The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Bush Library controversy: Who’s really “disconnected”?

A March 6 column (“The Bush presidency’s disconnect with the UMC”) by the Rev. Fred Kandeler targeted my organization, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). Ostensibly, IRD has attacked “the witness and integrity of UMC social justice teachings, initiatives and leaders” for 25 years.

Kandeler opposes the proposed Bush Library at SMU, and he is upset that IRD has been supportive of SMU against the United Methodist critics of the library. Kandler argues that the IRD is a tool or political arm of the Bush Administration. Father Richard John Neuhaus, a conservative Catholic thinker and writer, was one of IRD’s founders. President Bush has cited Neuhaus, who publishes a journal on religion an society, as a positive Christian influence. Hence the sinister connection, as Kandler perceives it.

This is nothing new. United Methodist Church elites, who are overwhelmingly liberal, have long resented the IRD for pointing out that most of their constituency do not support their political and theological perspective. Polls almost always show that most United Methodists are more conservative.

The IRD was founded as an ecumenical think tank in 1981, primarily by an AFL-CIO official and United Methodist layman, David Jessup and a United Methodist evangelist from Texas, Edmund Robb. Both were distressed that America’s mainline denominations were largely silent about human rights abuses in the Soviet bloc. Although one was politically liberal and the other politically conservative, both agreed that democracy is the best form of government for protecting human rights. Both believed that churches, with their message of transcendent moral order, have important roles to play in sustaining a democratic culture.

Father Neuhaus wrote IRD’s founding document, called “Christianity and Democracy,” which is available on our website at www.ird-renew.org.

IRD’s first decade was devoted almost exclusively to international issues relating to democracy and human rights. We challenged religious supporters, especially in the mainline denominations, who supported totalitarian regimes and movements like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Marxist rebels in El Salvador. We also gave an award to the Chilean Roman Catholic primate who helped push the Pinochet dictatorship toward democracy.

Since the fall of the old Soviet bloc, IRD has become more involved in the cultural and theological battles within the mainline churches. Basically, we believe that churches should uphold their historic doctrines. We also believe that the institutional church is most faithful to the Gospel and best serves society when it avoids routine detailed political involvements.

For example, all of the mainline denominations maintain lobby offices on Capitol Hill and routinely support and oppose legislation in the name of their churches, almost always from a liberal perspective. Is this really the correct priority for churches?

Meanwhile, and revealingly, a majority of church-going mainline Protestants continue to vote for conservative political candidates over liberal ones. More importantly, all of the mainline Protestants are suffering steep membership decline that is now entering its fifth decade. Forty years ago, one out of every six Americans belonged to a mainline church. Today, it’s one out of every fifteen.

Yet the overall rates of religious practice and church attendance in America have remained remarkably stable over the last 70 years. About 40 percent of Americans attend church regularly. But rather than going to Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian churches, they are now increasingly going to evangelical non-denominational churches. And contrary to stereotypes, surveys show that these new, growing churches, even though their members may vote conservatively, by and large abstain from direct political involvements.

Growing churches, in America and around the world, are not consumed by debates over sexual ethics or key theological issues such as Christ’s virgin birth or bodily resurrection. They take for granted Christianity’s historic teachings, and they focus their energies instead on proclaiming God’s Word and changing lives.

Does it help the declining mainline churches for many of their officials and clergy, like the Rev. Kandeler, to blame their critics? Would it not be more helpful to examine more carefully why these churches are losing members, and to focus instead on issues that unite rather than divide most Christians?

My own United Methodist Church, to which I’ve belonged for a lifetime, has lost 3 million members, or nearly 30 percent. During the same time, over the last 40 years, the U.S. population increased by nearly 50?percent. How sad!

The Rev. Kandeler complained of the “disconnect” between President Bush and the United Methodist Church. But what about the much wider disconnect between United Methodist officials and United Methodist Church members? United Methodist elites continue to disregard our denomination’s official policies on same-sex marriage (opposed), just-war teachings?(support), and partial-birth abortion (opposed), among others.

Whether or not SMU hosts a Bush Library is up to SMU, not disgruntled United Methodist clergy and activists. IRD has no official position on the library. But surely if a United Methodist university like Emory can host the Jimmy Carter Center, there is room for a United Methodist school to host a Bush Library.

About the writer:

Mark Tooley is a member of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He can be reached at [email protected]. The website will also provide further information: www.ird-renew.org

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