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Analysis: United Methodists assess Bush presidency

U.S. President George W. Bush greets President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of
Liberia during an October meeting at the White House in Washington.
A UMNS file photo by Eric Draper, courtesy of the White House.

A UMNS Feature
By J. Richard Peck*

Jan. 16, 2009

A painting of a cowboy riding up a steep embankment with other horsemen close behind hangs on a wall of the Oval Office.

George W. Bush

President George W. Bush says the painting reminds him of a heroic Methodist circuit rider and the Charles Wesley hymn, “A Charge to Keep I Have.” He titled a 2001 autobiography after the painting, “A Charge to Keep––My Journey to the White House.”

In truth, the painting was commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post in 1916 to illustrate a short story called “The Slipper Tongue.” The painting depicts a horse thief being pursued by a lynch mob. The original magazine caption was “Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer, He Would Not Have Been Caught.”

As United Methodists evaluate the performance of George W. Bush, some view him as a hero leading others over a challenging terrain. Others view him as a person whose policies conflicted with the principles of his own denomination.

UMNS has been seeking an interview with President Bush since Nov. 3. Formal requests to the White House Office of Media Affairs have gone unanswered.

Third Methodist in White House

The 43rd president is the third Methodist to occupy the White House. James K. Polk was the first. William McKinley was an active member, and he once planned to become a Methodist minister. Rutherford B. Hayes may have been a Methodist; he attended Methodist churches with his wife, but some sources claim he was a Presbyterian. Neither Ulysses S. Grant nor William Clinton was a member of the denomination, but each attended a Methodist church with his wife.

President Bush was raised in Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, but he became an active United Methodist after marrying Laura in 1977. George and Laura taught Sunday school at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, and they regularly worshipped at Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin while he was governor of Texas.

While in the White House, Bush retained his membership in Highland Park and did not affiliate with a church in Washington, D.C. He occasionally attended St. John’s Episcopal Church, a half-mile from the White House, and he attended services at the rustic Evergreen Chapel when he is at Camp David, Md.

He still considers himself a member of the denomination. When visiting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in December, Bush argued that the ability of people to govern themselves is not confined to “white-guy Methodists.” To think otherwise, he said, is the “ultimate form of political elitism.”

Difficult beginnings

The Rev. Mark Craig


President Bush says his life took a sharp turn in 1985. At that time he was drinking, his marriage was on the rocks, his career was listless. According to Stephen Mansfield, author of “The Faith of George W. Bush,” the future president got drunk at a party and insulted a friend of his mother’s. His father, George H.W. Bush, and mother, Barbara, blew up. The elder George Bush, then the vice president, invited his friend, evangelist Billy Graham, to Kennebunkport, Maine. The evangelist spent several days with the younger Bush.

“It was the beginning of a new walk where I would commit my heart to Jesus Christ,” Bush wrote in “A Charge to Keep.” He stopped drinking, attended Bible study and wrestled with faith issues.

Bush said he was inspired to run for president by a sermon about the reluctance of Moses to become a leader, delivered by the Rev. Mark Craig, pastor of Highland Park. Craig said people, then as now, were “starved for leadership.” Bush said the sermon “spoke directly to my heart.”

On the day after Bush was named president-elect in 2000, he joined 300 others at an invitation-only prayer service at Tarrytown United Methodist Church. During the service, Craig told Bush, “You have been chosen by God to lead the people.”

Eight years later, Craig told UMNS, “We look forward to having President and Mrs. Bush in worship at Highland Park United Methodist Church when they return to Dallas.”

A pastor reflects

The Rev. Jim Mayfield served as pastor of Tarrytown United Methodist Church when the Bushes attended it as first family of Texas. Mayfield said he has a “painful heartache (rather than angry condemnation) for a friend whose well-intentioned but flawed decisions have caused tragic, terrible suffering and perhaps even made matters in the Middle East more dangerous and volatile.”

Mayfield told UMNS that Gov. Bush did not attend Tarrytown for political show.

The Rev. Jim Mayfield


“He was (is) naturally friendly, down to earth and desired to be treated as any other congregant,” the pastor said. “He appeared to enjoy being with people (in contrast to being a politician ‘working the crowd’). Although we did not agree on some social policies and legislation, his relationship with me as his pastor was always gracious and supportive, even when I spoke out in favor of a hate crime bill, which he opposed because he believed it was needless duplication of laws already on the books.”

The Tarrytown pastor said Bush served the state better than other governors largely because of his ability to work with Democrats. Mayfield said when Bush was named president-elect, “there was hope … that he could bring us together and bring some healing to what appeared to be a dysfunctional way of doing business in Washington.”

“Regarding what he called ‘compassionate conservatism,’ I was (and am) convinced that his intention at that point was to develop policies and programs that would strive to deal with the problems of those in need in practical and fiscally responsible ways,” Mayfield said. “However, after the attacks on 9/11/2001, discussion of (and focus on) ‘compassionate conservatism’ evaporated. Nevertheless, I am convinced his concern for those who are suffering is genuine and that sense of caring was probably best reflected in the kind of leadership he exhibited in the days immediately following 9/11/2001.”

Mayfield said historians will better be able to assess Bush’s decisions regarding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when records and presidential papers are declassified and made public.

“It is obvious that he had faulty intelligence reports and that he also chose to listen to the wrong set of advisers,” Mayfield said. “Yet I remain convinced he was doing the best he knew to do and that he was motivated by the intention of striving toward worldwide individual freedom and democracy.”

A firm believer

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell


The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, is often referred to as Bush’s spiritual adviser. He introduced Bush at the 2000 Republican National Convention, said prayers at the 2001 and 2005 inaugurations, and officiated at the 2008 wedding of Bush’s daughter, Jenna. However, he says, Bush never called for advice. Caldwell says he called the president eight or nine times a year to leave a Scripture passage, compliment him or disagree with him.

Caldwell said he voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but he backed Barack Obama—the nominee of the opposite party—in 2008.

“While the differences between President Bush and Senator Obama are very, very clear,” Caldwell told Beliefnet, “they (both) have deep, resolute loyalty to their country, to their families and to their God. They are both Christians. They are also strong believers in rebuilding the family and rebuilding the infrastructure of our communities.”

Caldwell described Bush as a “firm believer in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” who reads the Bible on a daily basis. “Theology and practice for John Wesley came together, and frankly, I think that may be one of the components that enables President Bush to be so comfortable with his faith-based initiatives program, where the concept is arguably to take the sanctuary to the streets.”

United Methodist awards

Good News, an evangelical caucus within The United Methodist Church, agreed with Caldwell’s assessment and named Bush the Methodist Layman of 2002. “President Bush represents the mainstream of United Methodism––and indeed historic Christianity––in a way that many denominational leaders do not,” said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News, in a statement announcing the award.

Following the president’s response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the South Central Jurisdiction of United Methodist Men collected $1,000 to present him with a John Wesley Award, the highest award offered by the denomination’s Commission on United Methodist Men.

Gil Hanke


Gil Hanke, at that time national president of the commission, was asked to present the award. He contacted the White House, but didn’t hear back for over a year.

“In October, I received a letter that simply stated, due to the war, the president did not have time in his schedule to accept the award,” Hanke said. “When I got the letter, I was privately relieved. Mr. Bush was not my choice for Texas governor, or for president. As a pacifist, I had serious concerns about the war, and I was aware that Mr. Bush had rejected a requested meeting from the Council of Bishops.”

Two and a half years after the initial contact, the White House invited Hanke to present the award. Hanke prayed with the president and presented the plaque. In a tour of the Oval Office, Bush showed Hanke the “Charge to Keep” painting. Upon his return, Hanke said he received negative e-mails that suggested the award was politically motivated.

“Once they understood the time frame between the decision to give the award and my visit was two and a half years later, and that this should not be seen as any type of political endorsement, most wrote me back a more understanding e-mail,” Hanke said. “I did what I was asked to do, and left my personal feelings at the door and delivered the award.”

While the church’s bishops were unable to meet with Bush as a group, the president did welcome a delegation of bishops to the White House on May 3, 2005.

Five bishops, led by then-council president Bishop Peter Weaver, made a pastoral visit to the White House, getting about 10 minutes alone with the president before joining a larger group of religious leaders meeting with Bush.

In their private session, the bishops presented Bush with a Bible signed by the council. They told him they were praying for him, that they shared his commitment to building a better world, and that they were committed to finding ways to work together on common concerns. They also had a moment of prayer.

The president was “very cordial, very friendly,” Weaver said later that day. “He was interested in things we were doing in The United Methodist Church. At one point, he said, ‘I’m proud to be a Methodist.’”

Bishop Charlene Kammerer


“It is always a high privilege to be able to meet and shake hands with the president of our United States,” said Virginia Bishop Charlene Kammerer, part of the delegation. “It felt awkward to me as a member of the council to be confined to a hallway moment for that privilege. I am very pleased that President Bush agreed to receive a delegation from the Council of Bishops of our church.”

When the bishops left the meeting, they believed they had opened the door for future conversations and work with the White House.

“Sadly, our hopes for ongoing, direct communication were not realized,” Kammerer told UMNS in a Jan. 16 interview. “Repeated attempts were offered from our leaders, and it appeared that we simply were not listened to.”

Planners of the 2004 and 2008 General Conferences—the denomination’s top assembly— also invited the president to speak, but the only response the church drew from the White House was a letter of greeting from Laura Bush in 2004.

Bishop questions values

While the president has publicly affirmed his United Methodist connection, his policies have at times been at odds with the denomination’s resolutions and policies on social issues.

Retired Bishop Joe A. Wilson, bishop in residence at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, compared Bush’s record with the United Methodist Social Principles. “These principles, written and revised by General Conferences every four years, are intended to be instructive and persuasive and represent the best of the prophetic spirit of the church,” Wilson said.

The bishop said Bush, through his administration, violated at least six of these United Methodist values, specifically as they relate to torture, war and peace, the environment, the death penalty, human rights and freedom of information.

Bishop Joe A. Wilson


“Mr. Bush seems to take pride in keeping his defined values. I believe the right to celebrate such a set of values lies not in their consistency, but in the nature of their content,” Wilson said. “If Mr. Bush is to be characterized as a United Methodist, he clearly has departed from the practice of and respect for some of the church's beliefs as demonstrated in (the) United Methodist tradition of faith and practice.”

Policy differences

While lamenting an “abstinence-only” earmark on funds for programs to decrease teen pregnancies, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society gave President Bush high marks for increasing the level of federal funds for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria prevention. The agency also celebrated his signing of the Mental Health Parity bill calling for equal coverage for mental health and addiction rehabilitation alongside other health-care coverage and the health insurance level.

However, the Washington, D.C., agency criticized the president for his effort to privatize Medicare and provide individuals with Health Savings Accounts to fund their own care. “This would have gutted Medicare as we know it, and placed an unnecessary burden on seniors to make decisions in an increasingly complex insurance market,” said Jim Winkler, top staff executive of the agency.

Noting that the Social Principles aim to protect the right of a woman to seek an abortion “only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved ...,” the agency criticized the president for enacting laws that blocked federal funds to organizations outside the United States that––with their own money––provided information on abortion.

While commending the president for his “No Child Left Behind” policy, Church and Society staffers said the absence of adequate funding resulted in this educational policy becoming what they described as test-and-punish oriented.

They also criticized Bush’s administration on a host of other issues, including its opposition to the creation of the U.N. Human Rights Council; refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change; and enacting tax cuts that “benefited the wealthy at the expense of the poor.”

Bishop John R. Schol


Bishop John R. Schol of the Washington Area expressed gratitude for Bush’s willingness to serve “during a very difficult time in America’s history.” He noted that the presidency was defined in many ways by how the world was changed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I applaud President Bush’s commitment to quality education for every American child and his steadfast effort to combat AIDS in Africa,” Schol said. “Other aspects of his presidency will have to be judged by history––initiating a first-strike war in Iraq, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction there, his tax policies, the continued deregulation of financial institutions and the level of the national debt.”

Bush library debate

Bush’s policies spurred opposition among some United Methodists to plans for his presidential library to be built on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Following Bush’s request to build his center on the campus of the school where his wife is an alumnus, several dozen SMU professors and 28 mostly retired bishops signed a petition in protest. “As United Methodists, we believe that the linking of his presidency with a university bearing the Methodist name is utterly inappropriate,” said the petition.

SMU President R. Gerald Turner, in an e-mail to students and faculty, said the institute wouldn’t be part of the school itself, and he promoted the benefits of hosting the center. "For SMU to be associated with the repository of historical documents on a pivotal presidency and era in U.S. history would be a service to the nation transcending political interests," he wrote.

In spite of opposition, the plan was approved by the university and an executive committee of the South Central Jurisdiction, which owns the school. The regional bishops agreed the jurisdictional mission council had the right to make the decision, and, in July, the delegates to the South Central Jurisdictional Conference approved plans to lease the land by a 158-118 vote.

The Lord’s side

Regardless of their positions, supporters and critics alike agree Bush’s embrace of his faith seems genuine.

On May 5, 2005, two days after the bishops’ delegation met with Bush, Bishop Peter Weaver sat with the president and first lady at the National Prayer Breakfast.

The president emphasized the importance of the National Day of Prayer, and said “we pray as a nation for three main reasons”: to give thanks for freedom, to pray for help in defending freedom and “to acknowledge our dependence on the Almighty.”

Bush went on to mention President Lincoln’s response to a minister who had expressed hope that the Lord was on Lincoln’s side.

“Lincoln wisely replied that he was more concerned that he was on the side of the Lord,” Bush said, “because the Lord was always on the side of right.”

*Peck, a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference, is a former editor of Newscope and is a freelance editor and writer for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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