NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–On his first morning as president-elect, George W. Bush went to his church for a prayer service, an action praised by James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Well-wishers cheered and applauded as the next president and future first lady Laura Bush made their way into Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, for the service, where they sat on a front pew.
“I am grateful that President-elect Bush is beginning his first day as the acknowledged president-elect in church worshiping God and asking for his guidance,” Merritt said. “Perhaps as much as any new president in our nation’s history, the president-elect needs and deserves our prayers and total unqualified support.”
“He wants to start this on a message of prayer and healing,” a Bush aide told CNN following five weeks of post-election strife that ended with a concession speech Dec. 13 by Democrat Al Gore. Gore and Bush addressed the nation Wednesday night — the Democratic nominee disappointed but not bitter, and the Republican winner promising to earn the respect of all Americans, “whether you voted for me or not.”
Merritt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville, urged all Southern Baptists to pray for Bush.
“Our Southern Baptist family needs desperately, at this time, to pray for both President-elect George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore,” Merritt said. “I call all Southern Baptists to take time this Sunday in their services to pray particularly for the new president-elect and our nation that we would see a spiritual renewal sweep across this nation from the White House to the schoolhouse, to the courthouse, to the church house, and to our house,” Merritt said.
Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Bush and Gore handled themselves appropriately during their Dec. 13 addresses. “I thought they both struck an appropriate tone and provided a finality to the result that only they could bring,” Land said.
Evangelist Billy Graham, currently undergoing medical treatment, issued a statement the night of Dec. 13 urging Americans to repent and pray. “This division of the spirit of our nation can only be healed by prayer and repentance toward God, followed by reconciliation with those of differing perspectives — extending the love that only [God] can give,” Graham said.
“I am encouraged that democracy has prevailed as our nation has negotiated a difficult impasse,” Graham added. “The time has come to put aside the strong rhetoric that can only divide us and unite for the greater good as ‘one nation under God.’ He alone can bring us together. I urge all Americans to pray for and support President-elect Bush and to follow the gracious example of reconciliation he and Vice President Gore modeled in their speeches tonight.”
Bush and Gore are to meet Dec. 19 in Washington. The president-elect also has been invited to the White House for a meeting with Clinton during the week.
Land called for Americans to work together to correct the problems that became obvious in recent weeks.
“All of us need to resolve that our government at the national, state and local levels will engage in a great deal of mending of the torn fragment of our electoral process so that we can guarantee that all the votes in a state can be counted and evaluated in the same manner,” Land said. “We need to invest whatever is needed to update the machinery and to reform the laws to make sure that we’re never confronted with this type of crisis again.”
Both Graham and Merritt suggested the political problems in the country can and should be solved with spiritual answers.
“The heart of America’s problem is the problem of America’s heart,” Merritt said. “We desperately need to see God move in a fresh and a mighty way in our nation. May God use the new president-elect as a tool in his hands to help in the authority of his office to bring about a new moral and spiritual climate in this country.”
“My prayer for America echoes the words of the psalmist written thousands of years ago,” Graham said. “`… revive us, and we will call upon your name. Restore us, O Lord God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved’ (Psalm 80:18b-19). May we discover the truth of these words, both as individuals and as a nation.”
In England, President Clinton complimented Bush for the “generosity” of his remarks and urged the nation to “follow Vice President Gore’s lead” and unify behind Bush and his new administration. “I think we ought to use this opportunity to let the country come together,” Clinton said.
House Democratic whip David Bonior of Michigan also praised the tone of Bush’s speech. But he said Dec. 14 that the president-elect must address the voting problems that gave rise to the disputed Florida election if he wants the country to rally behind him. “There’s a lot of bitterness over what happened. He needs to address that. He needs to dig deeper to understand that in order for him to really bind the wounds that are out there in the country,” Bonior told CNN.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, said he expects bipartisan support in Congress for issues important to the incoming president such as education, tax relief and prescription drugs for seniors. “George Bush is a person who reaches out across the aisle. He’ll be a good example before us. He’ll be a good encouragement to us,” Armey told CNN.
Gore’s concession allows Bush to speed the pace of a transition process that already was under way, even when court battles left the country wondering who would prevail.
Bush already has running mate Dick Cheney in place as head of his transition team, with headquarters set up in McLean, Va., a Washington suburb. He’s also selected Andrew Card as his White House chief of staff.
Bush is expected to move quickly to name the rest of his White House staff and a prospective Cabinet, with top billing expected to go to retired Gen. Colin Powell as secretary of state.
The Bush team — locked out of government-funded transition offices until a winner was certain — said it now expects to start getting $5.2 million in federal funds to help pay for the transfer of power.
With little more than five weeks left before Bush assumes the presidency on Jan. 20, it’s not yet clear if his transition team will stay put in its rented space in Virginia or take time to move to the government-funded offices in Washington.
At British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s country retreat, Clinton said on Dec. 14 he disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that recounting Florida votes, as Gore wanted, would be unconstitutional. The high court decision, announced Dec. 12, led Gore to quit his quest for the White House.
(BP) file photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JAMES MERRITT.