ADDRESS TO MISSION COUNCIL, South Central Jurisdiction
March 14, 2007
Wm. K, McElvaney
Perkins School of Theology, SMU
Most United Methodists and non-Methodists would agree that historically SMU has been a “mainstream” Methodist university without commitment to or entanglement with partisan politics beyond its control. Indeed, the high regard in which SMU is held in most places is partly due to its freedom from ideological connections and obligations.
Make no mistake . . . if the Bush policy institute were to come to SMU as now designed, that is, reporting only to the Bush Foundation, it would be unprecedented not only in SMU’s history but also in American higher education. That’s why the decision before you is one of the most far-reaching in the history of SMU. As such it would constitute a major makeover of SMU’s previously unaligned educational history and practice.
In speaking today I’m convinced that I speak for thousands of United Methodist laity and clergy who, upon hearing that SMU was even considering a permanent hosting of the Bush complex, have expressed their concerns on web sites, letters to the SMU administration, and various forms of public outcry. Those more than 10,000 who signed a website, Protect SMU, are scattered through all fifty states. They are urban, suburban, rural, mega church, tiny church United Methodists. Many have identified themselves as 4th, 5th, or even 6th generation Methodists of all ages. These brothers and sisters, and many like them, are the very backbone of our church. They love both the UMC and SMU.
To put it candidly these concerned United Methodists see a deep disconnect between their faith shaped in the church and the purpose of a policy institute with the express intention of continuing to promote the policies and practices of the Bush presidency. They perceive a deep incompatibility between a philosophy whose policy institute supports pre-emptive war and a Methodist ethos rooted in peace and waging war only as a last resort. Many recall the United Methodist Bishops’ November 2005 Statement of Conscience which declared the Bishops’ belief that the invasion and occupation of Iraq were unjust and immoral. There is a profound consternation that United Methodist social conscience related to such issues as peace, poverty, environmental protection, and human rights will not be represented in a partisan policy institute.
There is a spoken and unspoken question among many United Methodists today. It sounds like this: Why would SMU accept a policy institute at odds with so much Methodist social theory and practice? Is it one more step towards weakening our Wesleyan and Methodist heritage? Is it one more move to disassociate the name Methodist as an out-of-date form of baggage no longer needed or wanted? In short: What does SMU stand for?
SMU’s administration has often claimed that as long as the president is in office, it’s all about politics. But once out of office, it’s about history. However, if you have a political philosophy by whatever name espoused through an ongoing policy institute, reporting only to itself, it is all about politics or at least a partisan view on a long-term basis. To suggest otherwise would simply be misleading.
A policy institute, whether on the left or right, cannot be faithful to SMU’s mission statement that asserts “the university is dedicated to the values of academic freedom and open inquiry and to its United Methodist heritage.” You cannot have academic freedom or open inquiry when the twig is already bent nor can United Methodist heritage be one of the starting points for critical truth-seeking inquiry.
The SMU faculty has been told again and again that the Bush library committee has insisted on an all or nothing plan for the complex of library, museum, and policy institute to be at SMU. The Mission Council, representing the SC Jurisdiction, has the responsibility of setting parameters fitting the mission of SMU as allowed by the SMU Articles of Incorporation. In other words, it’s not up to SMU to accommodate its future mission to the Bush committee. Rather, it is up to the Bush committee, if they want to be at SMU, to accommodate its plans to SMU’s mission as determined by you on the Mission Council representing the South Central Jurisdiction and the concerns of wider Methodism.
I believe the choice finally amounts to this: choose to align with a permanent partisan platform by which SMU will forever be known and perceived . . . OR . . . choose the more difficult task of learning in the 21st century how to stand on the promises and premises of our Methodist heritage reinterpreted for a rapidly changing multifaith and multicultural world. There is a choice to be made. The future soul of SMU is at stake.