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Methodism Madness

A group of Methodist bishops tries to keep the Bush presidential library out of SMU.

11:00 PM, Jan 25, 2007 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
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LATE LAST YEAR, dozens of faculty members at Southern Methodist University publicly opposed plans by President Bush to locate his presidential library on SMU's campus in Dallas.

Now, ten bishops of the United Methodist Church, which owns the school, and of which President Bush is a member, are urging SMU to reject the library and are circulating a petition for others to sign.

A chief organizer in stopping the Bush library is a former professor at SMU's Perkins School of Theology, who told the Dallas Morning News that he doesn't want his school to "hitch its future star" to the war and other aspects of President Bush's legacy.

"What moral justification supports SMU's providing a haven for a legacy of environmental predation and denial of global warming, shameful exploitation of gay rights and the most critical erosion of habeas corpus in memory?" asked the Rev. William McElvaney, in an op-ed for an SMU campus publication last Fall.

The 78-year-old McElvaney is a former Texas oil man who went to SMU's seminary, where he exchanged his family's conservative politics for the Social Gospel. As the Dallas Morning News described him, McElvaney as a United Methodist pastor and seminary professor "preached against the Vietnam War" and "supported a variety of causes, including civil rights, gay rights, low-cost housing and better treatment of immigrants."

ONE OF OVER 120 colleges and universities affiliated with United Methodism, SMU is legally owned by the United Methodist Church's South Central Jurisdiction. Half of its board of trustees are church members--including three bishops, the pastor of President Bush's home church in Dallas, and First Lady Laura Bush. But the 11,000 student school has long governed itself autonomously and the denomination typically exercises little direct influence, except over the seminary, which has been theologically liberal for many decades.

Rev. McElvaney was among the first to mobilize public opposition to the Bush library. But the recently unveiled petition, which McElvaney signed, was organized by New York therapist and ordained United Methodist minister Andrew Weaver. "Methodists have a long history of social conscience, so questions about the conduct of this president are very concerning," Weaver told the Associated Press.

Weaver frets that the library will become a $500 million dollar headquarters for neoconservatives and former Bush administration officials. His anti-Bush library website references Bush administration policies about war, "kidnapping and torture," and Hurricane Katrina. For his part, McElvaney complains that a Bush library will mean that SMU supports "a pre-emptive war based on false premises, misleading the American public, and destined to cost more American lives in Iraq than the 9-11 terrorist attack," along with "the death of thousands of innocent Iraqis by our 'shock and awe' bombing in the name of democracy . . . "

NOT ALL United Methodist officials agree with McElvaney, Weaver, and the bishops who signed the anti-Bush petition. "I think it's a fringe group, a marginal group without any standing other than the fact they happen to be one of 8 million United Methodists," the Rev. Mark Craig told the Dallas Morning News. An SMU trustee, Craig is pastor of the 13,000-member Highland Park United Methodist Church (where the Bushes are members).

Craig told the newspaper that the vast majority of his own congregation supports SMU's hosting the library because it would help the school and the city. Craig called Bush "a good Methodist and anyone who says other than that is being grossly judgmental."

The United Methodist Council of Bishops, including Bishop Will Willimon of North Alabama, has repeatedly condemned the Iraq war. But Willimon told the Dallas Morning News that he, too, supports the Bush library. Formerly the dean of the chapel at Duke University (another United Methodist school) Willimon regretted that Duke had rejected the possibility of hosting the presidential library of Richard Nixon, who had attended Duke's law school.

"It was a great loss to Duke not to get the Nixon library," Willimon was quoted as saying. "Universities are supposed to be places for intellectuals, and intellectuals are supposed to be curious about everything. . . . Wherever the Bush library ends up, I hope scholars will be standing in line the day it opens to get their hands on the papers and figure out what happened" with the Iraq war.

LIBRARY OPPONENT Andrew Weaver is less curious. "George Bush has been, in his presidency, so inconsistent with fundamental Christianity that he should not be associated with a Methodist university," he told the Dallas paper. "Methodist means decency, and this man has not been decent."