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-to Jesus 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.

Texas is dominated by Baptists. Even Catholics have more clout than Methodists, especially if you want to court Hispanics, which Bush does and has. A good number of Dallas elites are members of the Church of Christ, a church so conservative women aren't allowed to address the congregation.

Some Methodists, on the other hand, go so far as to allow homosexual marriage and ordination of homosexual priests. Highland Park Methodist does not. As those controversies have roiled the denomination, Highland Park hasn't even addressed them, said Dr. Leighton Farrell, the church's pastor when the Bush family lived in Dallas. There's been no call to.

The church is conservative, but so is Dallas, said member Gaylia Kelley. "It was kind of a giggle when we moved her,'' said Kelley, who relocated from Austin. "People kept Dole (for President) signs out in their yards months after Dole lost," she said.

George W.'s ties to the Religious Right go back to his father's presidential races, when the oldest Bush son was point man for dealing with conservative Christians. It was a tough job and George W. did it well.

But he was not thinking Presidential primary politics when he joined Highland Park in 1989.

When he ran for governor in 1994, he assured Farrell that he would be in church every Sunday of the campaign. "I could count on one hand the number of Sundays he missed,'' said Farrell.

"He's a regular guy,'' said church member Kent Roberts. "There is a certain place where you can sit and catch the reverend's eye. He did that, but that's the only thing like that I saw him do. That's OK. He's an ambitious guy.''

The Bush family sat in a front side pew sometimes reserved for dignitaries, said Jan Owen, director of membership. The side door gave Secret Service agents guarding the President's son and his family good access. Secret Service agents requested second-row seating, said Owen. If an assassin tried to shoot, another person would be blocking the shot, she hypothesized somewhat grimly. After President Bush left office and the Secret Service detail was withdrawn, the Bushes kept their front side seats.

That doesn't puzzle Owen. "Everybody gets into their habits,'' she said.

Farrell has high regard for George W. "He's just who he is,'' said Farrell. "He's the same person at home, in the office, in church. Even that little bit of devilment, it's who he is.''

The Bushes didn't grandstand, church members said. In 1990, when George W. worked with Ruth Altshuler as co-chair of the church's $7 million capital fund drive, "he worked hard and did everything we asked him to do," said Altshuler, a Dallas philanthropist.

"The first time I saw Laura, she was serving punch and cookies at Wesley-Rankin,'' said Croft. Laura and George headed an annual benefit for Wesley-Rankin Community Center, a Methodist inner-city ministry, for five years. George W. shook hands and remembered names in church hallways just as he did everywhere. Laura was shy but friendly. Bush didn't ask for special attention, and he didn't get it, said Michelle Patison, who handles church communications. "He was a typical member,'' she said.

"We have a lot of prominent people in the church," said Croft, "and I hope we don't treat any of them like celebrities.''

When Landry died in February, a private service at the church honored his life, but his name was not mentioned at Sunday services.

When Mark Craig, the church's current minister, was asked why, he replied that Landry's death was no less or more important than deaths of less-well-known people in the church, said Patison.

Bush's "compassionate conservatism" philosophy fits well at Highland Park, where concern for the poor is a long tradition.

"It's 19th-Century Methodism, biblically conservative but socially active,'' said Roberts, whose Christian Carpenters have built eight Habitat for Humanity houses since 1995 and are working on an inner-city community center. They raised $60,000 for each house.

Highland Park's $2 million a year for outreach extends into pockets of poverty all over Dallas and into countries around the world. In 1976, Dr. Kenneth Foree organized a medical mission to Haiti that has continued every year. The church now supports a fully staffed, year-round clinic.

During Texas' terrible economic slump of the mid-'80s, "we kept right on going,'' said Foree's wife, Lila, who is also the pastor's secretary. "Everyone just dug a little deeper.''

Bush calls his faith a personal matter. "I view my religion as a very personal important part of my life. I want people to judge me on my deeds, not as how I try to define myself as a religious person of words,'' he told a reporter last year.

The candidate has seemed more than happy to talk about his Christianity on the presidential campaign trail. He has declared himself a born-again Christian. When asked his favorite philosopher, he replied firmly, "Jesus Christ.'' Texas cynics joke that the response was not an affirmation but an exclamation from a man who doesn't read much philosophy.

But the sincerity of Bush's faith can hardly be questioned. It has time and steady practice on its side.

For years, he has recounted how he rededicated his life to Christ in the mid-'80s after having talked with the evangelist Billy Graham.

At 40, he gave up drinking. He reads the Bible daily. Farrell was with George W. in 1994 when Texas Gov. Ann Richards conceded defeat. Bush switched off the television before her concession speech and called for prayer, said Farrell, who served Highland Park until after the Bushes moved to Austin in 1995.

Although the family now attends an Austin church recommended by Farrell, they have not moved their memberships from Highland Park. After the governor's second Texas win, Highland Park ministers and the church choir went to Austin for a special service. The sermon Craig preached made the first pages of Bush's autobiography, A Charge to Keep.

The minister talked about how Moses, called to lead his people, didn't feel capable, but took up the challenge anyway because people were starved for leadership.

Bush's mother, Barbara, later said, "He was talking to you."

Her son heard the lesson and took to the campaign trail. He isn't presumptuous enough to think God called him personally. But he has said he thinks God will be with him.

Also with him will be years of messages from Highland Park Methodist. Farrell hopes Bush took away a strong biblical foundation and the ability to live his faith.

"A person without faith is going to make decisions on the spur of the moment,'' Farrell said, "but a person living their faith will think of what's good for the country in the long run, not what's politically expedient.''

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