Evangelicals Take a Second Look at Obama

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama is launching an initiative to recruit young evangelical and Catholic voters, two voting blocks that generally support Republican candidates. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a long-time political ally of President George W. Bush, is among those throwing their support behind Obama's initiative. Caldwell discusses the battle for the faith vote.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, she was asked to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" for a Denver event and she did, with different lyrics, and now she's getting hate mail. Jazz singer Rene Marie is with us to talk about her decision, and, who was behind the violence in Zimbabwe? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, Senator Barack Obama spoke over the weekend to 40,000 members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, his most recent outreach to the faith community. In recent elections, so-called values voters have become an important part of the Republican coalition, but in recent weeks Obama has made clear he will fight for those voters. Not only by talking frankly about the role his own faith has played in his life, but by targeted outreach to Evangelical and Catholic voters.

There might be one reason leading Evangelical Leader Dr. James Dobson made a pointed critique of Obama in a radio address two weeks ago where he attacked Obama's interpretation of scripture, and now other members of the faith community are answering back. Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, the pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas has set up a web site called jamesdobsondoesntspeakforme.com.

But what makes this particularly interesting is that Rev. Caldwell twice offered the benediction at inauguration ceremonies for President George W. Bush, and recently officiated at the wedding of Jenna Bush. Rev. Caldwell joins us now for a Newsmaker Interview. Welcome to the program. Thank you for speaking with us.

Rev. KIRBYJON CALDWELL (Windsor Village United Methodist Church, Houston, Texas): Hello, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm fine. Thank you. So Reverend, it's fair to assume you are fairly close to George W. Bush, so for some people it's surprising to find out that you are supporting Senator Obama. Why are you supporting Senator Obama for president?

Rev. CALDWELL: I'm supporting the senator because as one business Republican businessman in Georgia put it, he is the real deal. I think the senator brings great creativity and compassion and commitment and competency to the office should he be elected, and I think he'll be a breath of fresh air and he's the type of leader we need for such a time as this.

MARTIN: Do you see similarities between President Bush and Senator Obama?

Rev. CALDWELL: Believe it or not, I do, and I'm so glad you asked that question. While their differences have been very well trumpeted, if you would, A, they are both Christians and for some people that matters, for some people it doesn't, since 15 percent of the voting population still thinks that Senator Obama is a Muslim, for some strange reason. I want to say he is a Christian. So they're both Christians, A.

B, they are both honorable husbands. And Michel, as you know, eight-and-a-half or nine years or so ago, that was a big deal in the minds of mainline Evangelicals. Now, of course, that doesn't seem to be nearly as important, but anyway, he's an honorable husband, he's a faithful father, they have great - they have great sense of humor, great people skills, and I think there are some great similarities. And I think the values of Senator Obama are still being identified, if you would, or at least heard by the public and I look forward to the public becoming more informed of who he is.

MARTIN: Is it disappointing to President Bush that you're supporting Senator Obama?

Rev. CALDWELL: No. No, in fact, I - well, I don't know if it's disappointing or not, but I did call him prior to my public expression for Senator Obama almost a year or so ago, and he understood and we moved on and started talking about something else.

MARTIN: Why did you decide to set up the web site James Dobson Doesn't Speak For Me?

Rev. CALDWELL: Yes. Well, first of all, I have utmost respect for Dr. Dobson and for the work he has done and for him as a person. This is not an attack on him whatsoever. But you know, Michel, there has been a long list of false accusations against Senator Obama. He doesn't put his hand - he didn't put his hand on the Bible when he took the oath. That's not true. He's not a Christian. That's not true. He's a Muslim. That's not true. He supports gay rights. That's not true. So after this, you know, if you're not careful, particularly when the public is getting to know a candidate, then mistruths become truths in the minds of those who don't know you.

So I thought it was important for us to step up and say, hey, he's not a crackerjack interpreter of the Constitution and his interpretation of the Bible is consistent with not only with a lot of Christians but a lot of Evangelicals, as well.

MARTIN: Do you consider yourself Evangelical?

Rev. CALDWELL: They consider me to be Evangelical and after I've looked at myself, yes, I'd fall into that category. But I'm, you know, I am light on labels and heavy on content. So that's pretty much where I fall on the sword, if you would.

MARTIN: For many Evangelicals Senator Obama's support of abortion rights is disqualifying. It's not for you?

Rev. CALDWELL: Well, that's an interesting question. Boy, Michel, you're so good! For the younger Evangelicals, let's say 50 and younger, the more paramount issues are global warming, environmental injustice, involuntary poverty. Those are the issues that are important to the Evangelicals who are 45, 50 years and younger. For those who are older, then, yes, abortion's at the top of the list. But as a practical matter, let's, you know, kind of ball to set off the bacon here, Senator Obama is pro-education, he's pro-jobs, he's not necessarily pro-abortion. He clearly supports a woman's right to choose and that's consistent with the Constitution.

As a practical matter, this is one last thing and I'll shut up after that, as a practical matter - check this out, this is very important. When pro-life presidents are in office, the number of abortions does not go down. It does not go down! Senator Obama is pro-life after birth, so he wants to institute policies and programs that will help discourage and diminish the number of abortions.

MARTIN: What about gay rights, though? It is my understanding that Senator Obama supports civil union although not gay marriage, but even for some that's disqualifying. Not for you?

Rev. CALDWELL: Well, he believes, and I heard him - and I heard him say this with my own eyes and ears two weeks ago or so in Chicago. Senator Obama believes that marriage should be between a male and a female and if he is elected president, he would not require or quote unquote "force" clergy to perform same-sex unions or marriages, and I think that is very, very important. Obviously, he also supports the Constitution so, you know, gay persons deserve - and I believe this as well, the same rights as everybody else.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell about presidential candidate Barack Obama's outreach to so-called values voters or religious voters, and also his web site, jamesdobsondoesntspeakforme.com.

If you would, Reverend Caldwell, if you would just talk to me a little bit about sort of the broader question. There are some people, particularly, who consider themselves liberal or progressive who are just very concerned overall about the role that religion is playing in public life these days. They feel that religion is inherently divisive and perhaps it ought best be kept out of the public sphere. Now Senator Obama doesn't share that view at all. He's talked a lot about that in recent weeks in months and, in fact, throughout his career.

But could you talk a little bit about that, particularly as a member of - you're African-American, and the African-American political tradition has been very much animated by faith, but as a member of a minority group where sometimes people feel that the majority then kind of uses its beliefs to minimize or to oppress the minority, if you will. Will you talk about how you sort that out? How you feel religion appropriately plays in public life?

Rev. CALDWELL: Sure. Well, first of all, I do not think that one should wear your religion or your faith on your sleeve. I'm not a big believe in putting, you know, Honk if You Love Jesus bumper stickers on the back of your car and then you cut in front of people and act, you know, unbiblically, if you would, while driving in the streets.

But the second thought is, as a practical matter, again, your faith impacts your values. Your faith arguably even helps to define who you are. So if a politician is going to be genuinely involved in the political process, if a politician is going to be authentic once he or she is in office, then we need to know something about his or her faith because like it or not, their faith is going to impact who they are, how they vote and how they shape policies. So while the separation of church and state is very clear, I think no matter how we slice it, your faith impacts who you are and how you vote.

MARTIN: How do you think that Senator Obama's faith has affected who he is and how he's voting?

Rev. CALDWELL: Well, I'll tell you what. I have been and I am still very impressed with the life of Senator Obama. If you stop and consider the fact that he grew up in a quote unquote broken home, became president - the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, has married a great woman and been married to her - one wife, and has just done extremely well both in the State Senate, in Illinois and the U.S. Senate, and has run a masterful race becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee and defeating one of the most powerful political machines of the 21st century.

When you stop and consider all this and consider that he has done, he has made this achievement, he has had these achievements - made these achievements, excuse me, with integrity and even with humility, some would say, I think, you know, clearly his faith has had a tremendous impact on who he is and how he operates.

MARTIN: You - in your personal statement on the web site, James Dobson Doesn't Speak For Me, you say - you take pains to say, this is not a premeditated attack on Dr. Dobson. How do you want this to be interpreted? Do you feel that people's scriptural interpretations ought to be part of their qualification for president?

Rev. CALDWELL: No. I think the evangelical community is strong enough for us to be able to disagree agreeably, and that's what I want the readers to understand. And I mean, let's be honest with this. If you give Dr. Dobson one passage and give - you know, myself or Senator Obama the same passage to interpret, then we may be inclined to interpret differently based on our experience.

As you know, Michel, we have approximately one half of all children aged - African-American children, African-American children aged six years old and younger left at or below poverty. Roughly one third are almost - now, slightly more than one third of all African-American families live at or below poverty.

For the third decade in a row we have more African-American males in institutions - in penal institutions than we have in institutions of higher learning. Well, Jiminy Crickety. If the Church does not rise up and develop a mentality and a theology to help get our people out of that kind of bondage, then shame on the Church.

So if one is not familiar with that crisis, if you would, then you're not inclined to search the scriptures to see how God wants us to get us out.

MARTIN: All right. Reverend Kirby John Caldwell is senior pastor of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Houston. Reverend Caldwell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rev. CALDWELL: Thank you so much and congratulations on your success. Loved your program.

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

Rev. CALDWELL: Bless you.

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