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‘Between the pulpit and pews, a gulf on Obama’s ex-pastor’

by Brad A. Greenberg

May 1, 2008 | 9:14 pm

LUMBERTON, N.C. — The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., under fire for statements that have embarrassed Senator Barack Obama’s campaign, has found staunch support in the pulpits of black churches around North Carolina. The people in the pews, however, are far less accepting.

In interviews at churches in cities and towns including Charlotte, Greensboro, Lumberton and Goldsboro, ministers expressed the view that Mr. Obama and Mr. Wright had been attacked by a superficial and biased news media. Many said they were teaching Mr. Wright’s sermons in Bible study classes. They are delivering lectures on the roots of Mr. Wright’s style of ministry and preaching against what they see as attempts to make Mr. Wright a divisive figure.

“People get fired up when they see people trying to scapegoat a presidential candidate because of a pastor,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro and the president of the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “And No. 2, the fact that you’re beating up on someone that’s very profound and very prophetic.”

But many parishioners are not nearly as sympathetic to Mr. Wright, saying they are disappointed with him for taking a personal dispute public with little concern for the harm it would do to the Obama campaign. (This sentiment is particularly strong among younger voters.) Others call Mr. Wright arrogant and untrustworthy, and still others say he is fighting old fights.

“He needs to take the political and keep it separate from the spiritual,” said Rita Harrison, 48, an Obama supporter who was cutting hair at Allison’s Salon in Whiteville. “Why would you risk this man’s campaign because of some personal comments? Because that’s what it is, it’s personal.”

This is a common phenomenon discussed in this New York Times article, and it’s an early lesson of religion reporting: Don’t just call the pastors and rabbis and imams, or the diocesan and federation leadership—talk to lay folk who hold a variety of opinions, often divergent from their leaders and in conflict with their co-religionists.

For whatever reason, and I’m open to explanations, leaders at the pulpit are quite often out of touch with their people in the pews. A glaring example of this is seen throughout the U.S. Catholic Church; while many observant Catholics pick and choose the teachings of the church they will follow, leaning particularly liberal on family planning and at times homosexuality, priests and bishops tend to be more doctrinaire (except, of course, for those priests who we hope are no longer employed).

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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