Institute on Religion and Democracy
A METHODIST MOMENT IN WASHINGTON
January 31, 2001
The openly religious and church-going George W. Bush is a United Methodist. So too are such confidants as Vice-President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card (whose wife is a Methodist pastor), and Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
Bush apparently takes his role as a churchman seriously. For 20 years he has regularly attended United Methodist churches in Midland, Dallas and Austin. The pastor of United Methodism’s largest congregation, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston’s 13,000 member Windsor Park Church, gave the benediction at Bush’s inaugural. The pastors of Bush’s churches in Dallas and Austin also participated in the inaugural and are likewise described as spiritual counselors.
The first church in Washington that Bush attended as president, after his inaugural weekend, was Lincoln Park United Methodist on Capitol Hill. The choice made news because the congregation is almost all black. But the choice also made sense, since most of Washington’s white Methodist churches are theologically and politically liberal. The lively two-hour service included two standing ovations for the President, who was accompanied by his wife and parents, and prayers for his presidency. The pianist played “Hail to the Chief.”
Lincoln’s Park’s pastor, Harold Lewis, who is black, is an outspoken evangelical from Mississippi who is pro-life. He is quite different from J. Philip Wogaman, the white, and very liberal pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, which Hillary Clinton attends, her Baptist husband usually in tow.
The new senator from New York, who also takes her Methodism seriously, albeit a very different brand than Bush’s, is one of numerous United Methodist members of congress. There are now 65 members of Congress who are United Methodist, an increase of six over the last Congress. They include Republicans like Senators Richard Lugar (Indiana) and Sam Brownback (Kansas), and Democrats such as Robert Torricelli (New Jersey) and Zell Miller (Georgia). Democrat United Methodists outnumber Republicans in the Senate by 10 to 6. In the House of Representatives, Republican United Methodists outnumber Democrats 33 to 16.
So perhaps Washington is experiencing a Methodist moment. After decades of predominance by refined Episcopalians, rambunctious Baptists, politically active Evangelicals, and socially ascendant Roman Catholics, the nation’s capital is now in the hands of United Methodists. And that means exactly what? How can the same church produce both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton?
To compound the confusion, The United Methodist Church’s Board of Church and Society, prominently perched in the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, is the largest church lobby in Washington. It is also among the most liberal, pushing for gun control and socialized medicine, while fighting U.S. military programs and defending abortion rights.
Meanwhile, United Methodists as a whole vote mostly Republican. White mainline Protestants, of which Methodists are the largest component, voted for Bush by even larger margins than self-described Evangelicals. In short, the church’s leadership reflects the beliefs of America’s cultural elite. But the church’s membership reflects the ethos of the suburbs and small towns of the South and Mid-West, where United Methodism is strongest.
Like the church’s leadership, Senator Clinton was shaped by the 1960’s, when Methodist activists eagerly joined the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. She, like they, equated the church with social action. Thirty-five years later she still credits her Methodist youth group for transforming her from a Goldwater supporter to a liberal activist. Her political life has closely paralleled the official policy positions of her denomination, if not of most church members.
In contrast, Bush came to Methodism later in life. He married his wife, Laura, a lifelong Methodist. But he recalls he only became a committed believer after counseling from Billy Graham, a Baptist, and a non-denominational Bible study that also involved long-time friend Don Evans. Bush now says Jesus Christ has “changed his heart.” This kind of talk discomfits some Methodist intellectual elites. But it easily fits with historical Methodism, which was founded after 17th century English evangelist John Wesley also felt his “heart strangely warmed.”
Much of 20th century Methodism was dominated by theological liberalism, which de-emphasized personal salvation, belief in the Bible as reliable history, and personal holiness. Its brand of Social Gospel captured seminaries and church agencies but never fully captured the local church. The late 20th century saw a re-emergence of evangelical beliefs within Methodism, fueled in part by a wider evangelical awakening as reflected in parachurch groups such as Promise Keepers.
Thirty years of debate over homosexuality have also compelled evangelicals to organize politically within the 8.4 million member church. They have defeated numerous efforts to change the church’s official disapproval of homosexual practice and same-sex unions by two to one margins at the church’ s governing conventions. But the clashes over sex have divided United Methodism along regional lines. The more conservative South, with its more robust membership numbers, is now seen as ascendant over the declining and more liberal northeast and west.
Despite the political and theological divide within the church, there are some common characteristics shared by most United Methodists. Unlike Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians and nearly every other Christian denomination, Methodists have little experience of religious wars or official persecution. Hence, Methodists are uncomfortable with open fights or combative language. Look for George Bush to govern through charm offensives, not frontal attacks.
Methodists are not ideological. The church has always been stronger on works than on theology. Helping the poor, reforming the prisons, opposing slavery, and advocating temperance have been traditional Methodist themes, not deep theological debate. Bush’s non-ideological compassionate conservatism, with its focus on inner city renewal and faith-based programs, is natural Methodist fare. So too is his emphasis on education. Methodists have founded more schools than any other church movement in America.
Methodists are orderly and punctual. President Bush appears to live up to this reputation. Methodists are formal but not highfalutin. So it is perfectly Methodist that Bush has required that suits, and not blue jeans, must be worn in the Oval Office, but that his inaugural festivities were notably understated.
Methodists love committees, although they deny it. And Methodists love racial diversity, which they loudly advertise. It is predictable that Bush ’s appointments have been the most racially diverse of any administration. And expect him to be among the most prone to meetings as any president in modern history.
Methodists like to get up early, especially for pancake breakfasts at church. Bush is a morning person. Methodists used to oppose dancing and still cannot dance when they try. Neither can Bush, which he acknowledges. Methodists are typically educated but not intellectual. Bush’s reputation fits that of the stereotype, fostered by Presbyterians, that Methodists are simply Baptists who can read.
Methodists are more humorous than Presbyterians, but not as witty as Episcopalians or Catholics. Bush is funny in a suitably Methodist, low-key fashion. Methodists, unlike Baptists, do not like to elaborate on the sins of their former life. Do not expect a lot of self-revelations from Bush, in contrast to his predecessor, whose sins were never really “former.”
Methodists abhor debt. It is suitable that Bush may be almost the first president since Andrew Jackson to pay off the national debt. Methodists like to make money but are reluctant to spend it. Despite his wealth, Bush lives modestly. Do not expect to see steer horns mounted on white Cadillacs at the Bush ranch. Even Texas Methodists do not do that.
Bush likely will share characteristics with the other Methodist or Methodist influenced presidents such as James Polk, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley, all of whom were stolid, free of personal scandal, non-flamboyant, affable, quietly plain spoken but not great orators, mostly popular despite their shortcomings, underestimated, and surprisingly bold when necessary.
There are other similarities. Like Grant, Bush overcame a weakness for strong drink. Like Hayes, Bush won a bitterly contested election that centered on the electoral votes of Florida. And maybe like McKinley, Bush could sum up his political philosophy with the words: “I am simply a Methodist.”