First Blair, Then Bush?

Were the departing president to become a Catholic, Methodist leaders wouldn’t mind.

George W. Bush fell into disfavor with the leaders of his denomination, the United Methodist Church (UMC), the moment he began talking about war with Iraq. “We can’t sleep through this rush to war,” said Rev. Ed Rowe of Detroit Central United Methodist Church. “Killing innocent victims makes us the terrorists we hate.”

And the protests would only get worse. Among the most vocal anti-war opponents of the president was the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, who is a Methodist. He helped coordinate full- First Blair, Then Bush? Were the departing president to become a Catholic, Methodist leaders wouldn’t mind. CNS page ads of protest in newspapers.

One petition that he spearheaded ran with 125 signatures from an assortment of bishops, clergy, nuns, and parishioners in the New York Times in December 2002 and said: “President Bush: Jesus changed your heart. Now let Him change your mind. Your war would violate the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is inconceivable that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and the Prince of Peace, would support this proposed attack.”

Much of the dissent constituted enmity toward Bush personally. In one case, Methodist Bishop William Dew penned a Christmas 2002 message to his flock that began, “In the days of Bush, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden…”

A pastoral letter was also sent to the denomination’s 8.4 million members by Bishop Sharon Brown, president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops, that urged protests against Bush. Perhaps the loudest of the anti-war Methodists was Jim Winkler, general secretary of the UMC General Board of Church & Society. In early February 2003, he met with Gerhard Schroeder—the fi rst German leader to refuse to swear on the Bible during an offi ce oath-taking—as a show of support for the then-chancellor’s anti-war stance.

Bush also fell into disfavor with leaders of the UMC for his pro-life views. The leadership of the UMC has strayed so far to the ideological left—even by the standards of mainline Protestant denominations—that it openly supports legalized abortion. The UMC is one of only a handful of Protestant denominations to join the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The UMC’s guiding document, The Book of Discipline, states unequivocally: “[We] support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.” The late Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe v. Wade, was a committed Methodist, who, it is believed, spent time preparing his landmark majority opinion at the UMC building that sits right next to the US Supreme Court.

In 1995, Blackmun was invited to Hillary Clinton’s Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC to address the congregation in a message from the pulpit. When Blackmun’s sermon was cancelled under threats of protests by pro-life picketers, the church’s pro-abortion pastor, Dr. J. Philip Wogaman, one of the leading Methodists in the country, bitterly denounced this “tragedy”—meaning not the tragedy of abortion but the insolence of the pro-lifers.

All of this explains why UMC leaders feel that Bush does not merit a presidential library at one of their universities. All modern presidents, of course, get their own presidential libraries, and it is normally considered a great honor for any university to secure a host site. But once word got out last year that Southern Methodist University was slated to be the spot for President Bush’s library, a group of UMC pastors, SMU officials, and SMU faculty members launched protests.

Rhonda Blair, a theater professor and president of the SMU Faculty Senate, expressed concerned “about the potential hagiographic dimensions” of the library. Even then, Blair had not been critical enough as far as her colleagues were concerned, for Blair supported the library on the grounds that it would give Americans the opportunity to figure out “what the heck has happened during the eight years of this administration,” an argument that did little to mollify the masses.

The Rev. William McElvaney, a professor emeritus of preaching and worship at SMU, expressed concern over a “censored library.” Like other faculty, he demanded that the Bush Library be “non-partisan.” These critics at the same time viewed themselves as nonpartisan.

Rev. Andrew Weaver, who attended a UMC legislative conference at which delegates wanted to vote on the library and sought to raise money for a court challenge, told the New York Times that the delegates feared “a partisan thinktank,” which would be “hugely damaging to the university.” The UMC itself, said Weaver, “needs to do what it can to protect the university.”

This is also the sentiment of Susanne Johnson, associate professor of Christian education at SMU, and a leader among the opposition. She and some other professors and Methodist leaders were reportedly talking with lawyers about a lawsuit to file against SMU for allegedly violating its own rules by allowing the land to be used for a “partisan institute.” Johnson expressed concern about the lack of “lines of accountability” among faculty. She sees the library as a venue for conservative writers to “put window dressing” on the Bush presidency.

In response to all this, the college president has made clear that the library would be open to alternative viewpoints and seminars, and would champion “open inquiry.” Indeed, as any academic ought to know, presidential libraries are always open to researchers of all political stripes, and are run by the federal, non-partisan NARA.

The host university does not pick and choose scholars who can work at presidential libraries, most of whom— reflecting the overwhelming liberal slant of modern academia—are liberals. Bush-hating academics will be able to spend years in the research room toiling on treatises against the former president.

These facts about presidential libraries are well-known, but they did nothing to stop the emotional antics of academics. Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide denounced SMU’s president for shaming the university and making a “mockery out of academic standards and objectivity” by supporting the Bush Library and its “built-in propaganda program.” Another academic, Professor Joseph Duemer, said the library is “simply another example of the radical right taking control of an institution…just another example of wingnut welfare.” The professor, however, did concede one potential benefit for “scholars” like himself, who could now collect materials for their historical works on “political corruption, financial doubledealing, war profiteering, etc.”

The issue was finally settled with a decision in Febuary by the university and the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation to proceed with the library. It is now official, though the malcontents continue to fulminate. Long after the decision in February, the UMC’s South Central Jurisdiction, which owns SMU, kept debating petitions that aimed to derail the library with more legal challenges.

The SMU controversy was the final indignity in George W. Bush’s ongoing problems with the liberal elites who dominate the UMC—tension and rancor in ironic contrast with Bush’s convivial visits to the Vatican.

There have been reports that Bush, who so glowingly welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to Washington in April 2008, might ultimately choose to convert to Catholicism once out of office, along the lines of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Bush’s spokesmen have denied such reports.

Nonetheless, as one who has studied Bush’s faith at great length, including his winding path from the Episcopal church to Presbyterianism to Methodism, it would not be shocking to me if Bush made that move. Surprising, yes, but not shocking.

Bush, after all, has long been sympathetic to Catholicism, from initially placing his cherished Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in the hands of an attorney to Mother Teresa, to showering Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI with extraordinary praise, even beyond what Catholics often say. He told Raymond Arroyo of EWTN that when he greeted Pope Benedict in Washington and looked into his eyes, he expected to see “God.” To say that this Protestant president respects Catholicism is a huge understatement.

This much is clear: in many ways, and certainly on matters related to morality, Bush has more in common with the Catholic hierarchy than the UMC hierarchy. The UMC has become Harry Blackmun’s and Hillary Clinton’s church, not George W. Bush’s. If Bush does ultimately convert, I’m confident that the Pope in Rome will accord him more Christian charity than most of the men and women in the leadership offices of the UMC.


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About Dr. Paul Kengor 50 Articles
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, and, most recently, Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage.