February 10, 2003, Monday, BC cycle
Religious broadcasters cheer Bush’s faith-based initiative

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 836 words

DATELINE: NASHVILLE, Tenn.

Even before President Bush arrived Monday at the National Religious Broadcasters convention, it seemed obvious what kind of reception he would receive.

Bush friend Michael W. Smith – the reigning top artist in contemporary Christian music – warmed up the crowd with worship songs and showed the video to “There She Stands,” a post-Sept. 11 tribute to the U.S. flag that Smith wrote at the president’s suggestion.

Christian inspirational singer Sara Paulson followed Smith to the stage and sang the national anthem against a video collage that featured fighter jets, white crosses, fireworks and the Statue of Liberty.

After escorting Bush to the stage, NRB Chairman Glenn Plummer referred to Scripture that says God’s people rejoice when a righteous person is in authority.

“Mr. President, as you can see, we are rejoicing,” Plummer proclaimed.

To be sure, the crowd of about 2,500 at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel greeted Bush with thunderous applause, seeing him not just as the nation’s 43rd president but also – as Plummer described it – as “a friend and brother in Christ.”

Bush could not have picked a better audience to push his faith-based initiative and call for the nation’s religious institutions to rally “armies of compassion” to help fight social problems such as drug addiction.

“The president, being a son of God, recognizes the power of God,” said Annette Brown, assistant media director for the 15,000-member Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore. “And he knows that the source of the strength of this country rests in the faith-based community.”

Joseph Emert, a broadcaster with Life Radio Ministry Inc. in Griffin, Ga., said Bush “rang a lot of bells” with the crowd.

“For many, many years, religious people have felt ostracized, kind of second-class citizens,” Emert said. “They could serve the same bowl of soup as the totally nonreligious group up the street … and receive no support whatsoever simply because they’re a religious group.”

Bush vowed to change that, drawing a standing ovation when he said, “The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end.”

The crowd also stood and cheered as Bush, making a case for war against Iraq, declared, “Liberty is not America’s gift to the world. Liberty is God’s gift to every human being in the world.”

Bush, a United Methodist, has found himself at odds with leaders of his denomination who oppose an attack on Iraq. But his message resonated with the NRB’s evangelical-leaning crowd.

“I think the president probably knows more things than we know,” said Emerson Peckman, a technician with Gospel Tide Broadcast Association in Chambersburg, Pa. “Plus, with the character that he has, I would trust his judgment.”

However, a few in the crowd acknowledged misgivings.

“I know Saddam Hussein is a threat, but so is Osama bin Laden, and there’s North Korea, and there are other countries that are against us also,” said Diane Frick, whose family operates the Duplication Factory, a Chaska, Minn., company that copies videos, compact discs and DVDs.

Before taking the stage, Bush convened a private round-table discussion with 14 Nashville area religious leaders, including a Jewish rabbi, involved with faith-based social services.

“I would say we were in there a good 40 minutes,” said Paige Potts, founder of the New Hope Academy, a Franklin school that brings together students of varying racial and economic backgrounds.

“He basically just kind of shared his heart about why the faith-based initiative is important to him. And then he wanted to hear what we were doing.”

In his speech, Bush referred to the Empty Hands Fellowship, a group of about 50 pastors and lay leaders started by the Rev. Denny Denson, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Franklin, and the Rev. Scott Roley, associate pastor of Christ Community Church, a Presbyterian church in Franklin.

Bush said Denson, whose 250-member church is mostly black, worried at first “about how these very different churches would work together.” Now, though, they offer a medical clinic for poor children and a legal office that gives free advice.

Bush said Denson told him, “There’s still some walls there, but they’re down low enough where we can step over them.”

The president cited Empty Hands Fellowship as an example of the cooperation needed to “break down barriers that have divided God’s children for too long.”

Nashville resident Sherry Jean Williams, a retired U.S. postal worker who volunteers with Reconciliation Ministries, rode in Bush’s motorcade from Nashville International Airport to the convention center.

Bush singled out Williams for her work with children of incarcerated parents.

“It’s unbelievable, surreal,” she said of the recognition. “I had nothing prepared to say. I was a little tongue-tied.”

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