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Bush promises to battle religious bigotry in wake of Texas tragedy

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–On the eve of the anniversary of this century’s deadliest church shooting, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush promised to aggressively fight religious bigotry and said the Clinton Administration should be held accountable for labeling Southern Baptists as ‘perpetrators of religious hatred.’

“People who belittle people of faith are exhibiting bigotry,” Bush told Baptist Press, the national news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. “That bigotry comes in the form of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism — in some movies recently produced –, and anti-Southern Baptist. It’s religious bigotry pure and simple. Our nation is founded on religious freedom — the principle that people ought to be able to practice religious freedom and speak their mind, freely.”

Bush made his remarks during an interview with Will Hall, the SBC Executive Committee’s vice president for convention news, following a rally in Louisville, Ky. Bush, a born-again Christian, said he was particularly disturbed by comments the White House made about Southern Baptists just three months after seven Southern Baptists were gunned down during a worship service at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

During a December 1999 press conference, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart accused Southern Baptists of being, “perpetrators of religious hatred.” The response came following a question about Southern Baptist evangelism efforts towards Jews.

“Somebody should take the president to task,” Bush said. ‘That spokesman needs to be held accountable for what he said. Religious freedom means that: religious freedom.

A study of speeches delivered by President Clinton in the months following the shooting revealed only one reference to Wedgwood Baptist Church, compared to more than 100 of Matthew Shepherd, a homosexual who was the victim of a hate crime, leading some Christian observers to wonder why the White House would downplay the significance of the Fort Worth shootings.

Several weeks after he made the statement, Lockhart backpedaled, apologizing if anyone misunderstood his remarks. Still, Bush said, in a Republican administration there will be no place for religious bigotry.

Bush said Christians will be welcome in his administration and when it comes to his personal faith, ‘what you see is what you get.’

“I’m mindful of telling people that when asked about my religion that I’m mindful of walking that walk,” Bush said. ‘That’s the best thing I can do as president. And when you walk the walk, people of faith will walk right with you.”

Bush said the Sept. 15, 1999, shooting at Wedgwood Baptist Church was a time of great sorrow and great faith for not only himself, but the nation.

It was on that night when Larry Gene Ashbrook walked into the sanctuary of Wedgwood Baptist Church and opened fire on a crowd of teenage Christians. While yelling obscenities and cursing the believers, Ashbrook exploded a pipe bomb. He fired more than 60 rounds of ammunition before killing himself.

When the shooting ended, seven Christians were shot and seven others were killed, including Justin Ray, a high school student who videotaped the carnage.

Despite video evidence of Ashbrook’s hateful comments towards Christians, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department told Baptist Press the killings did not meet the standards of a hate crime.

Bush, who was campaigning out of state, flew back to Texas and visited the pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church in his home.

“I walked into the room of the preacher’s house the night of the shooting. He was a strong man and I mean there was unbelievable anguish and weeping,” Bush said. “And yet, behind the anguish and weeping there was this powerful faith.”

Debbie Gillette, pastor Al Meredith’s secretary, remembers the moment when Bush entered the house.

“It was so unbelievable. He just quietly slipped into the room,” Gillette said. “I remember thinking how incredible it was that the governor of Texas was in the house and he was praying. He was earnestly praying for us. It was a touching moment.”

“There wasn’t any fanfare or big entourage,” she said. “It was just George Bush. That made a strong impact on all of us.”

Bush said his purpose at the pastor’s home that night was not political. It was spiritual. “They really didn’t care who I was,” Bush said. “And frankly, they didn’t pay much attention to me because they were in prayer. We were all in prayer. And my purpose that night was to just be there in prayer with them.”

“It was a powerful moment for me,” Bush said. “This guy (Meredith) was a strong, strong believer.”

After their meeting that night, Meredith invited Bush to speak at the church and a special ceremony honoring the victims at Texas Christian University. Bush attended but declined to speak.

“It wasn’t my moment,” Bush said, noting that he was there to mourn the victims and pray for the survivors.

In the weeks following the shooting, Bush noticed a peculiar trend across the state. “I went by a high school and it was ‘See You at the Pole’ day. And they had more students than ever that day,” he said.

“You know, people search for something good in times of darkness, and our faith provides that. That’s a wonderful thing about Christianity. There is spiritual reassurance,” Bush said.

Bush said he is hopeful that America is on the verge of a religious awakening, but it can only happen through the people. “It’s certainly not going to be caused by the government,” Bush said. “Government can’t pass a law or pass a resolution, but the president can be welcoming, can welcome people of all faith.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: BATTLING RELIGIOUS BIGOTRY.

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