If George W. Bush's choice of a church says anything about him at all, he has a dirty little secret.

Religiously speaking, the darling of the religious right is a moderate.

The Republican presidential candidate may very well oppose abortion rights--as it seems that all good Republican presidential candidates must--but he never heard such ideas preached from the pulpit of Dallas' Highland Park United Methodist Church.

Bush refused to meet with gay members of the Log Cabin Republicans, but the preacher in his home church never advised members to shun gays and never would. Bush embraces religious conservatives Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, courts the Christian Coalition and spoke at South Carolina's Bob Jones University, a far-right evangelical school where administrators defame Catholics and forbid interracial dating. But such alliances weren't fostered in the 84-year-old mainstream Methodist church that Bush and his family joined in 1989. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Everyone is welcome at Highland Park Methodist, perhaps the biggest and arguably the wealthiest Methodist church in the country, but some folks might not feel comfortable, said John Croft, former chairman of the church council.

"If you're real narrow minded, you probably ought to go somewhere else. If you've got all the answers, you probably ought to go somewhere else,'' said the soft-voiced retired lawyer.

Then Croft added a very Methodist-like invitation to such believers. "But come on anyway. Maybe you can teach us something."

Highland Park United Methodist Church is almost invariably described by its members and leaders as a warm, middle-ground, bridge-building church with strong commitment to the poor.

Politics are not preached, ever, which is exactly what Bush wants.

"Many times preachers become very political. I get all the politics I need and I don't need it at church,'' he said in an interview last year as he was starting his campaign. "I want the preacher to talk about the Bible.''

Bush joined Highland Park because he and his wife, Laura, felt "comfortable with the people who go there.''

To anyone from Dallas, saying you feel comfortable in a church with the words Highland Park in its name speaks volumes.

Highland Park is tree-shaded refuge for the rich in the middle of a prairie city that simmers with every ill that urban life can produce.

There's so little crime, poverty or diversity in the lovely streets of Highland Park that even its own residents call it "The Bubble." A half-million dollars will get you a nice little starter house.

The church is one of the finest examples of Gothic church architecture in the Southwest and a Texas Historical Landmark. It sits at the edge of Southern Methodist University, where tuition runs about $18,000 a year and students drive BMWs.

The fast-growing church's almost 13,000 members come from all over Dallas. But most hail from Highland Park and nearby Preston Hollow, where the Bush family lived when he was general managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Highland Park doesn't trumpet its wealth or status--a relative rarity in Dallas where church leaders can be as quick to tout famous members as they are to brag about the sanctuary organ.

Some Highland Park Methodist members bristle at even the notion that theirs is a rich church. "It's not true," said church archivist Jessamine Younger. "Our members are hard working, middle-class people."

The late Tom Landry, the famous Dallas Cowboys football coach, was a member at Highland Park Methodist. So was the late U.S. Sen. John Tower, whose family still attends. The CEO of American Airlines goes there. So does Ross Perot's sister, Bette. When Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was arrested for speeding away from a traffic stop earlier this year, he was on his way to the baptism of his grandchild at Highland Park United Methodist.

Just as Highland Park means something to Dallasites that might not be apparent to outsiders, so does being Methodist.

Methodism isn't the most popular religious choice in Texas--partly because Methodism isn't stern enough to suit many Texans' tastes. Methodists have women clergy and balk at saying non-Christians are going to hell. A good number of Texans consider such thinking to be intolerably lax. Watered-down religion, they call it.

Many of the church's couples come from different denominations and have found a good meeting place in Highland Park. Ann Spillman's husband, Jeff Margoles, is Jewish and doesn't attend. "Nobody is saying, "You need to bring him along or change him,' " said Spillman, who left another local church after members seemed too eager to convert her husband. "I feel very comfortable here."

If Bush had wanted a hellfire-and-damnation, drag-'em-toJesus church that handed out Christian Coalition literature in the foyer, he wouldn't have had to drive far to find it. Big Bible churches flourish all over Dallas. If abortion inflamed his soul, he could have joined the town's flashiest Southern Baptist mega-church where his then elementary-age daughters might have handled little pink plastic fetuses during anti-abortion lessons in Bible School.