George W. Bush will become third Methodist president
WASHINGTON (UMNS) -- When George W. Bush takes the oath of office as the 43rd president of the United States - as is expected on Jan. 20 - he will be only the third Methodist to do so.
Methodists who have served previously were William McKinley (1897-1901) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881). (Bush's father, George Bush, attended Episcopal churches in Maine and Washington during his presidency.) Bush's similarities with McKinley and Hayes are greater than church membership: All three were or are Republicans who had served as governor of their home state. In the case of McKinley and Hayes, that state was Ohio.
President Ulysses S. Grant, who immediately preceded Hayes in office, was a close friend of Methodist Bishop John Phillip Newman, serving as a trustee of Newman's church. But, according to Mark Shenise at the denomination's archives, Grant never joined the church. Newman was present when Grant died of cancer in 1885.
Having a United Methodist in office does not mean the president's policies will reflect those of the church. Moreover, United Methodists often differ among themselves and from the official positions expressed by the church's highest legislative body, the General Conference.
Bush, 54, is a member of Highland Park United Methodist Church in the Dallas area and regularly attends Tarrytown United Methodist church in Austin, Texas, when he is at the governor's mansion there. Vice President-elect Dick Cheney is also identified as a United Methodist in his biographical material, but his campaign office has not answered queries from United Methodist News Service regarding his local church membership.
Bush's first calendar item as president-elect was a Dec. 14 church service at Tarrytown in Austin. The day before, Bush had emerged as the winner in the presidential election, more than a month after the Nov. 7 vote. Democrat opponent Al Gore conceded the election after losing a key Supreme Court decision regarding controversial vote counts in Florida.
Though Bush becomes only the third Methodist to take the White House, the denomination's leaders have been active throughout the nation's history in working with presidential administrations. However, the denomination officially supports the separation of church and state.
"Since Bishop Francis Asbury, with a delegation of Methodists, visited President George Washington, Methodists have had a history of support and prayer for our nation's presidents," said Bishop William B. Oden, president of the Council of Bishops and leader of the church's Dallas Area.
Oden said that both Bush and wife Laura, a lifelong United Methodist, taught Sunday school at Highland Park and actively supported the Wesley-Rankin community center in Dallas, with which their church has been involved.
"Gov. Bush has been innovative in partnerships of faith-based communities and government programs while always respecting the separation of church and state," Oden observed. In accepting the Republican Party's nomination, Bush himself said that he expects religious groups "to serve" and that government's role is "helping the helper."
During the campaign, several news reports noted that Bush's opinions more closely match those of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination in which Al Gore holds membership, and Gore's views are more like those of the United Methodist Church, traditionally regarded as "more liberal" than the Southern Baptists.
The death penalty, gun control, education, abortion and Social Security are some of the issues on which Bush's expressed views differ in some measure from official positions of the church as contained in its Book of Resolutions. In other areas, there is agreement.
For example, both the Republican Party, for which Bush is the most visible speaker, and the United Methodist Church favor a ban on human cloning. Both the Republicans and the United Methodist Church express support for the right to participate in labor organizations and to bargain collectively.
Capital punishment is one area where clear differences exist. United Methodism's official pronouncements condemn the death penalty while Bush upholds it.
"I support the death penalty because I believe it saves lives," Bush has said. "I believe that individual states should make every effort to ensure that their criminal justice systems are fair and impartial, and that every defendant has full access to the state and federal courts. Any time DNA evidence, in the context of all the evidence, is deemed to be relevant in the guilt or innocence of a person on death row, I believe we need to use it."
In regard to gun control, Bush has said, "We need to have laws that keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them." However, the gun laws in Texas have been liberalized during Bush's governorship there, according to a gun control advocate.
"As governor, he signed a law allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons," noted Desmond Riley, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He added that Bush also signed into law a bill that prohibited Texas cities from suing gun companies to recover the costs associated with treating gunshot victims.
Moreover, Bush was the candidate of choice for the National Rifle Association, which made no secret of its expectations for favorable treatment when the candidate takes office. The church advocates reducing the number of guns in communities, including banning ownership of handguns, assault weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits and weapons that cannot be detected by regular metal-detection devices.
Some people see a similarity in the United Methodist stance on homosexuality and Bush's position. United Methodists prohibit same-sex unions and will not ordain practicing homosexuals into its clergy. Bush and his party have said that they are against same-sex unions. However, Bush also believes that homosexuals should not serve in the military, while the United Methodist Church has advocated just the opposite.
Both Bush and the denomination define marriage in similar terms. The church's Social Principles "affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is ... between a man and a woman." In the second presidential debate, Bush said, "I think marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. ... I feel strongly that marriage should be between a man and a woman."
The denomination's statement on abortion expresses reluctant support for the availability of legal abortions for women who choose them on the basis of their situations, while Bush holds a pro-life stance with exceptions only for cases of rape or incest, or if the life of the mother is in danger. At the General Conference held in May, the church added a prohibition against "partial birth" abortion except to save the life of the mother or in cases where severe fetal anomalies exist that are incompatible with life. Bush supports banning the procedure.
In discussions about education, Bush has expressed support for giving parents vouchers that may be used to send their children to private and religious schools, and he proposes increased funding for charter schools. The United Methodist Church officially opposes the use of vouchers for sending children to private schools in the belief that vouchers take support away from public schools and could create possible entanglements between church and state.
Bush has said he believes that younger workers should be allowed to divert money from the Social Security tax on their wages to private savings and market accounts. However, in a new resolution adopted last May on Social Security and women, the church rejected privatization of any part of the Social Security tax, observing that such changes endanger the system's ability to provide benefits, especially for elderly women who rely heavily on income from Social Security to meet their needs and who constitute the majority of recipients. This resolution also urged keeping the disability and survivor's benefits, inflation adjustments, and benefits for divorced and widowed spouses.
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*Purdue is news director of United Methodist News Service's Washington bureau.
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