It's an old American tradition: U.S. presidents tangling with their religious denominations

Posted: Friday, February 07, 2003

President Bush and his father each have been at odds with leaders of their Protestant faiths over a potential war with Iraq, recent examples of what academics say is an often contentious relationship between presidents and their clergy.

''It's relatively easy for presidents to get on the outs with their denominations,'' says Wake Forest University Divinity School dean Bill J. Leonard. In fact, it's hard to find a 20th century president who didn't butt heads with some in his faith:

-- The devout Woodrow Wilson upset fellow Presbyterians as he moved the nation toward entering World War I, including William Jennings Bryan, who quit as secretary of state.

-- Harry Truman, the first Southern Baptist in the White House, annoyed some in that denomination by spouting ''hells'' and ''damns'' in conversation. Jimmy Carter angered Baptist pastors by favoring abortion rights.

-- Richard Nixon, a nominal Quaker, was strongly opposed by that pacifist faith over the Vietnam War.

Last week, it was former President George H.W. Bush who was in conflict with his church. In a televised speech, he recalled his polite dispute over the Gulf War with the former head of his Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, then said he's ''highly offended'' by foreign policy statements from current Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.

 

President Bush, second right, and first lady Laura Bush, right, leave Saint John's Church in Washington, Jan 27, 2002, with former President George H. W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush after attending Sunday service. Both the president and his father have been at odds with leaders of their Protestant faiths over possible warfare with Iraq.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

His son, George W. Bush, the first Methodist president in a century, disagrees with leaders of his denomination, too. In a TV ad sponsored by a group including the National Council of Churches, a prominent Methodist bishop preaches that the impending war with Iraq ''violates God's law and the teachings of Jesus Christ.''

Twenty bishops and other Methodist officials joined an urgent religious plea against military action, and the Methodists' social issues spokesman headed for a gathering of ecclesiastical doves in Berlin.

The phenomenon isn't exclusively American, of course. Bush's chief international ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has endured peace sermons from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, whom he chose months ago to head the Church of England.

The Bushes and Blair can commiserate with former President Clinton, who was repeatedly criticized by spokesmen in his Southern Baptist denomination. Baptist leaders eventually called for him to quit the presidency or be ousted by Congress during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

What's unusual in the latest disagreement is that presidents and ex-presidents rarely make comments about dissenting clergy as pointed as those from the elder Bush.

Bush insisted he understands and respects those who oppose war. He said what offended him was Griswold's statement to Religion News Service that ''I'd like to be able to go somewhere in the world and not have to apologize for being from the United States'' because the nation is indifferent to human suffering.

The bishop further accused the administration of ''reprehensible'' rhetoric and said ''we are hated and loathed everywhere I go.''

In response, Bush declared: ''I do not -- never have and never will -- feel the need to apologize for this great country.''

Griswold replied that during overseas travels he can achieve understanding with people ''only when I apologize for, or explain, what they perceive as our unilateralist and self-serving ways.''

In his State of the Union address, the current President Bush appeared to recognize widespread clergy qualms that cite ''just war'' theology: ''If war is forced upon us we will fight in a just cause and by just means -- sparing in every way we can, the innocent.''

Still, Bush's focus is on diplomatic and military developments rather than the alarms raised by Protestant leaders such as Methodists and Episcopalians, along with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Muslim organizations.

''I can't imagine a president sitting in his office poring over statements'' from anti-war bishops, says David Kalvelage of The Living Church, an independent Episcopal weekly.

U.S. politicians have never been bound by pleas from their own or other religious groups and it is becoming easier to ignore them.

Protestants enshrine individualism, and many Catholic officeholders reject the Vatican's insistence that they follow the church's anti-abortion teaching. Nor is presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman bound by Orthodox Judaism's beliefs on abortion.

In the case of Iraq, Leonard says some of the antiwar churches are arguing their case from a weakened position.

The Catholic bishops are ''mortally wounded'' by the recent spate of clerical sex abuse scandals, he says. Until the 1970s, mainline Protestants ''were listened to, they were in the corridors of power and the Rockefellers paid their bills.'' But their power has waned as that of conservative evangelicals has risen.

Ultimately, Southern Methodist University ethicist Robin Lovin says, politicians' moral judgments are influenced far less by today's church pronouncements than by their religious upbringing. The sermons, discussions and Sunday School classes in their home congregations many years ago may be their guide.



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