W Bush, classic Methodist?

CRAWFORD, Texas -- Don Elrod was spending another hard day on another production line when one of his buddies threw up his hands and keeled over, killed by a heart attack.

As a farm hand turned teacher turned carpenter turned asphalt expert, Elrod didn't know the proper theological lingo to describe what happened in his own heart that day. But this layman knew that something changed. Before long, he became a Methodist preacher.

"At some point in life everybody faces a bad situation, some kind of really big mountain, and there's no way around it," he said. "That's when we have to decide whether we're going to turn to God or not. ... It may be getting sick, or losing your job, or it may be the bottle. But it's gonna happen."

It's like that night on Aldersgate Street, when John Wesley -- racked by doubt and despair -- took a leap of faith and felt his heart was "strangely warmed." That experience on May 24, 1738, led to the Methodist movement that spread piety, evangelism and social reform throughout England and the world.

Find a flock of true Methodists and you'll find people who believe changed hearts can change the world. That's what Elrod was thinking after he stepped into his pulpit at First United Methodist in Crawford and faced a flock that included his neighbor, President George W. Bush.

Elrod thinks he knows a Methodist when he sees one.

So he wasn't surprised when he heard Bush had been named Layman of the Year by Good News, a network of United Methodist evangelicals based in Wilmore, Ky. While this honor will raise eyebrows in United Methodist sanctuaries in the Rust Belt and the West, it will draw respectful "amens" in heartland towns like Crawford, the capital of Bush country in Central Texas.

To find Elrod's church, you drive past Covered Wagon Trail, past Cattle Drive Road, over the railroad tracks, through the blinking traffic light, past the town's now famous restaurant/gas station and turn left at the First Baptist Church sign that says "Let's Roll." The Methodists are on the next corner.

In these parts, said Elrod, people even think it's fitting that Bush says God helped him win his showdown with alcohol. After all, there was a time when Methodists were known for asking rowdy people to repent of the sins of the flesh.

"I think President Bush knows what that's all about," said Elrod. "He got to the point with his drinking where it was life or death and, you know, the Lord isn't going to wait forever on you to make up your mind."

Good News magazine cited several reasons for the award, including Bush's defense of all religious believers, including "peace-loving Muslims and Arab-Americans," after Sept. 11. Most of all, the editorial said he "understands the great chasm between right and wrong and has been unflinching in calling evildoers by their proper name. He has relentlessly used this historic nightmare as an ethical tutorial for generations raised on a steady diet of moral relativism."

Some of the president's terrorism speeches have even veered into language that sounds like Wesley's sermons condemning slavery and child-labor abuses, said Good News editor Steve Beard. There is a dash of Methodist fire in Bush phrases such as: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war. And we know that God is not neutral between them."

Meanwhile, the United Methodist hierarchy has consistently advocated diplomacy over Bush's military strategy. It's Board of Church and Society condemned terrorism, but opposed any "use of indiscriminate military force." Bishop C. Joseph Sprague said he doubted the Afghanistan campaign could accurately be called a "just war."

"Bishops have to say things like that," said Elrod. "Now your common man reads the Bible and he sees that even Jesus felt righteous anger when he went in there and cleaned out the temple. You can take it and take it and take it, but there comes a time when you have to stand up to the bully. Sometimes you have to act.

"I think old Joe Blow and his wife Jane out here understand that. They know what President Bush is talking about."