Friday, June 27, 2008

Diane Smock, George Bush and SMU

Meet Diane Smock—member of the Greenville City Council in South Carolina, attorney and former judge. She’s also a member of a United Methodist Church where she considers herself an “average” member. She has served on church committees and taught Sunday School, but she hasn’t been involved in the regional and national workings of the church. Until now, that is.

Meet George W. Bush, soon to be retired president of the United States, and his wife Laura, graduate and member of the board of trustees at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Also meet Dick and Lynne Cheney, who like George and Laura claim membership in the United Methodist Church.

A special connection was created between these United Methodists when Smock learned that SMU was the proposed site for a presidential complex. She did something she had never done before; she sent a petition opposing the plan to the denomination’s top lawmaking body, the General Conference. In NeXus, an independent news publication for United Methodists, Cynthia Astle
“I felt it was the only avenue I knew to take at the time,” Ms. Smock explained. “General Conference is supposed to speak on behalf of us members – they debate everything from administration to doctrine and theology. I just thought that if that’s the body {that makes decisions for the church}, they ought to know how we feel.”
In something of a surprise, her voice was heard.
Instead of dismissing her petition outright as they had done with hundreds of others, delegates to the 2008 General Conference, held in late April in Fort Worth, TX, referred Ms. Smock’s petition to the South Central Jurisdiction, a 10-state regional unit which owns the land on which SMU sits. Now Ms. Smock and thousands of other United Methodists are waiting to see what the South Central Jurisdiction does with her petition when it meets July 15-19 in Dallas, TX.
So what’s the big deal about having the Bush presidential library at SMU? Meet William K. McElvaney, an icon in Dallas and in the United Methodist Church. Dr. McElvaney, long a United Methodist pastor in Dallas before becoming president of UM-related St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, MO, and currently LeVann Professor Emeritus of Preaching at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, has been in the leadership opposed to the establishment of this complex at SMU. In an interview with NeXus, Bill was asked what he saw at stake in the debate over a Bush Institute at SMU.
McElvaney: There are important things at stake both for SMU and United Methodism. The idea of a policy institute reporting only to itself on our campus is contrary to what universities understand themselves to be about. Universities are about critical thinking, searching for truth unencumbered by ideological background, so a partisan institute whether right or left seems to me to be an ill fit for any university campus, church-related or otherwise. It fails the test of impartial inquiry that is basic to the life and mission of a university.

So when either SMU or the {South Central Jurisdiction} College of Bishops claims this is about open inquiry, I simply cannot agree with that. I don’t think it is about open inquiry. The library is one thing, but the political or partisan institute is something else. It’s committed obviously by its own statement to foster and develop the Bush philosophy and practices, and that’s something that I don’t want to see happen to our university.

There’s a huge disconnect between the record of the Bush Administration, which is to be continued by the policy institute, and the values, including the Social Principles, of The United Methodist Church. We have never stood for pre-emptive wars, for torture, for doing poorly on the environment, or for favoring the rich over the poor. Those are basic things that are stake that I think will affect Methodism and SMU for a long time.
When the South Central Jurisdiction, the body actually holding title to the land on which SMU resides, meets in July, McElvaney hopes that the Jurisdictional Conference will divide the question between the {presidential} library and museum, and the policy institute.
I think there are many who will approve the library because of historical studies that it could make available, but who may not be willing to establish or approve a policy institute.
When asked why the opposition was making such a fuss now that it seems that the Bush complex is a done deal, he said:
The whole procedure from the beginning has been characterized by a lack of transparency. So I think one of the things that needs to be accomplished by democratic principles and church principles is transparency. People deserve to know what is happening in their university, what is happening in their church. That has not been forthcoming from SMU or from our College of Bishops. They’ve sought not even to have a vote on this at Jurisdictional Conference, so while the bishops spoke about “holy conferencing” at General Conference, the South Central College would deprive the delegates from their own conferences of having a vote about this. I think that’s alien to what our church at its best is about and alien to what democracy is about. So we want to get transparency…

I think it’s very regrettable that our South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops have accommodated themselves to the Bush Foundation instead of to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the champion of the poor and the advocate for justice. I find it very difficult to understand how our bishops who are supposed to be the shepherds of our people and to have some sense of prophetic ministry can kowtow to the Bush Administration as well as to a very partisan SMU Board {of Trustees}.
On July 15-19, when the Jurisdictional Conference meets, this year in Dallas, it will have to act on the petition initiated by Diane Smock and referred by General Conference, something the conference leadership did not want to have to do. It was, in the mind of the bishops of the jurisdiction, a done deal. It may still be, but they will now have to go on record publicly with their decision. And, who knows, there may be some other United Methodists who are delegates to this jurisdictional conference who care about what the establishment of the Bush Institute at SMU will mean for the university and the United Methodist Church, and who, like Diane Smock, Bill McElvaney, Andrew Weaver, and many others will stand up at the conference.

What can you do? A) If you are a delegate to the jurisdictional conference you can support efforts to divide the question between a library and museum, and the institute, and vote to reject the institute. B) If you are a United Methodist in the South Central Jurisdiction you can write to your bishop and offer your perspective. C) If you are a member of a United Methodist Church anywhere you can sign the national petition objecting to the establishment of the institute. D) If you are a member of some other church, or if you wouldn’t go near any church but care about academic freedom and integrity, talk to your Methodist friends. If you don’t have any, find some and let them know what you think.

My friend, Andrew Weaver, who has been one of the spearheads of this grassroots opposition movement,
often reminds me:
In her final column before her untimely death, Molly Ivins wrote:
"We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders."
- Milo

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