United Methodists run on both sides of presidential race
By Amy Green
President 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 election.
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.
The 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.
The 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 about what God requires for the 21st century."
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 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, "The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God's sight."
Bob 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 Iraq.
"His faith is authentic," Heidinger tells UMNS. "He not only talks about it, he tries to live it."
Cheney 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.
But 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.
"War 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." Bush 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 conference.
However, Clayton Childers of the denomination's Board of Church and Society, its social justice arm, believes Bush's faith should be part of his leadership.
"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."
Sen. 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."
Nonetheless, 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."
Kerry 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 on his congregation's administrative board before his campaign for the Senate, Elliott says.
"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.
The 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.
Apples & Pizza
National & World News
Back to The Call Home Page