November 15, 2008
The United Methodist Church vs. George W. BushBy Matthew May
Years, decades and -- God-willing -- centuries hence, students of American history will look back to the years 2001-2009 and wonder just why was so much vituperation, insult, and venom trained upon George W. Bush. Prologues of biographies and books about the 43rd president's life and administration will feature quotes from writers, pundits and political hacks, senators, congressmen, and candidates declaring the mendacity, malice and criminality of President Bush, a tyrant unlike any other. Such statements, however, will be presented as mockery. As it is with many biographies of Abraham Lincoln, they will be presented as their own words laughing back at them.
Denunciation of President Bush has emanated from seemingly all corners of the world. Few individuals or groups have matched the slurs, lies, and outright hatred that have come from officials of the United Methodist Church (UMC), which incidentally happens to be the church of George W. Bush. Official UMC has portrayed President Bush as a war criminal, wicked and wickedly ignorant; an object of derision unworthy of the church and its educational institutions. They have distorted and denied his accomplishments while distorting and denying the teachings of the founder of Methodism in a misguided and dishonest attempt to beat the president about the head for acting incompatibly with the philosophy of the denomination.
Hostilities began well before the outrage on September 11, 2001. Just two months into the Bush Administration, White House Liaison Officer Tim Goeglin briefed the UMC's Board of Church and Society's directors along with representatives from the various annual conferences of the church. According to one account, "Goeglein was pelted with hostile questions by the liberal activists. And he left the session...with the strong impression that many of the church office holders hoped Bush would leave United Methodism."
Once the United States was attacked on our soil by al-Qaeda and the president commenced military operations in response, and decided upon preemptive action against Iraq to destroy the al-Qaeda network and regimes that harbored it while continuing to develop weaponry in violation of various United Nations resolutions, the United Methodist Church dropped any pretense of objectivity or support.
During a meeting in November 2001, at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, the Council of Bishops debated and rejected issuing a public statement explaining the church's teachings on just war theory. Instead the bishops declared their neutrality in U.S. action against Osama bin Laden's organization and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Additionally, language introduced by two of the bishops to specifically request UMC members pray for men and women of the United States military was voted down; rather, the statement offered prayers for "people who have been placed in harm's way and their loved ones." "People" could certainly have meant U.S. military personnel, but it could have also meant Osama bin Laden and his surrogates, no?
Not all of the bishops on the council reflexively ignored the denomination's teachings on just war theory or endorsed the explicit suggestions of other bishops that the United States was complicit "in creating some of the chaos," as did Bishop Ann Shearer of Missouri. Bishop Tim Whitaker of Florida disagreed with such language that amounted to justifying terrorist acts and stale denunciations of American imperialism and oppressive foreign policy as if lifted from an SDS manifesto. Unfortunately, voices like Whitaker's were outnumbered and his ideas and thoughts, while politely considered, ended up on the cutting-room floor.
In an April 3, 2005, a full-page magazine ad entitled "A Prophetic Epistle from United Methodists Calling Our Brother George W. Bush to Repent" appeared. Signed by 120 United Methodist officials and several bishops, the letter demanded the president "to repent from domestic foreign policies that are incompatible with the teaching and example of Christ." President Bush was charged with threatening "the very earth and all its inhabitants with open discussion of the use of nuclear weapons," and promoting violence against "the sovereign nation of Iraq." For good measure, the president's domestic policies were deemed as "incongruent with Jesus' teaching," along with the gratuitous accusation that the two "seem completely ignorant of their denomination's stances on many weighty moral issues..."
The phrase "sovereign nation of Iraq" is an instructive tactical ploy. Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, a group of UMC clergy wrote a public letter as part of a petition encouraging President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney - also a United Methodist - to change their vile ways. Reference was made in this letter, which again accused the president of "directly contradicted the philosophy of Jesus," to the United Methodist's Doctrinal Standards and General Rules found in the Discipline, the governing rules of the church.
The United States is described within the Standards as "a sovereign and independent nation, and ought not to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction." As such, the 2004 letter argued that Iraq held the same status and rights as the United States "no matter what anyone's opinion is of its former head of state. Attacking a sovereign nation except in cases of legitimate self-defense is a violation of international law." Also notable was what the letter did not say about Saddam Hussein; that he harbored al-Qaeda terrorists (Abu Nidal, to name one), that he flouted the United Nations time and again, that he presided over murder, rape, and the execution of homosexuals among other acts about which some of us may or may not have an "opinion." In the eyes of the group proffering the petition, Hussein's Iraq and the United States stood on equal footing.
A neat trick, that. Such a formulation ignores that it was not President Bush's "opinion" that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to his neighbors, Israel, and the United States; it was the policy of the United Nations in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War in its various resolutions, which Saddam Hussein continually defied. Randall Hoven thoroughly decimates the left's arguments regarding the reasoning for invading Iraq to begin with here. Mr. Hoven points out that the president was not engaged in "cowboy" antics, but acting upon the written law of the United States as passed by Congress. As he writes: "The invasion of Iraq was arguably the most justified case of military action the US has ever taken in its history, based on national defense, validated intelligence and legal authority, not to mention morality. Articles of impeachment would have made more sense if Bush had not invaded."
Notably, no such exhortations of repentance for causing violence in Iraq were put upon President Clinton by the United Methodist Church following his airstrikes against "sovereign Iraq" in December 1998, airstrikes that may be plausibly argued amounted to nothing more than an attempt to defect attention away from the House of Representatives voting to impeach President Clinton. On the contrary, the Detroit Annual Conference of the UMC - to cite one example - passed a resolution the following year that read, in part, "Military sanctions are reasonable policy in that they seek to contain the ability to create and use weapons of mass destruction." Apparently it depends on who is ordering the military strikes on "sovereign nations" in deciding who is and who is not acting in defiance of the teachings of the New Testament.
Academic Freedom, Methodist Style: Carter good, Bush bad
Most recently the belligerent attitude of the United Methodist Church toward the president of the United States has manifested itself in the controversy over the site of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The president decided that he would enjoy seeing his library, museum and public policy institute located at Southern Methodist University near Dallas. The First Lady is an SMU graduate and the Bushes worshipped at a prominent United Methodist congregation in Dallas before heading to Austin and the governor's mansion.
In an article published in 2006 on the website UM Nexus (a publication of The Progressive Christian Magazine), Perkins School of Theology professors at Southern Methodist wrote "SMU's best interests are served when leadership proceeds without assuming that the reasons for seeking the library at SMU are self-evident." When listing their objections to the university playing host to this particular presidential library, the authors lazily repeated the litany of anti-Bush canards that so many misguided leftists take as self-evident: defending our nation against the terror masters is "illegal," the battle in Iraq based on "false premises," the Bush administration operates in "secrecy" (and, therefore, the library probably would as well), the president is building a legacy of "environmental predation" and exploiting "gay rights," and, the inevitable cherry on top, "the most critical erosion of habeas corpus in memory." Further, several dozen SMU professors and 28 mostly-retired bishops signed a petition protesting the Bush library, which read in part "As United Methodists, we believe that the linking of his presidency with a university bearing the Methodist name is utterly inappropriate."
For all of the name-calling and silliness proffered by SMU professors and others regarding the library, there were honest brokers within the school and elsewhere ably defending the sanctity of academic freedom, recognizing and emphasizing the unprecedented educational opportunity for the university community. However, the accusation that the Bush Administration is a "failed presidency" presided over by a dissembler and, therefore, that person should not be affiliated with a Methodist educational institution is an example of official United Methodism being caught in a trap of its own making.
Emory University in Atlanta was founded by the Methodist church in 1836 and has been affiliated with the Carter Center since the latter's inception in 1982. The Carter Center was housed on the Emory campus until 1986 when it moved to an off-campus facility in Atlanta. The center and the university each proudly describe themselves as "partners." Taking the reasoning of the clergy and bishops who formulated and signed the petition regarding Southern Methodist as Methodist doctrine, however, it is in the best interests of Emory and the church to separate themselves from President Jimmy Carter.
As many are aware, President Carter brought much embarrassment upon himself in the wake of his last book, Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid. Two dozen members of the Carter Center's advisory board resigned to protest the inaccuracies, misstatements and outright falsehoods President Carter writes, not to mention the documented accusations of plagiarism and anti-Israeli rhetoric within the text. President Carter has published a book of thinly-veiled anti-Israeli rhetoric that contains errors of commission and omission, and can now be used as a how-to textbook on plagiarism. Is James Earl Carter someone with whom United Methodist bishops think it's appropriate for a church school to continue to associate? Is it not an utter embarrassment for the United Methodist Church to be connected with such a figure?
If the application of certain standards for one president is appropriate when questioning the affiliation with Methodist schools, it is appropriate for all. When United Methodist clergy and bishops begin to openly campaign for the dissolution of the relationship between Emory University and the Carter Center and Jimmy Carter, balance will be restored to the thinking and public pronouncements of those purportedly concerned about the image of the church. Only then will any petition or objection regarding George W. Bush and Southern Methodist University by Methodist clergy and bishops be taken seriously by serious minds. Until such time, such objection is nothing more than an expression of personal animus, myopia, and intellectual dishonesty.
Thankfully, the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, which is basically the governing body for Southern Methodist University, voted in July to approve the plans for a library, museum and policy center. Southern Methodist will now have a unique opportunity to attract presidential scholars and students for the rest of its days to study and debate the Bush administration, its successes, its failures, and the philosophies of the president himself. However, opponents of the president and of academic freedom continue to insult George W. Bush and purport shame that such a figure is associated with a Methodist university. Would that they would do the same in Atlanta - or perhaps take a moment to "celebrate diversity" of thought within the church that advertises its "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors."
Because contemporary United Methodist leaders are so fond of issuing blanket accusations against President Bush and others that their actions in the war against Islamic jihad are in defiance of Methodism while protecting and promoting enablers of terrorist organizations and terrorists themselves, it is instructive to review the pertinent writings of John Wesley (1703-91), the founder of Methodism.
Many critics of President Bush find it convenient to refer to Wesley on such matters by often selectively and narrowly present a quote from Wesley's essay "The Doctrine of Original Sin." The oft-quoted passage reads "There is still a greater and more undeniable proof that the very foundation of all things, civil and religious, are utterly out of course in the Christian as well as the heathen world...There is war in the world! War between men! War between Christians! Now, who can reconcile war, I will not say to religion, but to any degree of reason or common sense?" Reading this, it is easy to conclude at first blush that Wesley was a pacifist, opposed to armed conflict at all costs.
Like most reasonable people, Wesley abhorred war and its vagaries. Wesley attributed the presence of war in the world to the mosaic of man's imperfections: sin, greed, ambition, and disrespect among nations. But Wesley was not merely a hopeless idealist; he dealt with the world as it was. While hoping and praying for the peacemakers he held as the standard of human behavior, Wesley realized, as did St. Augustine, that "there never has been nor, is there today, any absence of hostile foreign powers to provoke war." As such, Wesley believed the most important roles of the state were to protect religious liberty and maintain order and in both instances sometimes that meant the use of force.
Wesley was so committed to the question of religious liberty that he shortsightedly managed to ignore the salient issue of taxation-without-representation in failing to understand the outrage among American colonists toward the British. Because he felt Americans had such a degree of religious freedom granted to them by the benevolent crown, because he thought their instigation against the British such an affront, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, offered his services to England in the formation of a militia in opposition to the rebellious colonists. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Wesley was not offering to bear arms against a band of Godless marauders or thieves. He was offering to lead men in the killing of fellow citizens - fellow Christians - in the name of the British Empire. To suggest that Wesley was a pacifist of any sort is to totally distort his actions.
What left-leaning United Methodists hope you do not know or recall when they selectively lift passages from the writings of John Wesley in furtherance of discrediting conservatives or anyone else on the question of military action by this republic is that Wesley was a proponent of just war theory.
St. Augustine elaborated upon the just war doctrine (which Aristotle is often credited with devising) in his work City of God: "A just war...is justified only by the injustice of an aggressor; and that injustice ought to be a source of grief to any good man, because it is a human injustice." Some claim that City of God was directly aimed at pagans who accused the church of inviting Rome's doom engineered by the Goths when admonishing Rome's citizens against worshipping pagan gods. Whether this interpretation is true remains open for debate but the fact remains that Augustine's work on the subject influenced many men of God.
St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, furthered Augustine's basic precepts and conditions of just war theory. John Wesley was another such man. His thoughts on the matter were probably best summarized in his Notes on the Old Testament, within which he reviewed the circumstances surrounding the Amorite king's attack upon the Israelites: "By God's malice, that so Sihon's malice might be the more evident and inexcusable, and their title to the country more clear in the judgment of all men, as being gotten by a just war into which they were forced in their own defense."
Lest there be any confusion, no rational person argues that such a theory is a convenient default setting for war at any and all times. Augustine posited that personal belief in non-violence is separate from the social responsibility for maintaining order and safety on the part of national leaders. Augustine recognized and validated the notion that there will be occasions, regrettably enough, when violent responses and actions must be undertaken. These actions must be undertaken by individuals in positions of civic leadership, individuals who must strike a balance between Augustine's delineation.
Additionally, the purpose of just war theory is not to dilute the horrors of war by labeling it "just." At its narrowest, no war is just. War is a violation of the teachings of the New Testament and is the product of the sinful nature of man. To argue otherwise is a delusion. Yet if John Wesley understood the practical measures that nation-states must sometimes undertake for the common defense and well-being of its citizens, how is that leaders in contemporary Methodism fail to recognize the same? But this is the case. Shortly after the September 11, 2001 atrocities upon New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, the Council of Bishops maintained that the attack did not merit a military reprisal by the United States and refused to label the attacks "evil." Think what you will of the Iraq operation. But if an attack on the scale of 9/11 does not rise to the just war standard in the eyes of the modern United Methodist Church, what does? Was not the American military response "a just war into which they were forced in their own defense?"
It is unnecessary to reargue the myriad of reasons as to why the current military defense against Islamic jihad is necessary and just. Those on the left within the United Methodist Church and without will never be convinced of its necessity, even as the campaign in Iraq was undertaken in the name of the enforcement of resolutions passed by the political body most revered, respected, and referenced by the left. In spite of the prima facie success of the United States armed forces in this struggle - no further attacks on the homeland, the systemic destruction of al-Qaeda's leadership and rank-and-file, the burgeoning democracy in Iraq - the current United Methodist leadership will forever accuse President Bush of violating the teachings of the church and Jesus Christ by engaging in an "illegal" war. It is clear from letters to the president signed by the bishops and other writings and pronouncements that the moral station of Iraq under the boot of Hussein was equal to that of the United States. No invasion or military operation could rise to meet any just war criteria. Instead, the church has fallen in line with its leftist counterparts in the media and elected office, reduced to name-calling and accusations based on false premises, distortions, and outright lies.
The Other Cheek
United Methodists in positions of leadership often accuse President Bush of acting outside the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Methodist Discipline, the governing rules of the church. Yet has there ever been a president of the United States or any other American political figure who has more faithfully obeyed the teaching of Jesus Christ's teaching to turning the other cheek toward his political enemies than George W. Bush? Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls him "a total failure"; Sen. Dick Durbin attempted to link him with Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler during a speech on the floor of the Senate. Rep. Pete Stark accused President Bush and cronies laughing themselves silly at the American war dead in Iraq. There is literally not enough room to fully itemize the insults, lies, and slander thrown against President Bush these past eight years.
As often as allows, President Bush has met with families of those who have given the last full measure of devotion to their nation. These meetings are always private; never have any media been allowed to intrude. More often than not, such meetings would totally escape any media attention at all but for the desire of many of the families to publically express their gratitude for the president's concern, compassion, and sensitivity. Of course, not everyone involved in these meetings pays deference to the Commander-in-Chief - often he has been told to his face that his policies and his actions led directly to the death of a son or daughter. Rather than argue the point, President Bush has listened patiently and with kindness, sharing tears and expressing his own grief.
The responsibility of presiding as leader of the free world in this tumultuous period of history weighs heavily on George W. Bush. To suggest that it is easy - or amusing - for him to absorb the deaths and injuries of the military he commands is beyond crass. It is sinful and worthy of repentance by those who so often suggest such things.
To the dismay of many allies and supporters, the president has never responded in kind personally. Never. On the contrary there are seemingly endless examples of the president's kindness to his political foes, their families and associates, a kindness that comes congenitally and is an outgrowth of the numerous pledges of bipartisanship made by then-Governor Bush during the 2000 campaign. President Bush signed legislation to honor the late Robert F. Kennedy, naming the Justice Department building in Washington after him. Recall the kind, affectionate words of respect and fraternity delivered when President Bush dedicated the official White House portraits of Bill and Hillary Clinton. These gracious statements and sentiments of good feeling by George W. Bush go beyond the banal courtesies extended by presidents. This is the way the 43rd president operates at all times. It is indisputably unimaginable to consider the left's "Man of God," Jimmy Carter, ever being so publicly gracious to George W. Bush.
Of course, groups like the UMC Council of Bishops will argue that George W. Bush should have turned the other cheek in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and concentrated - as the 2002 Detroit Annual Conference urged - on non-violent responses accompanied by increased efforts to "open channels for oppressed peoples to be heard, taken seriously, and responded to." What that means is anyone's guess. Again, such a stance is willful or generally ignorant of the responsibilities and duties of leaders of state as eloquently and exhaustively described by Wesley, Aquinas, and St. Augustine among others.
Regardless, as Democrat office-holders, leftist activists and pundits bent over backwards attempting to gain association with what was presented as overwhelming popular sentiment against the prosecution of the battle in Iraq in the war against Islamic jihad, President Bush continued to lead, unconcerned with insults and outrages he knew were fleeting. Even so, such comportment - especially for a politician in Washington, D.C. - is not an easy thing for any man to sustain, even a Christian.
Contrast for a moment how President Clinton dealt with, spoke of, and portrayed his ideological foes and the lengths personally taken to discredit and destroy people like Kenneth Starr. Think of the countless caricatures of President Bush as a simpleton with simian qualities, yukking it up with oilmen over flag-draped coffins, cartoons lampooning his alleged stupidity or ordering around his black Secretary of State. Now think about the furor raised by Barack Obama in the wake of one cartoon. Finally, think of all of the vile counterattacks proffered by President Bush and his administration. Res ipsa loquitur.
Agree or disagree with the policies of George W. Bush as you will. But any objective observer with a modicum of understanding of the Christian ethic in general and the principles of Methodism in particular cannot say with any justification that George W. Bush has acted in defiance of his church's teachings. In fact, President Bush's actions as an individual and as a leader of state align much more closely with the philosophies and teachings of Wesley than do contemporary leaders of the United Methodist Church.
An Ugly Chapter
Merely by virtue of being a United Methodist, George W. Bush is certainly not entitled to the support of the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church. Yet for nearly eight years that hierarchy has gone beyond disagreement - further than vociferous disagreement, even. As to the nature of the enemy we face - real, substantive, tangible evil that sends children to their death while simultaneously looking children in the eyes before exterminating them - the United Methodist Church has nothing to say other than bromides about root causes, tolerance, and the effectiveness of the United Nations as opposed to that of the United States. Given a clear choice in this period of history, however, the church did indeed declare an enemy about in the world.
Despite his Christian example, his reliance upon the United Methodist Church's preferred political body to enforce its own resolutions with regard to Iraq, and his unwillingness as the leader of state to repeat the mistakes of Munich in appeasing those who openly threaten and the mistakes of his predecessor in ignoring the clear warnings and acts of war upon the United States by Islamic jihad, the United Methodist Church chose to single out one man for the world's ills: George W. Bush, United Methodist.
If a Christian denomination refuses to call true evil by its name yet remains comfortable promoting the idea that those who attempt to destroy that evil in the cause of freedom are worthy of its condemnation, how can anyone take the teachings within that denomination seriously? The United Methodist Church has been unable to get a basic moral absolute correct. History will not look kindly upon the deliberate acts of relativism, hypocrisy, inconsistency, and mean-spiritedness committed by the United Methodist Church on questions of its own theology, morality, and the responsibilities of the state in the face of grave threats and acts of war these past eight years. The shame of such behavior will never be expunged.
Matthew May is a United Methodist layman and welcomes comments at email@example.com