On December 14, I first wrote about the protest by faculty and staff at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology urging the university trustees to reject the George W. Bush presidential library. As far as I know, that posting was the first mention in any news medium about the protest. I am still receiving comments from readers, over a month later. The controversy shows no sign of abating; indeed, as of today, it has become a nationwide movement. Methodist clergy have started an online petition drive to pressure SMU into rejecting the library. The press release that I received today follows:


Jan. 18, 2007

United Methodist Clergy Circulate National Petition
To Stop Bush Library at SMU

“Dallas – In a national petition drive launched today, a group of United Methodist clergy and lay people are asking other church members to pressure Southern Methodist University to drop its bid for the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

“‘Because SMU is owned by the United Methodist Church, the imposition of a George W. Bush library, museum and think tank at SMU will irreparably connect the denomination with this presidency,’ said the Rev. Andrew J. Weaver, one of the organizers of the “Protect SMU” petition drive and a graduate of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. ‘Members of the UMC, therefore, should be able to express their opinion on this matter before a final decision is reached.'”

“The petition is being circulated on-line through a large Methodist network, as well as by word of mouth. The goal is to make the petition available to all 11 million members of the United Methodist Church. The petition expresses opposition to the prospect of a George W. Bush Library, museum and think tank at SMU and is directed at the university’s board of trustees and the South Central Jurisdiction of the UMC. Ten Methodist bishops have already signed the petition.”

“SMU learned on Dec. 21, 2006 that it was the lone finalist for the George W. Bush Presidential Library. A final decision about the library’s ultimate location, however, will not be made for a few more months, during which time SMU and the GWB Presidential Library Site Selection Committee will be negotiating the university’s proposal.”

“SMU is one of 123 educational institutions affiliated with the UMC and the only university with Methodist in its name. United Methodists founded SMU in 1911. The UMC has a long history of taking stands on moral issues such as the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century. ‘We believe the use of torture under President Bush’s authority is the moral equivalent of condoning slavery,’ said Weaver.

[end of release]

An Associated Press story about the new protest appears on the ABC News Web site. The story quotes President Bush as telling Belo Corp. television, “I understand there are some who have reservations, and my advice to them is understand that a library and institution would enhance education, be a place for interesting discussion and be a place for people to express their views and write and think, and these universities I think understand that and are excited about the prospects, and so am I.” Belo Corp. publishes the Dallas Morning News and owns 19 televisions stations, including WFAA, an ABC affiliate in Dallas.

I looked up the online petition. It is signed by ten Methodist bishops, eight of them retired; five Methodist members of the clergy, and three congregants. The petition has a short menu, one of the headings for which is, simply, “The Bush Library.” If you expect to find theological arguments and Biblical references against the library, think again. It’s all politics. Here are the categories listed:

* W library in record book: $500M center would be pricies for a Prez
* Dubya’s Tower of Babel
* The George W. Bush Library: Asset or Albatross for SMU?
* Methodism, torture and the Presidential Library
* Scholarly Archive or Ideological Center?
* S.M.U. Faculty Complains About Bush Library Plan
* A Discordant Chorus Questions Visions for a Bush Library at Southern Methodist University
* The Bush think tank: A giant Trojan horse among the ponies?

Just from this menu, it is apparent that the petition not about religion. If you have any doubt, read what appears under “Dubya’s Tower of Babel”:

“After six years of incompetence and cronyism, a failed war against terrorism, the quagmire that is Iraq, wars against science, the environment, corporate regulation and the public’s right-to-know, a chummy working relationship with the country’s most reactionary conservative evangelical Christians, a politicized faith-based initiative, giveaways to the energy industry, tax relief for the wealthy, a culture of corruption culminating in the forced resignations and imprisonment of some of the administrations key soldiers, and an attack on fundamental democratic rights and values, the Bush Administration is hatching plans to celebrate itself with a $500 million library (the costliest presidential library ever) to be built sometime after the end of Bush’s second term.”

My personal belief at the time that the Perkins Library faculty circulated their original letter opposing the library was that the decision to accept or reject the library was an academic question rather than a moral question, and that the protesters should render unto Caesar (the university’s board of trustees, the appropriate authority to make the decision). I have no doubt that in the long run, the location of the library at SMU will be a significant positive factor for the university. Lyndon Johnson was an unpopular president who waged a war that divided this country far more than the war in Iraq has done, and the University of Texas regents accepted his library without hesitation. The library has been an enormous asset to the university and to the larger Austin community, and the scholarship that it has supported includes significant works by prominent historians such as Robert Caro and Michael Bechloss. As an archivist pointed out in postings to this blog, the documents are under the control of the federal government, not the ex-president. History will have its way with George W. Bush, and there is nothing that he can do about that.

I have been troubled throughout the Bush presidency by the intrusion of religion into politics. I am troubled just as much by the intrusion of politics into religion, as represented by this petition. It is a political document, not a moral document. It seeks to clothe political arguments in priestly robes. Its ultimate argument–that the use of torture is the moral equivalent of slavery–is unsustainable. The difference between sleep deprivation, temperature discomfort, and stupid psychological gimmicks such as abuse of the Koran on the one hand and imposing slavery on the basis of race for generations on the other hand should be obvious to even the most dedicated Bush-hater. The clergy should be the most restrained of all people in invoking moral criticism of political decisions, because they know that man is imperfect.