, releasing a detailed statement about his relationship with Wright while outright rejecting the pastor's comments.
"I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy," Obama wrote. "I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it's on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue."
Also, Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor alerted reporters Friday night that Wright will no longer serve in an unpaid and largely ceremonial role on an Obama campaign leadership committee. "Rev. Wright is no longer serving on the African American Religious Leadership Committee," he wrote in an e-mail.
Wright, 66, retired last month from Trinity United Church of Christ, an influential institution on Chicago's South Side with thousands of members.
Although not exclusively a black church, its mission statement asserts that the congregation considers itself "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian." The largest congregation in its liberal denomination, Trinity has welcomed gay members, reached out to AIDS patients and advocated liberal positions.
The Internal Revenue Service is investigating the denomination because Obama addressed its general synod last year, a potential violation of its tax-exempt status.
In much the way the "unashamedly black" statement drew criticism, so did the fact that Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan recently received an award from Trinity. Obama has repeatedly denounced Farrakhan, calling his anti-Semetic remarks "unacceptable and reprehensible."
Obama came to Trinity more than 20 years ago, newly arrived in Chicago as a community organizer. Wright's central message about helping the poor resonated with Obama, he wrote in his first book, "Dreams from My Father," but he did not directly address Wright's sharply political messages about black nationalism.
Obama describes Wright's message as one that meshes with the "hope" motif of his campaign. Obama took the title of his second book, "The Audacity of Hope," from a sermon by Wright.
Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184
The Washington Post contributed to this report.