Struggle continues against pro-Bush Methodist university institute

By staff writers
February 1, 2008

Eleven active US United Methodist bishops have been asked to issue an interpretation of United Methodist church law that would circumvent a vote by lay and clergy delegates and permit the immediate establishment of a partisan Bush institute at Southern Methodist University (SMU) along with the planned Bush presidential library.

The request to the bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction came earlier this month (January 2008) from the George W. Bush Foundation.

The controversial institute, dedicated to promoting the domestic and international views of George W. Bush, would not be under the supervision of SMU and would hire without regard to university policy. No other university with a presidential library has permitted such an institute on its campus.

Bishop Kenneth W. Hicks of Little Rock, Arkansas, said, “My reason, conscience, and experience tell me that the bishops do not have authority to circumvent the right of the 290 delegates to the Jurisdictional Conference to vote on a 99-year proposal for land use of this nature. I encourage my fellow bishops to honor the voting rights of the Jurisdictional delegates.”

The South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church owns SMU and has the final say about the use of university property. In addition to the Bush presidential library, the Bush Foundation is seeking to establish at the university a controversial partisan institute devoted to “promoting the views of George W. Bush on international and domestic matters,” as stated by Marvin Bush, the president’s brother. The Foundation acknowledges that the institute would not be under the supervision of the university and that hiring would be without regard to university policy.

In the conference call, the eleven active bishops were asked to interpret church law to declare that the decision of the Mission Council, a 21-member interim body which approved the use of SMU land for the institute after heavy lobbying by a 10-4 vote in March, 2007, is final. This would permit the Bush Foundation to avoid submitting the matter to the 290 Jurisdictional Conference delegates meeting in Dallas in July, 2008, where the outcome of such a vote is in doubt.

The delegates represent 1.83 million United Methodists living in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Louisiana. If a majority vote against leasing university property for a partisan Bush institute, it cannot be built at SMU. The Foundation hopes to rely on the bishops’ interpretation in order to break ground for the institute before the delegates meet this summer.

However, the Rev David Severe, Director of Mission and Administration for the South Central Jurisdiction, wrote to an SMU professor on October 6, 2007, that “All actions taken by the Mission Council interim the Jurisdictional Conference must be ratified by the next Jurisdictional Conference session.”

He cited church law from the 2004 Jurisdictional Journal: “The Council shall be subject to the following and specific limitations of authority: All actions taken by The Council shall be valid and in full effect within the South Central Jurisdiction until the next regular session of the (Jurisdictional) Conference.... The chairperson of the Council shall submit to each regular quadrennial meeting of the Conference a written report of all actions taken by the Council during the quadrennium.”

“To not protect their right to vote on the use of land by the George W. Bush Foundation is a violation of the democratic and open processes of our church,” said Bishop Hicks. “I am worried that the disenfranchisement of Jurisdictional Conference delegates will undermine our ministry together as a church.”

“I can understand why the George W. Bush Foundation does not want the Jurisdictional Conference to vote on this issue," said Andrew Weaver, a United Methodist pastor and graduate of SMU. "In recent months, colleagues and I have spoken to dozens of delegates who are increasingly questioning the wisdom of placing a partisan think tank on the grounds of a United Methodist institution. The George W. Bush Foundation wants to prevent the vote because it fears the outcome. It appears that the Bush Foundation has no respect for the laws and procedures of the president's own denomination."

"The placement of a partisan institute to promote the policies of George W. Bush at Southern Methodist University would be a tragedy," said retired Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of London, Ohio. "The policies of the Bush administration are in direct conflict with the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church on issues of war and peace, civil liberties and human rights, care for the environment, and health care. Our United Methodist identity and its moral authority would be seriously compromised were it to be identified with the policies of George W. Bush in this way."

Schubert M. Ogden, University Distinguished Professor of Theology Emeritus at Southern Methodist University, observes: “While the wisdom of establishing a library and a museum is debatable, establishing a partisan think-tank will unquestionably damage the integrity and the reputation of SMU. The partisan mission of the proposed institute is profoundly incompatible with SMU's own mission as a university and could be made a part of it only by damaging it and soiling its good-standing in the academic community. In any case, The United Methodist Church has the right to an open, honest debate on the issue, and the elected delegates to the South Central Jurisdiction should in no way be deprived of their legal right to vote.”

George Henson, who teaches Spanish at SMU, stated, "It does not surprise me that the Bush Foundation is attempting to circumvent United Methodist law in order to place the Bush library and institute at SMU. A highly partisan think tank like the one planned for SMU, which exists completely outside the purview of normal academic controls and practices, is bad enough. The fact that United Methodist bishops are being asked to collaborate with Bush's representatives to circumvent the approval process is disgraceful. I am worried about the message this sends to our students."

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