Oct. 7, 2004
A UMNS Analysis
By Amy Green*
Bush is proud of his United Methodist faith and speaks of it often. But
he is not the only United Methodist candidate in this presidential
Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Sen. John
Edwards also are United Methodists, putting the denomination in a unique
position at a time when Protestantism is declining and outcry is
mounting over the political weight of the religious right.
United Methodist Church is the nation’s second-largest Protestant
denomination, with a diverse 8.3 million U.S. members that resemble the
nation’s electorate. Its conservative and progressive factions have
chafed for years on issues such as homosexuality.
church’s up-front role in this election comes as its congregations—like
those of most Protestant denominations—grapple with declining membership
that soon could cost Protestantism its status as the nation’s top
religious movement. Some United Methodists see an opportunity for the
denomination in this election.
“It certainly says that we
are a very big tent, that Edwards and Cheney and Bush all could be
thought of as Methodists,” says the Rev. David F. McAllister-Wilson,
president of the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. “We’d like
to believe that since Methodists have people who have a wide variety of
political persuasions, that means we can bring lots of voices to the
same table and talk together about what God requires for the 21st
The church’s role in the election points to a
shift in American politics, as a denomination that is seen as more
progressive than the evangelical right assumes a key spot in Washington,
says Mike McCurry, a Kerry campaign senior adviser and former press
secretary in the Clinton administration. McCurry also served as a
delegate last spring to General Conference, the United Methodist
Church’s top legislative assembly.
“For some time, the
Democratic Party has sort of ceded the question of faith and politics to
the evangelical right,” he says, in an interview with United Methodist
News Service. “What’s happening in this campaign is the progressive
faith community has found its voice again.”
But the Rev.
James V. Heidinger II, chairman of the Association for Church Renewal, a
fellowship of evangelicals within the mainline Protestant denominations
of North America, believes the church’s role merely illustrates the
diversity of the so-called religious right.
“I think the
whole term ‘the religious right’ ... is an imprecise term,” says
Heidinger, who is also president of Good News, an unofficial and
nonpartisan United Methodist evangelical group. “You have to say a whole
lot more than just sling around the phrase ‘the religious right’ to
really know just who it is that you’re speaking about, because there are
many evangelicals in all the mainline churches that cover a broad
continuum of social-political positions.”
Bush has talked
easily of his faith ever since naming Jesus as his favorite political
philosopher during the 2000 presidential race. He justified the war in
Iraq in his address to the Republican National Convention this year by
saying, “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty
God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” He supports a
constitutional ban on gay marriage but said in his State of the Union
address in January, “The same moral tradition that defines marriage also
teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God’s sight.”
Woodward of The Washington Post quotes Bush in his book Plan of Attack
as saying that he prayed “for the strength to do the Lord’s will” in
“His faith is authentic,” Heidinger tells UMNS. “He not only talks about it, he tries to live it.”
is much more private with his faith. Nonetheless, the Bush campaign
recognizes how important religious voters will be in this close
election, and it has designated a team for religious outreach,
spokeswoman Sharon Castillo says.
“We’ve started earlier and are devoting more resources,” she says.
Bush declined to speak last spring at General Conference, the United
Methodist legislative assembly held every four years. Before then,
efforts to arrange a meeting with the president and United Methodist
bishops broke down after some bishops spoke out against the president on
the war in Iraq.
is, for us, not the first step you take to get to peace,” argued Bishop
Melvin Talbert, then-ecumenical officer for the United Methodist
Council of Bishops, during a press conference at General Conference.
“It’s the last resort. It seems the commitment to the common good has
dropped off the radar screen for this administration.”
also has drawn criticism for his faith-driven leadership. “We did not
elect him as the priest of the nation,” complained Bishop McKinley Young
of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, speaking at the same press
Clayton Childers of the denomination’s Board of Church and Society, its
social justice arm, believes Bush’s faith should be part of his
“I’m proud he’s not ashamed of his
faith,” he says. “For me, faith also applies to how we live our lives,
and the choices we make about hunger and poverty and homelessness,
inadequate health care, how we try to be peacemakers in the world. ... I
wish the government would step up to those challenges.”
John Kerry, a Catholic, famously attacked Bush’s faith-driven
leadership in his address to the summer’s Democratic National Convention
by saying, “I don’t want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham
Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.”
the campaign also has appointed a team to religious outreach that is
perhaps the first of its kind for Democrats, McCurry says. “It’s the
largest effort that we Democrats have ever undertaken.”
running mate Edwards may not talk as often of his faith, but it played a
role in his decision to enter politics in 1998, says the Rev. Roger
Elliott, pastor of the 3,600-member Edenton Street United Methodist
Church in Raleigh, N.C., where the senator and his wife attend services.
Edwards grew up attending church, but the 1996 death of his son in a
car accident reinvigorated his faith, and he served briefly on his
congregation’s administrative board before his campaign for the Senate,
“He met with me several times before he ran
for the Senate, just to bounce some possibilities off of me like how
does this relate to the Christian faith,” he says.
candidates’ religious beliefs will remain up for debate as long as
faith-based issues such as the war and gay marriage are in the news.
Some surveys show regular churchgoers tend to vote Republican, but Shaun
Casey, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological
Seminary, says many of those votes still are up for grabs. He says some
estimates are that 8 percent of Catholics and 8 percent of white
evangelicals remain undecided.
“Those are big chunks of
the electorate,” he says. “The key is going to be undecided religious
voters, particularly in these swing states they keep talking about. The
ticket that is most successful in swinging those demographics may well
win the election.”
*Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. She has been published in The Boston Globe and Christianity Today.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5473 or email@example.com.