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Bush is a Methodist, but church is divided

Published Sep. 28, 2005

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

George W. Bush and Rutherford B. Hayes are linked by a historical oddity _ each lost the popular vote, yet won the presidency after a contested dispute over balloting in Florida.

But Bush and Hayes have something else in common: Methodism.

When Bush is inaugurated next month, he will become the third Methodist to assume the nation's highest office. The other was William McKinley, most often remembered for being assassinated.

You might think electing another Methodist would be a source of pride for the United Methodist Church.

But in a remarkable display of candor, the United Methodist News Service instead detailed the president-elect's political differences with the denomination, even pointing out that Bush's political views have often been compared to those of a rival denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Having a United Methodist in office does not mean the president's policies will reflect those of the church," the United Methodist's statement said.

The Methodists oppose capital punishment and handgun ownership; Bush supports both. And the list of disagreements goes on: abortion rights, gays in the military, school vouchers, even Social Security policy.

"United Methodists are extremely diverse, and there would be some who would take a great deal of pride (in Bush's presidency), and some who would be concerned about some of his stands," said Bishop Susan W. Hassinger, the church's top official in New England.

"I'm pleased that there is a United Methodist in the White House, but I would hope he would be a person who listens to all perspectives and I trust he will be faithful to God . . . with concern for the marginalized and the poor."

The Methodists, with 8.4-million members, are the second-largest Protestant denomination, after the Southern Baptist Convention. The denomination is strongest in the Southeast; in New England, a region with 13.5-million residents, the church has just 111,000 members.

Though he was raised in Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches, Bush has been an active Methodist since quitting alcohol and finding God in 1985; he and his wife have taught Sunday school at the Highland Park United Methodist Church near Dallas, and since taking office as governor of Texas, Bush has worshiped at the Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin.

Bush has frequently spoken about religion in terms rarely associated with members of mainline Protestant denominations in New England: he says he was born again after talking to Billy Graham, he has named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher and has questioned whether non-Christians can go to heaven. But such talk would be quite familiar to Methodists in Texas and other parts of the South, church officials say.

Bush's election comes as Methodists are enjoying something of a resurgence among the powerful.

The Clintons have frequently worshiped at a Methodist Church in Washington; Sen.-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton is a Methodist, although President Clinton is a Southern Baptist.

Vice President-elect Dick Cheney is also a Methodist, although the United Methodist News Service said Cheney refused to answer its questions.

"We have extreme diversity _ theological and political _ in our denomination," McAnally said. "At one time we had George Wallace, George McGovern and Shirley Chisolm."

But the Rev. Robert W. Thornburg, dean of Marsh Chapel at the Methodist-founded Boston University, said the emphasis on diversity masks a deep division among Methodists. He predicts that Bush won't worship at the same Washington church as the Clintons because of concern over the supposed theological liberalism of its pastor.

"The denomination has a serious split in identity between a more liberal clergy and a more conservative laity," Thornburg said. "Acknowledging the diversity is not particularly courageous _ it's realistic. There is a serious identity problem in the denomination as a whole."

The religious affiliation of U.S. presidents is one of the preoccupations of presidential trivia buffs, and the Web site has compiled a variety of statistics about the subject. Some highlights:

The most frequent presidential denomination has been Episcopalian (11 presidents), followed by Presbyterian (6).

Every president but one (Kennedy) has been Protestant.

The most over-represented groups in the presidency, based on their percentage of the U.S. population, have been the Dutch Reformed Church and Unitarians.

The most under-represented: Catholics and Baptists.

Several major groups have never held the presidency: Jews, Mormons, Pentecostals, Muslims, Orthodox Christians.

Only three presidents did not claimed religious affiliation: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Jackson.

_ Michael Paulson writes about religious issues for The Boston Globe.