On June 10, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama convened a meeting in a law office in downtown Chicago with a wide array of about thirty evangelical leaders, in an unprecedented effort to win their support. Obama insisted that the meeting remain entirely off the record, forbidding participants from disclosing his statements to the press. His campaign has kept the names of attendees a closely guarded secret. But through interviews with participants and overlooked statements in obscure publications of the Christian press, a first-hand picture of the meeting emerges, starkly at odds with the news reports that accepted the formal version at face value.
News accounts about the meeting stated that Obama impressed his audience with his sincerity, depth of theological knowledge and communication skills. But according to those present, he did little to assuage the hostility that many of the assembled--particularly the conservative white evangelicals--harbor toward him and his liberal positions on social issues. As I reported this week for The Nation, those differences reached a crescendo when the Rev. Franklin Graham directly confronted Obama about his supposedly Muslim background and Christian authenticity.
Franklin Graham, son of the evangelical icon Billy Graham and head of the international Christian aid organization Samaritan's Purse, was seated next to Obama at the meeting. He peppered Obama with pointed questions, repeatedly demanding to know if the senator believed that "Jesus was the way to God or merely a way." Graham, who once incited an international controversy by calling Islam a "very evil and wicked religion," proceeded to inquire about the Muslim faith of Obama's father, suggesting that Obama himself may be a Muslim.
"They focused on abortion, gay marriage, and then Franklin Graham tried to get Senator Obama saved," said Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American pastor from Boston who attended the meeting. Rivers told the Religion News Service that Graham pointedly questioned Obama's "father's connections to Islam." Obama reportedly said of his father, "The least of things he was was Islamic."
Graham's spokesman, Mark DeMoss, denies that Graham asked Obama about his father's Muslim faith. DeMoss did, however, confirm that Graham questioned whether the candidate believed Jesus was the only way to Heaven. "Jesus is the only way for me. I'm not in a position to judge other people," Obama responded, according to Rivers.
Stephen Strang, a right-wing Pentecostal, was among those invited to Obama's meeting. He is the multimillionaire publisher of Charisma, an evangelical magazine, and a signatory of the World Evangelical Alliance statement urging evangelization of Jews. In naming him one of the twenty-five "most influential evangelicals in America," Time called Strang "a Bush favorite ever since his homegrown Christian publishing house, Strang Communications, released The Faith of George W. Bush, the first spiritual biography of the President, in 2003." "We didn't write it to help Bush, but it no doubt helped elect him," declares Strang. He is also a close associate of controversial End Times theology proponent Pastor John Hagee, whose endorsement presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain recently rejected after a firestorm of criticism. Strang is a member of the board of Hagee's organization, Christians United For Israel, and a publisher of Hagee's book on Israel. Strang told me that several participants, not just Graham, expressed concern about the Muslim background of certain Obama family members. Obama replied that he had hardly known his father, who left his family when Obama was 2, and he sought to downplay the notion that his stepfather, an Indonesian Muslim, was active in his faith. "I remember [Obama] saying, 'We never went to the mosque when we lived in Indonesia,' " Strang said.
Strang told me that as the meeting drew to a close, one evangelical leader who supported Obama ("a friend" Strang refused to name) stood and "lectured" the other attendees about the faith of Obama's opponent, Republican Senator John McCain. The pro-Obama preacher railed about McCain's divorce as evidence of his lack of religious commitment, and added that McCain has demonstrated discomfort with public expressions of faith. "He also said that McCain swore on the Senate floor," Strang recounted. "He seemed to be saying that if Christians can support a flawed candidate like McCain, the implication was, why couldn't they support a candidate with flawed policies like Obama?"
Strang recalled that Obama did not rebuke the minister for his personal and pointed remarks about McCain. Instead, according to Strang, Obama simply smiled and said he would not make any attempt to undermine his opponent's faith.
Strang said he found Obama's outreach to evangelicals refreshing. "Obama was very clear that he wanted to involve people of faith in the process and he seemed to say that he would be inviting people like this to the White House," said Strang, who was invited twice to the White House by George W. Bush and once by his father. "He was very sincere and I think he scored some points." But Strang was not persuaded. He is a strong supporter of McCain. "I support him 99 percent. How I vote is based on whether the candidate is for or against life, period," Strang said.
Besides Strang, Graham and Rivers, attendees at the meeting included conservative Christianity Today editor David Neff, Evangelical Lutheran Church President Mark Hanson (ELCA is a moderate denomination), conservative legal scholar and Reagan Justice Department official Doug Kmiec--who has been denied communion for his support for Obama--and T.D. Jakes, the Dallas-based African-American Pentecostal mega-church pastor who has supplanted the black church's traditional social justice teachings with "prosperity gospel" theology, preaching faith as the way to the promised land of wealth and status.
"I'm not against marching," Jakes told PBS in 2007. "But in the '60s, the challenge of the black church was to march. And there are times now perhaps that we may need to march. But there's more facing us than social justice. There's personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can."
"Obama is said to consult Jakes on a weekly basis and called him a 'role model' of a Christian who puts his faith into social action," Sarah Posner reported in her book, God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.
(See Jakes preach here)
Another influential African-American prosperity gospel pastor, Kirbyjon Caldwell, attended the June 10 meeting with Obama. "It is unscriptural not to own land," the preacher has declared. Caldwell, a former bond dealer who founded the country's largest Methodist congregation, the Houston-based Windsor Village, has been among George W. Bush's most vocal and visible black backers. He introduced Bush at the 2000 Republican National Convention, delivered the benedictions at his 2001 and 2005 inaugural ceremonies and presided over the wedding ceremony of Jenna Bush. Bush has highlighted Caldwell's good works as examples of the triumph of his federal faith-based initiative.
But almost as soon as Obama declared his campaign for the presidency, Caldwell broke from the GOP, delivering a roaring endorsement for the Democrat from Illinois, hailing him for his "character, confidence and courage." "For the last twelve months, I've been talking to people who are part of the [Obama] campaign very, very regularly," Caldwell said recently.
Caldwell's endorsement did not come without controversy. Just days after Obama delivered a speech criticizing homophobia in the black church, some gay bloggers revealed that Caldwell's own Windsor Village church hosted a ministry that, according to its website, was "created to provide Christ centered instruction for those seeking freedom from homosexuality." Caldwell denied any knowledge of the ministry, though he refused to condemn it. Yet when the revelation spread from the blogosphere to the mainstream media, and proof surfaced that the ministry was an integral component of Windsor Village, Caldwell's congregation scrubbed all mention of it from its website.
(See a PDF version here).
After James Dobson devoted his entire June 24 radio broadcast to a red-faced tirade against Obama, accusing the candidate of evincing a "fruitcake interpretation" of the Constitution, Caldwell deployed to counter-attack. Within hours of Dobson's broadcast, a website appeared called "James Dobson Doesn't Speak For Me," featuring point-by-point refutations of his denunciation. Originally registered by Alyssa Martin, an Obama '08 intern working directly under Obama's religious affairs director Joshua DuBois, the registration was quietly transfered to Caldwell, the erstwhile Bush supporter now identified on the site as the de facto leader of a "coalition of pastors" supporting Obama. If Caldwell's recent activities are any indication, he will soon become the most visible of Obama's Christian crusaders.
Aside from his ministerial duties, Caldwell is a businessman who has translated his spiritual cachet into enormous financial benefit. Caldwell's Houston-based Power Center, a faith-based megaplex containing a cavernous prayer center, private business suites and a Chase bank, generates over $14 million a year. In partnership with Ryland realtors and J.P. Morgan, Caldwell has overseen the construction of an entire for-profit low-income neighborhood across the street from his Power Center (total cost: $173 million).
The Power Center's 10th anniversary celebration in 2003 became an occasion for Bush to highlight the supposed success of his faith-based initiative. "People should realize that the reason why this program is successful is because the power in the Power Center comes from a higher calling," Bush declared with Caldwell by his side, "a higher source of power."
If Obama enters the White House, Caldwell and his allies may want to see how much faith-based largesse he can get out of him. To them, Obama could become more of a patron than a president. Obama should know by now that pastors can have their own agendas, too.
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