UMAction Briefing HomepageMark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy


Taste Houses of Worship: In God He Trusts


Taste -- Houses of Worship: In God He Trusts
By Mark Tooley

The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Where will the new president go to church in Washington?

After his swearing in, George W. Bush will become the nation's third practicing Methodist president. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first and William McKinley the last, 100 years ago. (James Polk and Ulysses Grant converted to Methodism on their deathbeds.) With the exception of Jimmy Carter, Mr. Bush is also possibly the most outwardly religious president since McKinley, who held hymn-sings in the White House.

Mr. Bush says he became a committed Christian at age 39, thanks to counsel from Billy Graham, a Baptist. He also credits a nondenominational Bible study for shaping his faith. But Mr. Bush became a Methodist, after an Episcopalian and Presbyterian upbringing, when he married his Methodist wife, Laura. After 20 years of affiliation, the Bushes seem unlikely to leave Methodism when they look for a church in Washington.

They probably will not be joining Foundry United Methodist Church, which Bill and Hillary Clinton say they will continue to attend now that they've bought a house in Washington. The new senator from New York is a lifelong Methodist, while her husband is a Baptist. But they both felt comfortable with Foundry's liberal brand of Methodism.

Foundry's minister, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, vigorously defended Mr. Clinton during the Monica scandal. A proponent of abortion rights and gay marriage, Mr. Wogaman says that he has invited Mr. Bush to attend Foundry. But prominent Republicans have not fared well there. Bob and Elizabeth Dole, longtime Foundry attenders, very publicly left that church in 1995 when Foundry's theological and political stances veered too far left.

But Foundry Church, which President Hayes also attended in the 1870s, is not unusual in the nation's capital. Most of the predominantly white Methodist churches in affluent northwest Washington are liberal. It is a different story for Washington's black Methodist churches, whose theology, if not their political affiliation, is usually more conservative.

Do not be surprised, then, if the Bushes elect to attend a black church in Washington, about 60% of whose population is black. The imagery would fit neatly with his brand of compassionate conservatism. But going to a black church would be more than a photo op. It would also fit better with Mr. Bush's evangelical faith.

One possibility is the Lincoln Park United Methodist Church on Capitol Hill. Leading a nearly all-black congregation, its pastor, the Rev. Harold Lewis, is a military veteran and Mississippi native. His revivalist preaching should appeal to Mr. Bush, who has publicly described Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher.

Mr. Lewis is affiliated with Methodism's pro-life caucus, although most denominational leaders are pro-choice. And his church gained attention last year when an outdoor sign advertised a sermon called "Was It Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve?" The city government tore it down, claiming that "historic preservation" standards were violated.

But Mr. Lewis prefers to steer clear of political controversies, preaching the kind of personal redemption of which Mr. Bush has often spoken.

While most Methodists are used to a 60-minute worship service, a recent service at Mr. Lewis's church concluded after three hours of singing and preaching. Yet it was never boring. The choir filled the sanctuary with its spirituals, accompanied by a trombonist, a trumpet player and a drummer. Mr. Lewis preached for nearly an hour about Jesus as the "Good Shepherd," sometimes shouting, sometimes waving his arms. He briefly played a rap song on a CD player, challenging the several hundred listeners: "How can you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in that?" A chorus of "amens" responded.

The congregation is exuberantly friendly. At a recent early morning service I was the only white person in attendance. I was asked to introduce myself and was later greeted by at least a dozen handshakes, a kiss and several hugs. George W. Bush might feel right at home at Lincoln Park United Methodist Church.


Mr. Tooley is the United Methodist director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington.

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