Proposed Bush Library Divides U.S. Methodists
hen United Methodists weigh what's at stake in a plan to put a George W. Bush presidential library and policy institute at Southern Methodist University, they see a lot more than politics.
For the faithful on both sides of this hot-button issue, it's about the integrity of the church. More specifically, it's about what the church represents and what it rejects.
Critics of the library and policy institute plan have collected more than 9,000 signatures on an online petition since Jan. 17. They say Bush's management of the "war on terror" has been incompatible with Methodist ethical principles. In their opinion, institutions established to preserve Bush's legacy and the name "Methodist" should not mix.
"Some of us don't believe that starting a pre-emptive war against anybody, especially a country that had no role in 9/11, is on our list of religious values," said William McElvaney, an emeritus professor of preaching and worship at SMU's Perkins School of Theology. "Relaxation of the Geneva Conventions (codes for treatment of war prisoners) and torture ... are not on our list of Christian virtues."
Supporters of the proposed Bush library and policy center don't want to sacrifice what they regard as a paramount Methodist virtue: tolerance for different ways of living out the faith.
"Having the Bush library at SMU will strengthen the witness of the United Methodist Church," said Bishop Scott Jones of Kansas, an SMU trustee. "It makes a statement that political conservatives have a place in our denomination, as well as political liberals. ... The church's willingness to embrace diverse political opinions is a witness for how people can get along (in) a culture that is being torn apart and polarized."
What began as an internal flap at SMU became a national debate for Methodists after a library site-selection committee in December named SMU the sole finalist. Critics fear a privately funded policy institute, or think tank, will tie the Methodist name to a partisan public relations enterprise. Opponents are calling on the Methodist Church to forbid use of SMU property for such a purpose.
The brouhaha brings out familiar fault lines between theological liberals and conservatives across the 8 million-member denomination. Methodists have battled for years over issues such as gay clergy and abortion.
The same people who have argued for pluralism within the denomination on matters of doctrine are insisting on a particular brand of ethical purity in the public square, supporters of the Bush library say. "Is affiliation with the Bush administration the only `heresy' at a church-related school that is unacceptable to liberal United Methodist bishops and clerics?" asked Mark Tooley, UMAction director at the conservative Institute for Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.
Critics of the library plan are fuming in part because of George and Laura Bush's relationship with the denomination. President Bush, a former Episcopalian who converted to Methodism, has reportedly refused to meet with Methodist bishops during his presidency.
"He meets with Jerry Falwell. He meets with James Dobson," said the Rev. Andrew Weaver, a New York City psychotherapist and Methodist minister who helped organize the Web-based petition. "But he won't talk to bishops who are supposed to be his spiritual advisors."
The Bushes have not regularly attended a Methodist church during their six years in Washington. Although Laura Bush is an SMU alumna and the Bushes maintain membership at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, some question whether the president belongs in the denomination.
Religious Leaders Defend Obama Against Madrassa Allegations
A host of religious leaders have condemned "the bitter, destructive politics" that they say resulted in a political smear campaign against presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Several Web sites and a Fox News program reported that Obama was hiding the fact that he was educated in a madrassa, or a fundamentalist Islamic school, during his childhood in Indonesia.
Obama, who denied the allegations, has acknowledged attending a school that enrolled mostly Muslims for two years, as well as a Catholic school for another two while living in Indonesia.
A number of clerics signed an open letter that sharply criticized the smear tactics. "We have had enough of the slash and burn politics calculated to divide us as children of God," the letter read. "Certain moral standards should infuse our national dialogue, and the recent attacks on Sen. Obama violate values at the heart of this dialogue."
The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Democratic congressman, signed the letter and lambasted the allegations against Obama.
"We must not let fear, fundamentalism and Fox News set our nation's agenda," Edgar said in a statement. "It appears Fox News is using a political candidate to further foment a fear of fundamentalism in hopes of dividing Americans and pitting people of faith against one another. Faithful Americans must stand up and say no to such sinful behavior."
CNN sent senior correspondent John Vause to Jakarta, Indonesia, to investigate the questions about Obama's educational background. Vause, who has visited madrassas in Pakistan accused of training terrorists, reported he found no signs of radicalism at the Basuki school, which Obama attended from 1969 to 1971.
Additionally, the headmaster of the school told Vause that Basuki is "a public school" that doesn't "focus on religion," adding that although respect for religion is advocated, the school does not give preferential treatment to any one faith.
National Baptists Meet, Eye More Aid for New Orleans Churches
The nation's largest historic black denomination, the National Baptist Convention (USA), opened a meeting here on January 23 to discuss plans to help revitalize churches devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
"They haven't returned to full strength," said the Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the 7.5 million-member denomination and pastor of a church in Philadelphia. "We have to determine whether that's even possible. We're looking at what Katrina has done and what will still be needed."
Since Katrina hit in 2005, churches and their members have struggled to re-establish, said the Rev. Calvin Woods Jr., pastor of Greater Liberty Baptist Church in New Orleans. "They're coming back slowly," said Woods, whose congregation began worshipping in a New Orleans church again in March 2006, then moved back into its renovated sanctuary in November. "A lot of them need assistance. Each week we're building back up. The community is glad to have us back. It's a challenge for all of us."
Woods said his church formerly had 900 members; now it has 125 and many of them don't have their homes back. "We're seeking to revitalize houses, get them moved out of trailers," he said.
U.S. `Satisfied' With Religion's Public Role, But More Want Less
For the third consecutive year, the number of Americans calling for less religious influence in public life exceeded the number of Americans who want more, according to a new Gallup poll. Most Americans, however, remain "generally satisfied" with organized religion's role in the U.S., the survey round.
Nearly 40 percent of Americans say religion's level of influence "in the nation" should not change, 32 percent would like it to have less influence and 27 percent would like it to have more, according to the survey. Weekly churchgoers are much more likely to agree that religion should have greater influence on government and politics than those who go to church less frequently, the survey found.
Opinions also tended to shift depending on political affiliation. Some 41 percent of Democrats believed religion should have less impact, while 43 percent of Republicans felt it should have more.
During President Bush's first term, 2001 through 2004, more Americans believed the role of religion should increase than wanted its influence to fade. But by 2003, the numbers began to shift, and by 2005 a greater number of Americans believed religion should have less influence on public life.
The number of Americans who think religion should have less impact has increased 10 percentage points since 2001, according to Gallup. The Gallup Poll of 1,018 adults was conducted between January 15 and 18, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.