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

SMU professor Susanne Scholz in the West Bank in 2018.
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Notes on the etiquette of scholarly dialogue and debate

This article is a response to the op-ed by Professor Roger Parks published in yesterday’s Daily Campus. His article creates an awkward situation at best, misrepresents facts at worst both unintended, I suspect, by Professor Parks, but begging for clarification nevertheless.

When we scholars say or write something either for or against the planned George W. Bush Presidential Library, Museum and Institute, we serve the SMU and wider community best by backing up our claims with publicly verifiable, documented evidence and with input from recognized, authoritative experts in specific areas of inquiry. Or else we should give evidence that we base our claims on our own scholarly expertise and qualifications, and areas of extended research. We should engage issues on an academic, scholarly basis, not personally criticize each another on an ad hominem one.

Some detractors, such as Professor Parks, attempt to discredit my reservations about the proposed Bush Institute by reducing them to mere personal opinion, moral self-righteousness, impatience with conservatism or pointy-headed liberalism. None of this is accurate.

As a born-again, evangelical Christian, I consider it important to appraise ways the notion is used and abused in theological and political circles today. This is a major motivation in writing about the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), the subject of my e-mail to him.

The United Methodist Church (UMC) publishes a Book of Resolutions that contains centrist teachings of the UM Church. Even a cursory look at the Resolutions might impress on the reader the fact that there are some UMC stances against which certain policy initiatives of the Bush administration run counter. My reservations are informed, in part, by what is published as consensus theological thinking of the UM Church.

In 1995, the United Methodist Council of Bishops launched an Episcopal Initiative on Children and Poverty, and issued three official statements (1996, 2001 and 2003) which criticize the discrepancy between our society’s responsibility to care for the least and last, and the measure of our actual public response. They grounded their statements in interdisciplinary research, combining insights from theology, economics, public policy analysis and so on.

Any critique I have of President Bush’s faith-based initiative-one of three areas his partisan institute actively will pursue and propagate-is similarly based on my own extensive, interdisciplinary research over the past six years, out of which I have fashioned an alternative faith-based paradigm for addressing children and families who live in poverty. My critique is academic in nature, not political.

Yet who is more qualified to do a critique of President Bush’s faith-based initiative than its former Deputy Director, David Kuo? Far from basing his critique on political differences (he is a card-carrying conservative Republican) or liberal Christianity (he is an evangelical Christian and member of the religious right), Kuo gives a first-hand, insider’s critique. Kuo’s book, “Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction,” exposes the faith-based initiative as a political sham and, as such, lacking the scholarly integrity one would expect of any academic program connected with SMU’s name or reputation in the Academy. [See video clip references at end of article.]

Alongside scholarly research, in responding academically to the proposed institute, I also draw on my training and expertise in the discipline of practical theology. Theology is not the same thing as personal faith, spirituality, religious beliefs or individual moral values.

Theology is an academic discipline with rules of engagement, methodologies and received traditions, similar in this respect to political science, philosophy and all other disciplinary areas in the university. As do all faculty members, theologians have a responsibility to bring the tools and qualifications of their professional, scholarly expertise to bear on academic and curricular concerns shared by the wider SMU faculty.

Theology is best seen as critical inquiry into the credibility of claims as to the Christian witness of faith. Trained theologians are qualified to conduct critical appraisal, for example, of theological claims iterated by George W. Bush when used as rationale for policy initiates. This is not judgmentalism; this is appropriate practice of the profession.

My comments regarding the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD)-to which Professor Parks calls derisive attention– are informed by my expertise in practical theology, and by dozens of research articles written over a period of years by scholars with expertise in various areas that relate to the IRD. A forthcoming documentary depicts scholarly consensus that the overriding intent of the IRD is to undermine the credibility of mainstream United Methodism. In order to see first-hand what the IRD passes off as “news,” go to following Web site and scroll through headlines: www.ucmpage.org/news_page.html.

To read about the documentary, go to www.umnexus.org/context.php.

When UM Bishop Carder was asked why he agreed to participate in the documentary, he explained that “the tactics of the IRD to take statements out of context, divide the church into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ foster polarization and conflict for financial and ideological purposes, capitalize on and manipulate fear and mistrust, promote a narrow political agenda-all in the name of ‘defending faith and freedom’-are disingenuous at best and diabolical at worst.”

In his op-ed, Professor Parks quotes a portion of an e-mail I sent. Whereas he writes, “there follow several paragraphs of diatribe concerning the IRD,” there was only one paragraph, comprised of two sentences, which repeat scholarly consensus about the IRD.

Upon receiving a derisive reply from Professor Parks, I responded by saying, “My apologies. … The real problem is not that the IRD is conservative; it’s something else…. they sensationalize and, yes, they even distort by taking things out of context.”

My intent was precisely that of the new documentary: to educate those who may be unaware of the close connection between President Bush and the IRD as to the nature of the IRD. And while I personally have no reservations about the upcoming Intelligent Design conference, some SMU professors do.

I inquired as to whether Professor Parks actually read the information I attached, and he confessed he had not done so before dashing off his op-ed to The Daily Campus. After taking time to read and reflect, it is regrettable that Professor Parks did not recall, revise and resubmit his op-ed. In his e-mail to me he did, however, grant “that many of the headlines are juvenile (at best) and mean-spirited (at worst).” Further, he politely asked that I not conclude that he wrote in bad faith for “I submitted the commentary before receiving your reply.” I do not believe he wrote in bad faith.

Intense debate and dialogue can get messy at certain points but, with effort, we can emerge with integrity and with fundamental respect for one another intact. I offer the above clarification in all due respect and regard for Professor Parks.

About the writer:

Susanne Johnson, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Christian Education at Perkins School of Theology and can be reached at [email protected].

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