In the early summer of 2000, the Houston megachurch pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell got a phone call that would change his life. The George W. Bush campaign was on the line, wanting to know if Caldwell would introduce his friend the governor of Texas at the Republican National Convention. "I was shocked. I did not expect the call," Caldwell recently said over lunch in Houston. "And I told the guy, I've got to pray on this. This is big."
It was big. George W. Bush was—to state the obvious—a Republican, and in Texas, as elsewhere, relations between African-Americans and the GOP were strained. Caldwell himself was a registered Democrat, though he had voted for Bush for governor. The last Republican president to garner more than 30 percent of the African-American vote was Richard Nixon in 1960. As the pastor of a huge congregation, Caldwell knew that 11,000 mostly working- and middle-class blacks—schoolteachers and mail carriers—looked to him as an example. He knew that his support of Bush, while historic, would be seen by some as a betrayal.
On the other hand, Caldwell genuinely liked Bush. In politics people use the word "friend" promiscuously, but in this case the conventional meaning applies. Bush and Caldwell had been close for about three years. After they met at a party, Caldwell began working as an informal adviser to the governor, giving him what he calls the "man on the street" perspective on local issues. Both Houston natives, the men shared an appreciation for what Caldwell calls "Christian ethics and American values." They were devoted to their families, they prospered, they endeavored to do good in the world, they confessed to Jesus Christ. Over the years, Caldwell saw how the twins Jenna and Barbara "adored" their father; he got to know former president George H.W. Bush and the former First Lady, whom Caldwell describes as "a hoot." The Bushes were good people.
He called the campaign and said yes. In a six-minute speech on Aug. 3, he promoted the would-be president's plan to fund faith-based organizations. "The governor's plan will ignite a social and economic revival among the working poor of this country," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, let the revival begin!"
In this fraught and divisive election season, it is hard to remember the excitement religious conservatives felt about Bush in 2000. His plain-spoken evangelical faith and his commitment to supporting religious groups through government funding motivated even many African-Americans and Hispanics to vote the Republican ticket for the first time in their lives. (In 2004, religious African-Americans were credited with winning Ohio for Bush.) Caldwell voted for Bush for president not once, but twice. Twice he gave the invocation at Bush's Inauguration. He spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom; he dined with Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall; and this past May, standing before a Texas limestone cross festooned with white blossoms, Caldwell presided over the marriage of First Daughter Jenna Bush and Henry Hager.
But after Bush's two terms in office, Caldwell, who is 55, has seen little evidence of the revival he promised that night in 2000. Last summer he aligned himself with a man who he believes better represents the Christian ethics and American values he preaches: Barack Obama. Over the past year, Caldwell has given himself heart and soul to the Democratic nominee. He's donated time and money to the Obama campaign (he says his contributions come out of his personal bank account); he's built a pro-Obama Web site; he's appeared in a television ad on behalf of Obama with his wife, Suzette; he's arranged meetings between Obama and other prominent clergymen; he talks to the campaign several times a week; and he's met and prayed with the candidate and the candidate's wife a handful of times. Over and over, in public and in private, he praises what he calls Obama's "heart," a quality that can still move him to tears. Obama's race, though appealing, is by itself "insufficient for my support," Caldwell says.
He recalls his first impression of Obama, whom he met not for the first time but most memorably at a fund-raiser last summer. "As he shook my hand, he looked me in the eye, just like you're doing right now, and he said, 'We're going to win this thing'." Caldwell exhales with a whistle. "There was something about that look in his eyes, and the confidence in his voice, it was just like … man."
Days after that meeting, Caldwell did the honorable thing. He called his friend the president to tell him that he would be supporting Obama. The call went as well as could be expected. "He didn't jump up and down and shout 'Hallelujah,' but he understood and he was comfortable," says Caldwell. Former president George H.W. Bush says he is neither disappointed nor surprised by Caldwell's decision, and he praises Caldwell and the contributions his church has made to Houston. "Obama is lucky to have this fine man in his corner," he says.
Caldwell's own story reflects the values he so admires in Obama and that first attracted him to Bush. He grew up near, but not in, one of the worst neighborhoods in Houston. His father was a successful tailor who in the 1960s made suits for the biggest names in R&B: Otis Redding, James Brown and B. B. King. His mother was a high-school guidance counselor. The family went to the local Methodist church each Sunday. Caldwell played in the marching band, got good grades, and when he graduated from high school left Houston to attend a small liberal-arts college in Minnesota called Carleton. (In 1996, he told Texas Monthly that the University of Texas was too big and too racist.) From there, Caldwell went to Wharton, where he earned an M.B.A. In his 20s he was a bond salesman; when making sales calls, he called himself "K.J."
Then one workday afternoon he had an overwhelming sense of calling, what he calls "a knowing." He quit his job, and to the surprise of his parents and the incredulity of some colleagues—why would he forfeit a shot at the big money, they wondered—he enrolled in seminary at Southern Methodist University. Over 26 years, he built Windsor Village United Methodist Church, a ragtag congregation in what his PR man Irv White calls "the hood," from 25 people to 14,000, making it one of the two largest churches in the Methodist denomination. His first wife, Patrice, died in a plane crash; he met Suzette through her mother, a minister who came to Windsor Village one afternoon to run a seminar for single parents. Caldwell courted Suzette, who lived in Oklahoma, for months by phone until a friend persuaded her to give the pastor a chance. They married in 1992 and have three young children.
In Obama's unconventional biography, Caldwell clearly sees himself. The hypocrisy of Republican attacks on Obama disappoints him greatly, he says. "Senator Barack Obama went to two good schools. In the neighborhood I grew up in, that's what they said: 'Get a high-school education, get into a good school.' He did that. And now, they are taking his educational background and trying to twist it to make him an elitist."
Caldwell twists his salad with a fork, visibly angry. "In the church I grew up in they told me, 'Son, we want you to get married, but you'll mess up your life if you marry the wrong woman.' Senator Obama and his wife have a great marriage. He confesses Jesus Christ. He practices his faith …" Here Caldwell pauses. "Do you want me to let loose on brother McCain?" Then he calls out McCain especially for his crass language, which he says is "rude, crude, lewd and unbecoming a presidential candidate."
Caldwell has his detractors, who accuse him of being an opportunist. After he decided in 2000 to support Bush at the RNC, he appeared on his friend Ralph Cooper's drive-time radio show to explain. Local people were calling him a snake and a Judas, according to the Houston Chronicle, and callers tied up the line for hours. During the three-hour show, callers were dramatically split on whether Caldwell was right or wrong to support the governor, Cooper recalls. "I fully understand why people would be upset," says Caldwell. "I saw President Bush as an exception—that's why I took the leap of faith."
More recently, Caldwell has come under fire for supposedly betraying his beliefs. In January, gay groups discovered a ministry called Metanoia on the Windsor Village Web site whose stated aim was to help homosexuals understand with God's help that "change was possible" (euphemistic language for "curing" gays). After the groups launched a small battery of protests online, Caldwell says, he received a call from the Obama campaign. "They asked, 'What is Metanoia?,' and they commenced to say they had gotten some calls." Not wishing to cause his candidate any "unnecessary angst," Caldwell voluntarily took the ministry off the Web site, though the ministry itself, which he says was started at the request of church members, remained open. Metanoia, he adds, will be back online soon. The Obama campaign did not comment.
The Rev. DL Foster runs "Witness Freedom Ministries Inc.," an Atlanta-based program aimed at "converting" gays; he believes Caldwell betrayed his own Christian convictions when he took the ministry offline. He points out that among African-Americans, support for gay marriage is far lower than in the general population (some polls put the number as low as one quarter, compared with 40 percent of whites), and that black churches traditionally preach a conservative view of homosexuality. "From what I saw, Reverend Caldwell wanted to be a kingmaker in the Houston area for Obama," says Foster. "I think he wanted to do so very badly; he was willing to scuttle whatever religious beliefs he had on homosexuality." Caldwell responds that he does see homosexual sex—as well as adultery and premarital sex—as acts of "sinfulness." On gay marriage, he says, "I agree with Senator Obama on this one. I think marriage is between a man and a woman, but I support gay persons' rights under the Constitution."
Like a savvy politician, Caldwell can sometimes seem to be splitting hairs. When asked, for example, why he endorsed Bush, he says, "Actually, I supported him as a person. I never officially endorsed him as a candidate." In 2000 he emphatically refuted accusations that he was playing into Republican tokenism, and he questioned whether blacks had to vote Democratic just because they were black. His presence at the convention, he said, was a good thing. It would draw more people into the political process. "Never in the history of the Republican convention … have so many Houstonians paid such close attention."
Now Caldwell uses that same argument to defend himself against the charge that he switched sides because Obama is black. "It is both erroneous and insulting to assume that I in particular and black folk in general are voting for Barack just because he's black. Black folk have voted for a whole bunch of white folk here in America."
Don't label me, Caldwell insists again and again, with his actions and his words. His world is a kaleidoscope of contradictions. He is decisive and a worrier, a workaholic and an attentive family man, a preacher and an executive, humble and attention-seeking, collaborative and demanding. As he sweeps into the brand-new Kingdom Builders' Center—190,000 square feet brilliant with skylights and buzzing with staff—Caldwell greets every person by name, while texting on his cell phone and talking to a reporter. He notices that the potted plants he asked for have not been put outside by the back door. "They're by the front door," the building manager responds. "This is like the White House," Caldwell responds, curtly. "There is no front." As Bush Sr. says, Obama is lucky to have this fine man in his corner—at least for now.