Special Report

The Last Methodist President

Not all leaders of his denomination have been denunciatory of George W. Bush.

By 1.28.09

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George W. Bush was the first Methodist president in a century. But officials of the 7.9 million United Methodist Church spent eight years either condemning him or unsuccessfully seeking audiences with him. Bush could not even find a suitable Methodist congregation in Washington to attend and mostly settled on convenient St. John's Episcopal Church across the street from the White House. A recent farewell summary of church attitudes towards his presidency by the United Methodist News Service understatedly observed that some United Methodists "view him as a hero leading others over a challenging terrain," while others stressed that his "policies conflicted with the principles of his own denomination."

United Methodist officials were obsessed with condemning the Iraq War. The Council of Bishops officially denounced the U.S.-led war four times across four years, while never specifically criticizing al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein. United Methodism's chief Capitol Hill lobbyist formally called for Bush's impeachment, a call that he later reluctantly retracted. And Bush's liaison to religious groups, after speaking to an angry audience of United Methodist social activists in 2001, concluded they hoped that Bush would quit the denomination, and he largely prevented Bush from meeting with most high-level Methodist groups. Bush declined to speak to the church's governing conventions in 2004 and 2008, although fellow Methodist Hillary Clinton had addressed the 1996 General Conference as first lady.

Such was not always the case. The last Methodist president was William McKinley, who contemporary Methodist prelates saw as the embodiment of Methodist civic accomplishment. Unlike Bush, who married into Methodism, McKinley was a lifelong Methodist. McKinley prayed the sinner's prayer at the altar as a youth, foreswore most vices (he did drink wine and smoke cigars later in life), was a Sunday school superintendent, and hosted hymn sings in the White House. But Bush and McKinley were also similar. Neither trusted spell-binding rhetoric and preferred stolid good works. Both were conservatives of a sort, but also Methodist do-gooders who saw politics as a moral adventure. Both led their nation into controversial wars that opponents derided as imperialism.

Although now almost forgotten, the Spanish-American War was a "war of choice," launched chiefly to liberate Cuba from Spanish colonial rule. Spain's quick defeat resulted in U.S. occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. An eventual Filipino insurrection resulted in a vicious war, in which U.S. troops allegedly committed atrocities, and where 4,000 Americans died, or the equivalent of about 16,000 today. Northern Methodists largely supported their President. Southern Methodists, who were mostly Democrats, were more wary, especially about the racial implications of governing non-Caucasian Filipinos.

A Methodist delegation visited McKinley in 1899 and, as they later admiringly recounted in a church magazine after his assassination, the chief executive explained his divinely inspired decision to seize the Philippines:

I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way -- I don't know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain -- that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany -- our commercial rivals in the Orient -- that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves -- they were unfit for self-government -- and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain's was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!

It would have been notable had Bush shared a similar testimony about Iraq with modern visiting United Methodists. Despite the lack of strong United Methodist contact during his presidency, Bush has retained his membership at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, a mega church that is one of the denomination's largest. Its pastor, Mark Craig, whose 1999 sermon about Moses and leadership is credited for helping to inspire Bush's run for the presidency, has remained a quiet Bush friend and was instrumental, as a board member, in persuading Southern Methodist University (SMU) to host the future Bush Library.

Another Bush Methodist minister friend, Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastors a megachurch in Houston and famously delivered Christocentric prayers at both of Bush's inaugurations. This year, having endorsed Obama's candidacy, he participated in inaugural prayer services once again. Caldwell, who conducted the wedding of Bush's daughter last year, praised the now former president as a "firm believer in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" who reads the Bible daily. "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," he told the church news service.

But more typical was retired Texas Bishop Joe Wilson, who groused: "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 United Methodist tradition of faith and practice." Wilson was one of over two dozen mostly retired liberal bishops who petitioned, along with left-wing SMU faculty, against SMU's hosting the Bush Library. Prelates like Wilson, along with the church's lobby office, called the General Board of Church and Society, opposed Bush on tax cuts, missile defense, Kyoto, abortion, homosexuals in the military, support for Israel and countless other issues.

More evenhandedly was an analysis of Bush's political theology delivered in 2007 at a Methodist symposium at Oxford, England by SMU theologian Billy Abraham, an Irish Methodist and theologian in residence at Bush's home church in Dallas. Amid the denunciations by other Methodists of Bush's supposed fundamentalism and imperialism, Abraham described Bush as a "moderate, even liberal, evangelical shaped by the spiritual warmth, the ad hoc social activism, the reserved moralism, the friendly fellowship, the wariness of alcohol, and the theological fuzziness of United Methodism in Texas."

According to Abraham, Bush theologically "knows and believes the internal soteriological logic of creation, fall and redemption as parsed by contemporary evangelicalism" in America. As a conventional and pragmatic proponent of American civil religion, Bush believed that "life in American fits God's design for humanity better than its rivals." The Iraq War and democracy promotion, according to Abraham, allowed Bush to "take American civil religion to the Middle East and then onward into the Muslim world."

Bush's autobiography is titled after Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley's song' "A Charge to Keep I Have," which is also the title of a painting that Bush kept in the Oval Office of an early Methodist circuit riding preacher. "Bush's compassionate conservatism draws heavily on the kind of revivalism that was common in Methodism in North America in the late 19th century," Abraham noted. And Bush's brand of American civil religion "harks back to a longstanding embrace of a similar vision" by many Methodist leaders in the 19th century. Abraham did not cite the Methodist delegation that listened to McKinley's Philippines confession, but no doubt they fit the type.

Supposedly, when President McKinley was pressed to describe his political philosophy, he insisted he was "just" a Methodist. Bush potentially could similarly respond.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.