Politicians have long sought the counsel of faith leaders. Obama’s got 100 dialing in to pray for him.
The Houston mega-pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell—who presided over Jenna Bush’s wedding last month and has offered spiritual counsel to her father—is a Christian VIP, so busy that his cell-phone voicemail says, “Do not leave messages here.” But on Friday mornings, whether he’s at church, in the car or on the golf course, Caldwell tries to dial into a certain highlevel conference call. At 9:30 Eastern time, a group of religious leaders gathers “telephonically,” as Caldwell puts it; for 15 minutes, they pray for Sen. Barack Obama.
“Typically,” Caldwell says, “whoever is praying always prays for the senator and his wife. For his safety, surety, soundness of mind, clarity of thought.” One person leads the prayer; everyone else listens. The leaders pray that planes land safely and that Secret Service agents keep their eyes open. (When Caldwell does the blessing, “he also prays for Senator Clinton and Senator McCain,” says the Rev. Michael Battle, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.) The number of participants ranges from a handful to 100. Obama is not on the line.
Americans are accustomed to images of pastors praying with politicians (Billy Graham has counseled nearly every president since Eisenhower), but never before has prayer—nearly 75 percent of Americans say they pray once weekly or more, according to the Pew Research Center—been such an orchestrated part of a presidential campaign. In addition to the Friday-morning prayers, there are separate weekly prayer-and-strategy calls for the campaign’s Roman Catholic, Jewish, evangelical and African-American faith-group leaders. On last Thursday’s African-American clergy call, Caldwell recalls, the group “lifted up” the Democratic rules committee, the body tasked with apportioning the Michigan and Florida delegates. “The group asked that there would be sound judgment and fairness,” says Caldwell. “They did not say, ‘Lord, bless the committee to choose Barack Obama’.” (Joshua DuBois, the campaign’s religious-affairs director, says it was a prayer for wisdom and discernment, not specifically for the committee.) The campaign also organizes prayer calls before important events. On the eve of the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, the campaign set one up led by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil-rights leader who helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, and Bishop T. D. Jakes, the powerhouse Dallas preacher who appeared beside President Bush in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “Bishop Jakes’s message was a nonpartisan prayer for the country,” says DuBois. “It did not imply any endorsement.”
Mostly, the Friday prayers are led by DuBois or his deputy, Paul Monteiro, but from time to time a guest is invited to offer a blessing. Caldwell has prayed on the call, as has Battle. The Rev. Gerald Durley of Atlanta is a frequent participant, and the Rev. Cynthia Hale says she offered a prayer last month. Jewish educator Sharon Spivak, of Nashua, N.H., prayed before the New Hampshire primary, and the Rev. Chuck Currie, a Protestant mini-ster from Portland, prayed the week before Oregon. “They’re not calling down fire and brimstone,” says Shaun Casey, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. “It’s not a high-school locker-room prayer before the big football game.”
Obviously, not every one of the campaign’s prayers has been answered. Last week it fought off another pastor problem as video clips of a derisive sermon Father Michael Pfleger preached at Obama’s church, Trinity, in Chicago, circulated online. Last Thursday, Obama condemned Pfleger’s remarks; on Friday, the campaign’s Catholic outreach coordinator, Mark Linton, led the prayer call, which NEWSWEEK was invited to listen in on. The blessing, a reading of the prayer of St. Francis, lasted less than five minutes. After everyone else hung up, one mournful voice remained. “Why are they cutting it short?” the voice said. “Everybody’s supposed to pray.”