Serious charges against a preacher friend of George W. Bush (oh, and Barack Obama, as well)

Here is a name that may or may not ring a bell for many news consumers: The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell.

Maybe the video at the top of this post will refresh your memory. That's Caldwell, a megachurch pastor from Houston, saying one of the prayers at the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush as president.

At the moment, Caldwell is -- as Texans would say -- in a heap of trouble, as you can see at the top of this report in The Houston Chronicle, under this headline: "Kirbyjon Caldwell -- Houston megachurch pastor and spiritual adviser to George W. Bush -- indicted on fraud charges."

A prominent Houston pastor and spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush has been indicted on federal charges that he sold millions of dollars in worthless Chinese bonds to elderly and vulnerable investors, according to federal authorities.
Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, 64, and Shreveport financial planner Gregory Alan Smith, 55, were charged with 13 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering.
Caldwell is accused of using his position as the senior pastor of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church to help lure nearly $3.5 million in investments into historic Chinese bonds that are not recognized by the Chinese government. He and Smith told investors they could see returns as high as 15 times their initial investment, according to the indictment.

Now, pause and remember that many, and perhaps most, Americans who still read newspapers simply scan the headlines and then decide whether they want to dig deeper into a story. So read that Chronicle headline again.

Done? Now read this ABC News headline about the same story: "Megachurch pastor with ties to Presidents Bush, Obama to surrender Monday: Attorney."

Did you spot an interesting difference in these two headlines? Here are two key passages in that ABC News story. First, the lede:

The notable Houston reverend and former spiritual adviser to both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who stands accused by federal prosecutors of bilking millions from investors in a Chinese bond scheme, plans to turn himself in, ABC News has learned.

Now, here is a longer passage that contains several details that did not make it into that hometown Chronicle report:

Caldwell spent a portion of his Easter Sunday sermon proclaiming his innocence over the charges as well, saying, "From my mouth to your ears, I am not guilty." He asked for the congregation to pray for he and his family. ...
Caldwell's Windsor Village United Methodist Church seats about 7,000 people and was packed with an overflow crowd on Easter, KTRK said.
Caldwell spoke at the 2000 Republican National convention, gave the benediction at President George W. Bush's 2001 inauguration and also officiated over his daughter's wedding. And back in 2008, Obama called on Caldwell as a member of his prayer team, according to a Newsweek article. He was also a part of a group of religious leaders invited to the White House after Obama's faith was scrutinized, according to a Houston Chronicle report.

In fact, it's interesting to note that there are still no references to Obama in a Chronicle follow-up article about this case: "Kirbyjon Caldwell gains support of black pastors at Good Friday service."

Why make a big deal out of this political oversight? After all, what's the religion angle here?

To be blunt, consider this passage in a 2008 Newsweek profile of Caldwell, back in the days when Newsweek profiles were, well, real Newsweek profiles. The headline: "Obama's Other Pastor."

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.

One other point, in terms of the building blocks of this story, which certainly appears to be a nasty turn in the life of a prominent clergyman and community leader.

In terms of church ties, what denominations leap to mind when hear about an African-American pastor who has close ties to a Republican? Well, he would probably be Pentecostal, in the Assemblies of God or perhaps even a black megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Right?

Well, how far down did you need to read in whatever story ran in your news website of choice to learn that Caldwell is a United Methodist, one with very mainstream ties at that?

That also complicates this news scene a bit, too.

Then again, President George W. Bush was, and is, an active United Methodist layman and at several points in his life he has found himself more at home in predominately black UMC churches, in part because they tend to be more conservative on moral and social issues. Look up stories about George W. Bush and religion and you'll usually see "evangelical" more than "United Methodist." (Of course, one can be both, but that's another issue for another story.)

However, Caldwell was also at the top of Obama's list when he needed spiritual support and help. Thus, we can say that Caldwell had ties to folks in both camps. Now, who are the victims in this sad story? People on both sides?

Meanwhile, in the world of American journalism, where all labels are somehow "political," is Caldwell an "evangelical," a "mainline Protestant," a "liberal," a "conservative," a "progressive" or what? Does it matter that he's a Democrat?

Just asking.

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