Those SMU wars over Bush values

perkinschapelBack when I was in graduate school at Baylor University in the late 1970s, I had a classmate who was considering doing graduate work at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. This student was not a fundamentalist at all and, in fact, I believe that he soon converted to the Episcopal Church. As often happens, we lost touch after graduate school. However, I do remember that his visits to Perkins raised some major questions in his mind. He found it interesting that there were very, very few professors there who believed in the resurrection of Jesus, at least not in any literal, historical sense of the word. It was also clear that hardly anyone there believed that "evangelism" -- at least in the sense that John Wesley used the word -- was an important subject, since the various world religions were all paths to the top of the same divine mountain, etc. etc. He knew that these beliefs were common, of course. He was simply surprised to find that they were so dominant at SMU, which is located -- I stress again -- in Dallas.

I bring this up because of the really interesting story that is unfolding at SMU, where a coalition of United Methodist ministers and faculty are mounting an attack on the construction of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and think tank. The latter would require the assigning or hiring of actual faculty members who would be willing to, I assume, argue in favor of any of the beliefs or actions of someone like Bush.

The key is that Bush does not represent "Methodist values." There is also a crucial academic question at stake -- the creation of the independent Bush Institute.

This story has been getting lots of coverage, and most of it has been pretty good. The assumption, of course, is that the division at SMU (Laura Bush's alma mater) is rooted in the Iraq war. Here is a key passage in a recent piece by Miguel Bustillo of the Los Angeles Times:

The debate took off in November, when the SMU Daily Campus printed an opinion piece titled "The George W. Bush Library: asset or albatross?" The authors -- William K. McElvaney, a professor emeritus, and associate professor Susanne Johnson, both of the Perkins School of Theology -- made clear where they stood.

"Do we want SMU to benefit financially from a legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death brought about by the Bush presidency in dismissal of broad international opinion?" the two wrote. "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?"

That is an interesting set of political and moral issues, and they are all valid. I have no doubt that there are other issues that would cause tension at SMU. I'll go even further than that and say that the same issues would cause some tension -- slightly less, I think -- in the faculty (and a few students) at Baylor, which could end up with the Bush library if SMU rejects it.

john wesley 1What's my point? I am sure the Iraq war is a crucial factor in this story. However, I would be stunned if the basic division here isn't rooted, just as much if not more, in religious and moral issues. The division, in a way, is between the world of mainline Protestantism and the evangelical world that helped elect Bush in the first place. In a way, this division has existed for a long time between SMU/Perkins and the dominant religious culture of Dallas and Texas. There are divisions among United Methodists, as well, that affect these kinds of debates.

So -- you knew this was coming -- I think it would be interesting to ask the ordained generals on both side of the Bush Library war the blunt questions in the tmatt trio:

1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Thus, it is valid to debate whether Bush represents "Methodist values" on key issues.

However, it would also be interesting to find out if many of the same faculty and ministers who oppose this library would also have questions about whether the beliefs proclaimed by the evangelist named John Wesley are consistent with "Methodist values" as currently defined by many at SMU.

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