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Bush: ‘Tell my Southern Baptist friends how much I love them’

WASHINGTON (BP)–James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville, was one of six ministers invited to join President Bush for a closed-door meeting just hours before the president addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20.

“I think I can speak for the entire group when I say that without question, we all came away impressed with where he is right now as a leader and where he is spiritually,” Merritt told Baptist Press. “I was very elated and came away from the meeting encouraged.”

Merritt said the six religious leaders spent 30 minutes with the president talking about the importance of Americans to come together spiritually and the importance of faith.

“Those were the things on his heart and mind,” Merritt said. “He shared with us that he is being very deliberate and he is going to uphold his responsibility to defend this nation.

“This meeting was a signal that this is a president who understands the foundation of this nation is not financial, economical or military,” Merritt said. “The foundation of this nation is spiritual.”

At times, Merritt said, the president became emotional. “He is a man of deep faith,” he said. “The president is without question a compassionate conservative. His heart is broken over what has happened.”

Merritt said the president requested prayer from the group of leaders.

“He wanted to share with us his need for prayer and his need for wisdom during these days,” Merritt said. “Physically, he is doing well. Emotionally, he is totally at peace. He knows where he wants to lead the nation.”

Merritt said the religious leaders stood in a circle with the president, clasped hands, and prayed.

“For a president to take 30 minutes to spend with religious leaders tells you where his priorities are,” Merritt said. “The fact that we were able to interact with him in that type of setting is remarkable. He listened more than he spoke.”

While some ministers offered counsel to the president, Merritt said he simply offered a word of encouragement.

“As fellow believers we believe in the sovereignty of God. On the one hand, God knew what was going to happen on Sept. 11, but he also knew who would be sitting in the White House. I believe that President Bush is God’s man for this hour. God’s hand is on him.

“I encouraged him to humble himself to the Lord and God will lead him in a divine, providential way,” Merritt said.

After the meeting, Merritt asked the president how Christians could pray for him.

“First, he said to pray for wisdom; second, strength; third for clarity of thought; and he asked us to say a special prayer for his wife, daughters and family that God would protect them and he would be a godly husband and godly father,” Merritt said.

At the end of the meeting, Merritt said he shook the president’s hand and told him that “I loved him.”

“That’s when he looked at me and said, ‘James, tell all my Southern Baptist friends how much I love them as well.'”

While Merritt said he never dreamed he would be in the Oval Office, he said the most impressive memory of the prayer time was the president.

“Again, what I will remember is that we have a president who has a genuine love for Christ,” Merritt said.

Prior to the Oval Office gathering, Merritt attended a noontime meeting at the White House with ministers from 30 other denominations including evangelist Franklin Graham and Christian author Max Lucado.

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  • Todd Starnes