WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (RNS) -- When George W. Bush becomes the 43rd president onSaturday, he will become the first Methodist president in 100 years andonly the third in history.

He will replace Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, who attended aMethodist church while president and delivered the sermon Sunday atFoundry United Methodist Church, his last there as president.

Bush has not said where he will attend church while at the WhiteHouse, but Foundry's pastor, the Rev. Philip Wogaman, has extended theBushes an invitation. United Methodist Bishop Felton E. May of theWashington-Baltimore area has also urged Bush to attend a methodistchurch.

``The United Methodist Church includes wide political andtheological diversity,'' May said in a statement. ``There is room forall who seek to follow Jesus Christ. I am confident the president willbe able to find a church that nurtures his faith and supports hisfamily's spiritual life.''

Bush was raised as an Episcopalian but joined the United MethodistChurch when he married his wife, Laura, a lifelong Methodist. They aremembers of Highland Park United Methodist Church near Dallas andattended Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas.

Bush shares an almost eerie similarity with the two other Methodistpresidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. Like Bush, Hayeswon the White House in a hotly contested election in which he won theElectoral College vote but failed to win the popular vote.

McKinley first won in 1896 but was assassinated just a year into hissecond term, in 1901. An evangelical prayer group is praying that Bush,unlike McKinley, does not succumb to the fabled ``zero year curse'' thathas killed seven presidents -- each elected in a year ending in 0 --before their terms ended.

The United Methodist Church is the nation's second-largestProtestant body with 8.4 million members in the United States, and about10 million around the world.

These are good days for Methodists in Washington, with a number ofhigh-profile members. Vice President-elect Dick Cheney is a Methodist,as well as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who used a Bible givento her by the church's General Board of Church and Society when she wassworn into office.

The number of Methodist members of Congress is up six following lastyear's election, with 39 Methodist Republicans and 26 MethodistDemocrats. (Catholics lead Congress with 150 members, followed byBaptists, with 72. Methodists rank third on Capitol Hill).

As with any church member, it is unclear whether Bush'sdenominational affiliation will influence his policy making. Clinton wasmore often at odds with his own church than he agreed with them. Andlike most Americans, Bush operates in an age where personal piety oftenmatters more than denominational dogma.

Indeed, Bush is at odds with official Methodist policy on a numberof issues, from abortion -- the church calls it a ``regrettable option''-- to affirmative action to an expanded missile defense system and gaysin the military.

Bush, a self-professed born-again Christian, promises a big role forfaith-based activism which will allow religious bodies to help in thedelivery of social services, particularly in urban areas.

Evangelicals within the United Methodist Church say they are``encouraged'' by having an ally in the White, particularly with Bush'sopposition to abortion.

``We feel some degree of optimism, in fact more than that, we feelpositive about George W. Bush as president and that he will bring withhim a wholesome concern for scriptural and family values,'' said theRev. James Heidinger III, president of the church's evangelical GoodNews movement.

Wogaman, who was also one Clinton's three ``spiritual advisers,''said there is no ``particular liklihood'' that Bush will attend hischurch near the White House, known for its progressive stands on issuessuch as abortion and gay rights.

A dean of the church's liberal wing, Wogaman said Bush -- like anypolitical leader -- will need to ``transcend the particularities of hisfaith community, especially in a pluralistic country such as ours.''

The same could be said for the Methodist church. With a hugeideological range, Wogaman said there is room for both conservativeslike Bush and progressives like himself. What's more, he said followingthe spirit of the church may be more important than following the law ofthe church, particularly for Bush.

``You can faithfully be a Methodist without narrowly being aMethodist,'' he said.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus