Why a Spiritual Advisor to President Bush Supports Obama

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell explains his bond with Bush, his donations to Obama, and his defense of Jeremiah Wright.

Continued from page 1

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell is pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, the largest United Methodist congregation in the nation. Often described as a ‘spiritual advisor' to President George W. Bush, Caldwell introduced Bush at the 2000 Republican National Convention and delivered the benedictions at the 2001 and 2005 presidential inaugurations. He endorsed Senator Barack Obama for president in January.
 
When you called President Bush to say you were endorsing Senator Barack Obama, how did he respond?
 
He had shared his thoughts with me about Senator Obama months before I called and told him I was going to endorse. And he says he likes him as a person. He told me that early on, before the Senator even announced he was running for president. He has a tremendous amount of respect for him.
 
While the differences between President Bush and Senator Obama are very, very clear, allow me to share with you what their commonalities are. One, they have deep, resolute loyalty to their country, to their families, and to their God. They are both Christians. They both love their wives intensely. They’re both very good dads.

They are also strong believers in rebuilding the family and rebuilding the infrastructure of our communities… Now, obviously, they have two entirely different approaches as to how to achieve that common good.
 
How do you know about Obama’s family life?
 
For the last 12 months, I’ve been talking to people who are part of the campaign very, very regularly. And I listen very intently to what they say. And the few times I have been around the Senator, I’ve noticed very carefully what he does…
 
Let me give you a little tidbit. When he was in Houston, we had a history-making number of folks show up here for the rally… As he was leaving the event I said, "Is there anything we can pray for for you?" And he said, "Pray for my wife and my children…." You know, he doesn’t ask for--he doesn’t ask that you pray for his strength or pray for his stamina so he can endure these 16-hour days. He’s not focused on himself. He says, "Pray for my wife and my children."
 
You’ve been pretty quiet about your support for Obama since endorsing him. Why?
 
Nobody’s asked me. But, I tell you what. As soon as he gets the nomination, it will become a lot more noisy. Let me share this with you. The check that I wrote to Senator Obama is the first check I’ve ever written to a politician who was running for local, state, or federal office.
 
So you see him as a unique candidate.
 
Yeah. There are several reasons. One, I think he’s just a solid man. He’s a solid, spiritual man, and I have a great deal of respect for him as an individual.
 
Number two, when he initially announced, they said, “Well, he will be a symbolic candidate. He has no chance of winning.” And then he began to attract, you know, crowds of 20, 30, 40,000. Then they’d say, “Well, he may attract twenty, thirty thousand folk at a time, but he won’t be able to raise any money.” And then he started raising a ton of money… Then, they said, “Well, he’s not black enough.” Well, clearly he is. Then they said, “He’s too black.” Well, that’s ridiculous. Then they said, “Well, you know, he doesn’t like white folk because his pastor says whatever.” And I think folks forget his mother was white, for goodness sake. The grandmother of his children are white. I mean it just--that’s just a ridiculous argument.
 
Then, they said, “Well, he’s Muslim.” And he’s confessed his faith--I would say that he’s more of a Christian than some folk who claim to be Christian, because he didn’t grow up in a Christian house… He had to declare his faith separate and distinct from his--from the house that he grew up in.
 
As a pastor, how did you feel as Rev. Jeremiah Wright emerged as possibly the biggest stumbling block to Obama winning the Democratic nomination, maybe even the presidency?
 
The timing is unfortunate. I also think the media has blown it up a little bit. Quite frankly, some of the confusion is an issue of style versus substance. I am most appreciative of how Senator Obama has remained focused and on task in trying to call America’s attention to the many, many challenges that need to be addressed, and to get everybody back on point.
 
I think since they--whomever they are--since they could not find anything wrong with him as a person, there seemingly has been an attempt to reach out and find something wrong with those who are allegedly around him. Everybody keeps saying, “Well, he sat there for 20 years." For starters, he didn’t sit there for 20 years, right? He’s been a member for 20 years. He’s not sat there for 20 years. For three years, he was in law school. Another eight years, he was in the state senate, and another three years--or three years, really now four--he’s been in the US senate. I don’t mean to split hairs on this, but it hasn’t been 20 years.

And furthermore, truth be told, there are some things that Pastor Wright has said that are absolutely true. Now, you may not like how he said it, and whenever your metaphor overwhelms what you have to say, that can be problematic. But there are a number of African Americans in this country who affirm the ministry of Pastor Wright.
Can you give an example of something Wright said that was “blown up” by the news media?
 
This whole G.D. America piece, that’s a great example. First of all, right after he says that, the next sentence, which they never play, says, “And that’s in the Bible.” Now, it’s not written that way in English, but the Hebraic expression basically says this: if America makes itself and views itself as God, and not Yahweh, or the Lord God Almighty as God, then America basically is committing adultery, and then America is darning itself.
 
He never said “I would D. America.” He was saying that when the government begins to worship itself, then there is a price to be paid, and you basically fall into that category whether you want to or not.
 
It sounds like you agree with the point he was making.

It’s not my role to agree or disagree with him, but I think it is my role to contextualize what, in fact, he was actually saying. No Christian that I know would agree that idolatry is acceptable to God, and clearly that’s a breach of the Ten Commandments, among other things. So, as I understand it, the point that Pastor Wright was making is that when America places itself--its own self in an idolatrous position, then you are basically positioning yourself for bad news….

Whenever you take a snippet here or a snippet there of anybody’s sermons or messages over a 20-, 30-year period, it’s real easy to mischaracterize them, including Jesus. If you just looked at part of his ministry and him hanging out with the so-called prostitutes, if you would, and saying, "Woe to the Pharisees," and, "The first shall be last, the last shall be first," you just pick up a lot of those snippets and miss the "Love your neighbor as yourself." You can pretty much pick and choose sayings of Jesus that present him any way you want to, going all the way back to his very birth. I mean, you could make his mother look like a woman of ill repute. You know, who is this 13, 14, 15-year-old girl running around here walking the streets at night by herself, talking about the Lord gave her a baby?
 
Let’s talk about your relationship with President Bush. He’s widely perceived to be an evangelical, but he joined a Methodist church when he married Laura. As a Methodist minister, which do you consider him?
 
He’s a Methodist by membership. He’s probably evangelical by philosophy.
 
You’ve been described as his “spiritual advisor.”
 
That may be a bit of a misnomer… You know, the president and I have surely talked about matters of faith throughout his eight years. But it’s not as if he calls me seeking policy advice, political advice, or even personal advice. But we have a very solid relationship
 
How often have you been in touch during his second term?
 
Eight or nine times a year…. I typically call him. He seldom calls me. I may just call and leave a scripture with him. I may just call just to holler at him. I may call and say, "Hey, that was a great speech." I may call and say, "I disagree with this."
 
He’s the kind of guy, you know, you don’t have to kiss his behind. You can call him and tell him what you disagree with, and he will tell you why he says what he says and does what he does. He’s real good about that.
 
When’s the last time you called him to disagree?
 
I was up there for the Pope’s visit, actually. I can’t really go into it. Let’s just say we had a discussion about the economy. It was an interesting dialogue, because I assumed he had some influence that, in point of fact, he really does not have. He would say, “Well, wait a minute... you can’t lay that at my feet, because I don’t have any influence over that." But, contrary to some folks’ opinion, he is keenly aware of the challenges that Joseph and Josephine America are going through right now.
 
As an Obama supporter, you must have some serious policy differences with the President.
 
Our politics do not impact the integrity of our personal relationship... Folks think I’m a Republican because I basically supported the president... But, I have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates as opposed to Republican candidates. I view myself as an Independent.
But you supported Bush in 2000 and 2004?

At that juncture [2004] the war was not as--what shall we say--[as] tragic then as it is now. So, there was really no reason for me not to support him four years into office. Even pertaining to the war… the president is the only person who has access to all the information that he had access to. To say we should not have gone into the war may not be quite accurate, but I can say with accuracy [that] the war has been poorly managed… Hindsight is always 20-20…  And whenever you make those types of errors, it’s real easy to say, “Well, we should not have done it in the first place.”
 
But, unfortunately, there are a lot of things which took place eight years prior to President Bush taking office which, if they had been addressed, could have prevented 9/11, could have prevented some other subsequent tragedies which impact America, either domestically or internationally. I’m not assigning any blame. I’m simply saying that we now live in a brand new world. And the success or failure of this current administration would not be fully appreciated or assessed for years, if not decades to come.
 
Have you grown more frustrated by President Bush’s actions as president in his second term? Has that affected your relationship?
 
It has not. Our relationship is pure. That’s the first thing. Second is, while his approval ratings are at an all-time low, Congress's approval ratings are at an all-time low as well. So clearly there needs to be a fresh wind, a breath blowing over Washington…. As I look back on some of the decisions that the president has made, I’ve not agreed with all of those. [But] my disagreement with some of those decisions has not impacted my appreciation for him as a person and my relationship with him as an individual.
 
How do you keep those two separate?
 
I’ve never shared this, and I don’t think I’m breaching any confidence. I just happened to have been in DC literally three or four days before the war began. And the president was sharing with me what a terrible situation Iraq was in and what a bad person Saddam Hussein was, and what a threat he posed. And his vision was to go in, take care of the evil power that was there, so to speak, and then to build bridges and schools and hospitals and libraries for the children, youth, and adults of Iraq. That vision came straight from his mouth to my ears.

Obviously, something went awry, and went very awry, so I would say to you that his intent and his motivation were principled, but, obviously, the execution of that vision was ineffective.... It is absolutely tragic to see the body bags come back and to see the impact that the war is having just on children and youth here in this country, whose parents are away at war. I mean, it’s a very sad moment in America’s history, I would dare say.

But, there’s also a price to be paid for security and for safety, and for the future of this country…. I don’t always agree with every decision, but I’m not going to throw him under the bus, as the folks say.
 
Do you think your relationship with Bush makes the Obama campaign more reluctant to use you in a high profile way?

I think my turn at bat is coming up.... Let’s just face it. Once you introduce a Republican governor at a Republican convention, somebody’s going to view you a little bit differently.

It's been rumored that you’ll be officiating at Jenna Bush’s wedding this weekend.

If I say I'm not, then you're going to ask me if I know who is, and I can't answer that. And if I say I am, then I really can't say that either. Let's just say I know who will be.
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Dan Gilgoff
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