Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Faith Works 4-19-08
Jeff Gill

Presidential Piety Under Scrutiny

One way or another the religious views of Presidential candidates play a role in election season, if not during their tenure in office.

Most of the country now knows that Barack Obama attends Trinity United Church of Christ when he’s at home on the South Side of Chicago. Whether they know that the UCC denomination is the heir of the tradition that brought the Pilgrims to Massachusetts Bay is more up for grabs.

Jeremiah Wright is more colorful than most UCC pastors I know, but he also fits into a tradition that defended the escaped slaves of the Amistad, supported the abolition movement more than any other denomination before the Civil War, and has long promoted progressive political causes.

Hillary Rodham grew up a Methodist, and when she married a Southern Baptist, Bill Clinton didn’t convert officially, but their attendance and her membership has been in United Methodist congregations, in Washington and up in New York State. Her youth minister growing up in a Chicago suburb took the group to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. preach, and that marked a pivotal moment in her taking both faith and public life very seriously.

John McCain comes from a family with a long heritage in the U.S. Navy (three generations, but he has a son who enlisted in the Marines who just returned from Iraq – Ooh-rah). He probably grew up hearing more non-denominational chaplains’ sermons, but was baptized and confirmed in The Episcopal Church. His second wife Cindy is Baptist, and they attend together there when in Arizona, but he has not transferred his membership into that congregation.

The last election was shaping up in some interesting ways because John Kerry was sort of the odd man out – a Catholic by upbringing and occasional attendance later in life (he had not “registered” with any local parish leading up to the 2004 election, but sometimes attended a campus ministry where Mass was offered by a priest).

But John Edwards is United Methodist, George W. Bush is Methodist, and contrary to all my friends and acquaintances who insist that Dick Cheney is a member of the Church of Eating Babies With Mustard For Lunch, he and Lynne are, in fact . . . Methodist.

George H. W. Bush is named for his mother’s family, the Walkers (where the whole Kennebunkport thing comes from, at Walker’s Point in Maine), and his mother’s favorite poet, the Anglican priest George Herbert. Accordingly, George and Barbara are Episcopalian, but their children have traveled in a variety of directions, with Jeb becoming a Catholic on marrying his wife Columba.

George W. and Laura attend an Episcopal church that is within a block of the White House when in Washington, which is appropriate given that John Wesley lived out his days as an Anglican priest, and hoped to promote a Reformation within the Church of England, not start a new denomination. Francis Asbury in this country had a different view, but the United Methodist Church still shares quite a few qualities and characteristics with The Episcopal Church.

Ron Paul is still running, and he considered becoming a Lutheran pastor (which a brother did, in fact do), but decided on med school at Gettysburg College, where he met and married his wife who was Episcopalian. Their children were all baptized into that tradition, but the Pauls now attend a Baptist church when in Texas.

Ralph Nader, who speaks Arabic fluently from his parents’ heritage out of Lebanon, is Maronite Catholic. If elected, he would be the first Maronite, or Eastern rite Catholic, to hold the office. Mike Gravel (yes, he’s still running) is Unitarian Universalist – but he wouldn’t be the first in the unlikely chance that he’d win.

He’d be the fourth, following John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and William Howard Taft.

Oh, and Pope Benedict XVI, who visited the White House this week? He’s Catholic.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s ordained Disciples of Christ, but speaks fluent Methodist, passable UCC, and broken but understandable Lutheran. Tell him your religious dialects at