Early this year, black megachurch pastor and presidential spiritual advisor Kirbyjon Caldwell endorsed Barack Obama. The endorsement seemed not to have hurt Caldwell's friendship with George W. Bush, whom he had endorsed in 2000 and 2004. Caldwell conducted the wedding for Bush's daughter at the Bush ranch in May. More recently, Caldwell unveiled a website initiative to enlist pastors nationwide for Obama.
But more interesting was an incident in January, not widely reported, in which pro-Obama gay groups complained about Caldwell's church and its stance on homosexuality. Caldwell pastors the largest United Methodist congregation in the world, with at least 14,000 members at Windsor Village Church in Houston. An evangelical, Caldwell excited some controversy over his benediction at Bush's first inaugural, in which in cited "the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ. Let all who agree say Amen." A little more careful when he once again led the inaugural benediction n 2004, he concluded, "respective of all faiths, I submit this prayer in the Name of Jesus."
Caldwell has previously expressed conventional Christian views about homosexuality. His church, like most black congregations, is theologically conservative. His denomination, the 7.9 million member United Methodist Church, prohibits ordination for practicing homosexuals and any celebration of same-sex unions, policies reaffirmed at its governing General Conference in April. But after Caldwell's Obama endorsement, gay groups discovered that Windsor Village Church hosted a ministry that offered "Christ Centered instruction for those seeking freedom from homosexuality, lesbianism, prostitution, sex addiction and other habitual sins."
Called Metanoia, and headed by a woman on staff at Caldwell's church, the ministry advertised on its web link that its objective was "to assist participants in understanding that change is possible. In doing this, a safe, nurturing and accepting environment will be created whereby participants will be able to deal with issues without fear of judgment or rejection. Participants will be encouraged to exercise their faith in the saving, healing and delivering power of God through Jesus Christ, and to see themselves as God sees them."
The ministry further noted that "God has created each of us with four deep emotional needs," including "knowing you are loved," "knowing you are individually significant," "knowing you are well protected," and "knowing that you have a reason for living." Goals of the ministry included "support groups for ex-gays and those in the process of coming out of homosexuality," and helping participants understand that "change is possible" in a "safe, nurturing and accepting environment" without "fear of judgment or rejection," and relying on the "saving, healing and delivering power of God through Jesus Christ, and to see themselves as God sees them."
ALL OF THIS WAS too much for indignant gay groups, who warned against any Obama association with Caldwell. One gay group angrily referred to the "shady characters" in the church world with whom Obama had been associating. Politico.com contacted Caldwell, who apparently declined to defend the ministry. "I got to tell you, this is going to sound real stupid, but I didn't know it was on our website," Caldwell explained. "I was surprised and embarrassed by it. I'm embarrassed from the standpoint that I should have known. We have 120 ministries at the church. You can't be on top of everything."
Declining to answer whether he supported such a ministry, Caldwell instead insisted: "It's not a ministry of the church. It is not supported financially by the church. It is not located at the church. That is pretty much where I am with it." Caldwell gave a statement to Americablog.com declaring: "Neither Senator Obama nor his staff knew of this outside ministry, nor have they expressed any agreement with my church's beliefs on gay rights. I support Senator Obama because of his ability to bring Americans together, not because of our agreement or disagreement on any one issue." Americablog.com reported that the Obama campaign had assured it that Caldwell would not be invited to campaign for Obama or appear with him.
When Politico.com asked Caldwell whether he supported same sex unions, he responded: "I would need to check with the church." It's not clear whether Obama was referring to his congregation or his denomination. But it's extremely unlikely that evangelically inclined Windsor Village Church has an uncertain stance towards marriage. And the United Methodist Church has long had a policy of disapproving of same-sex unions, but supporting laws that define marriage as man and woman, as surely Caldwell knows. Almost certainly, Caldwell felt obliged to distance himself from the Metanoia ministry so as to protect the Obama campaign, or his relationship with it. The Metanoia ministry was removed from the church's website, though the listed contact person for it, Barbara Hicks, seems to remain as part of the church's Prayer Institute. An associate of Hicks has described her ministry for homosexuals as having been "rooted in Black Pentecostal or charismatic prayer and healing ministry" and different from better known groups that specialize in "conversion or reparative therapy" for homosexuals.
Meanwhile, most recently, Caldwell has launched a website to refute charges by James Dobson that Obama distorted the Bible in a 2006 speech to Jim Wallis's Sojourners group. Called "James Dobson Doesn't Speak for Me," the website explains: "We are a coalition of pastors and other Christians, led by Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell who are standing up for our Christian faith and supporting Barack Obama." But how far will traditional pastors who support Obama be permitted to "stand up" publicly for their Christian faith if their theology contravenes the political correctness demanded by some in the Obama coalition?