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The Pastor Who Has Obama's Attention
Chaplain Survived a Tumor and War to Preach at Camp David

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is long gone; Rick Warren, just an Inauguration Day memory. The hordes of ministers around town who were hoping they'd somehow wind up with the first family in their pews have (mostly) given up.

The president has been pastorless for quite a while now. Well, sort of.

Seventy miles from Washington's prying eyes, Barack Obama has been attending church from time to time at Camp David, where services are led by a 39-year-old Navy chaplain with a famous last name, a compelling life story and a fervent belief in a God who works miracles.

Carey Cash, the great-nephew of singer Johnny Cash and the younger brother of a former Miss America, sees the hand of God in every part of his journey: from the football fields where he once aspired to the NFL to the medical facilities where he learned he'd never play again; from the battered Humvee where he came under fire on the streets of Baghdad to the tiny chapel where he preaches to the country's commander in chief in the Western Maryland mountains.

Although Cash was assigned to Camp David by the Navy, the president really likes the guy. Cash, Obama told religion reporters this summer, "delivers as powerful a sermon as I've heard in a while. I really think he's excellent."

But don't make the mistake of referring to the imposing 6-foot-4 Southern Baptist chaplain as the president's pastor. The White House has said that's not the case.

None of the president's advisers have forgotten the firestorm that engulfed Obama during the campaign when inflammatory sermons by Wright, Obama's longtime spiritual mentor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, were made public.

The president himself cites it as part of the reason that he and his wife have been hesitant to pick a permanent church in Washington.

"Let's be blunt," said Obama, who has attended worship services once at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church and three times at St. John's Episcopal Church, most recently Sunday. "We were pretty affected by what happened at Trinity and the controversy surrounding Reverend Wright. That was deeply disturbing to us, and it was disappointing for us personally. It made us very sensitive to the fact that as president, the church we attend can end up being interpreted as speaking for us at all times."

At Camp David's tiny Evergreen Chapel, which is off limits to the public and the media, the Obamas don't have to worry about that kind of scrutiny. The family shares the pews with a small number of military families stationed at the 143-acre retreat -- an experience that the president has mentioned more than once, along with his high regard for Cash.

But that doesn't mean Obama endorses Cash's controversial views on Christian proselytizing in the military and on Islam, which the chaplain describes in a 2004 book as a violent faith that "from its very birth has used the edge of the sword as a means to convert or conquer those with different religious convictions."

The White House declined to make Cash available for interviews, saying it wished to keep the president's religious worship at Camp David private. Cash's family also declined to speak on instructions, they said, from the White House.

Nevertheless, interviews with others close to him and Cash's account of his 2003 deployment to Iraq paint a portrait of a gripping preacher who baptized more than 50 men during the war and who believes a "wall of angels" shielded his troops as they battled their way to Baghdad in the opening days of the war.

Two men died and dozens were injured, but, in Cash's view, God protected the unit from more extensive casualties.

"Yes, our men were lost and separated," Cash recounts in "A Table in the Presence: The Dramatic Account of How a U.S. Marine Battalion Experienced God's Presence Amidst the Chaos of the War in Iraq." "But our God was not confused. Just as he had from the very beginning of the war, He was providentially working all things together for the good of a cause that was just and true."

The book also offers an unflattering assessment of Islam, which Cash views as a flawed faith.

"Sadly, grace is often absent in Islam, which is based upon binding religious law, requiring strenuous adherence to every tenet of the 'Five Pillars of Allah,' " Cash writes. "A religion that emerges from the soil of strict adherence to law as a means of gaining God's favor will always tend toward extreme self-sacrifice."

Cash has drawn criticism from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group that monitors Christian proselytizing in the military, for his participation in Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry, a program for evangelical chaplains to "help every troop, every leader, every family member hear and receive the lifesaving message about Jesus."

"This is an organization that has repeatedly stated its goal of transforming our military into a force of 'government-paid missionaries for Christ,' " said Chris Rodda, a foundation spokesman. "Any chaplain or commander who would support or condone these tactics or goals is a problem."

The White House declined to comment on the criticism. But those who served with Cash in Iraq have nothing but praise for his deep faith, warm manner and forceful sermons.

"I have absolutely no surprise that the president is moved and inspired by or finds that his message is powerful," said Brig. Gen. Frederick Padilla, Cash's commander during his deployment. "You don't have a heart beating in your chest if you don't feel this way when you hear this man talk."

Obama will have plenty of opportunities to hear Cash speak: The lieutenant commander and his wife, Charity, who have six children and a seventh on the way, will be at Camp David for much of Obama's term.

Previous Camp David chaplains said they needed permission from the White House to discuss their experience there, which, despite repeated requests, administration officials did not provide.

But in his 2008 book, "No Atheists in Foxholes," the Rev. Patrick McLaughlin, a Lutheran who served at Camp David during George W. Bush's first term, recalls his nerves at presiding over the pulpit with the president, his family and staff present.

"Are you any good?" he remembers Bush asking him when he was first introduced to the president.

"Yes, sir," McLaughlin said he replied. "The Navy sent me here. I can hold my own."

During his three-year tenure, from 2002 to 2005, McLaughlin delivered 60 sermons with Bush present, including one after the president declared war on Iraq.

"God," the chaplain remembers praying, "give me the words for Sunday's sermon."

Those who know Cash said they doubt preaching before the president would faze him.

"I don't think he's intimidated by persons of power and prestige," said Rodney Petersen, one of Cash's teachers when he did postgraduate work at the Boston University School of Theology. "I'm sure that he is polite and respectful, but he calls it like it is."

Cash was born in Memphis to an accomplished, deeply religious family. His father, Roy Cash Jr., was a fighter pilot in the Navy for 30 years. His older sister, Kellye, was crowned Miss America in 1987. His mother, Billie, runs a Christian ministry and is the author of several books about her faith.

Billie was the central figure in Cash's childhood, because his father was often away on deployments.

His mother's devotion to God, Cash writes, had a profound effect when he was growing up. Each day, he would tear off a calendar Scripture verse upon which his mother had written a message, wad it up in his pocket and carry it with him for inspiration.

After his family moved to Virginia Beach, Cash played football at Bayside High School, where he wrote a poem about God and the gridiron that was printed in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper:

At dusktime, I love to hold

a battered football, in the lonely, overcast

stadium and talk to God of my

mistakes.

Cash went on to play football at the Citadel in South Carolina, where he was a 270-pound NCAA all-American offensive tackle. He drew interest from several NFL teams, his mother writes in one of her books. But after graduating from the Citadel in 1992, he began having blurred vision and headaches.

The diagnosis: an inoperable brain tumor. Doctors told Cash it wasn't cancerous, but it was located in a dangerous place on the brain stem. If it grew, it could threaten his life. Football was out of the question.

"My life may have been as good as over in the eyes of some people," Cash writes. "But something deep inside was calling me to turn my eyes away from the situation and to trust God, who knew exactly what He was doing."

With the encouragement of his father-in-law, a Navy chaplain, Cash entered Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with the goal of becoming a chaplain, too. He served as a youth minister, pastored a small Tennessee church and eventually received a medical waiver to enter the Navy Reserves based on a doctor's assurance that his tumor would not grow.

After much prayer, Cash writes, his headaches and blurred vision went away, which he attributes to God's direct intervention.

In August 2001 -- just a month before terrorists would bring down the World Trade Center -- Cash entered active-duty service and was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, part of the first ground force to enter Iraq in 2003.

As the convoy of tanks, trucks and transport vehicles moved through southern Iraq toward Baghdad, Cash and his assistant, Petty Officer Redor Rufo, drove alongside in their Humvee, large white crosses painted on each door.

Cash prayed with sweating Marines inside massive amphibious assault vehicles and conducted brief, informal services, using tailgates and ammunition boxes for altars. He baptized men with canteens of water.

At one point, he writes, he and Rufo were sprayed with bullets as Cash finished up a service in Saddam City. They threw themselves behind the Humvee's front bumper and were unharmed.

"He didn't ever seem scared and nervous like the rest of us," recalled Bill Bonner, a corporal in the battalion. "He was always just there to keep us going. He was a stalwart in the way that he faced the challenge of dealing with combat for the first time."

His three-year tour at Camp David presents a much different challenge: providing spiritual inspiration to the most powerful man in the world. But if Obama's admiring words are any indication, he's getting the job done.

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