WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Bishops and other leaders of the United Methodist Church -- which counts President George W. Bush among its adherents -- dominate the religious opposition against his preparations for a war on Iraq.
One of the bishops, Melvin G. Talbert, the UMC's chief ecumenical officer, stars in a 30-second commercial claiming that the war would "violate God's law and the teachings of Jesus Christ." The ad is scheduled to appear next week on the CNN and Fox cable networks but can already be seen Friday on the Web site of the National Council of Churches of Christ.
Twenty other Methodist bishops are among the 46 prominent mainline Protestant and Orthodox clerics who signed a petition Thursday requesting "with utmost urgency" a face-to-face encounter with Bush.
"We want to meet with the president before he decides to go to war with Iraq," said NCCC's General Secretary Bob Edgar, just back from a fact-finding trip to Iraq after which he and his 12 fellow-delegates concluded that a preemptive war would be "immoral, illegal and theologically illegitimate."
Edgar, too, is a UMC theologian.
There is, however, opposition within the UMC to such activism, which according to Drew University theologian Thomas C. Oden grew out of the Vietnam War era. "They have not thought through the criteria for just war thoroughly," Oden said. "They are not considering the consequences of inaction."
When asked about Talbert's statement, "Iraq hasn't wronged us," Oden commented: "They (the bishops) are simplistic in their response to political questions generally. This is just another example of sloganeering against war."
Jack M. Tuell, retired UMC bishop of Los Angeles and signatory to the position for a face-to-face meeting with Bush, told United Press International Friday that his denomination's last General Conference in Cincinnati two years ago had qualified its previous flat rejection of war as an instrument of foreign policy.
"The conference injected the word, 'usual,'" he said in a telephone interview, implying that exceptions to this rule may be considered. He added, however, "Only if you have been attacked you must respond. But we have not been attacked."
Then again, Tuell expressed his conviction that Bush "does not want to go to war. If he could find a way to avoid it, he'd be very happy."
Asked about the peace initiatives by Bush's Methodist coreligionists and other Christians, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told UPI, "The president meets with religious leaders on a regular basis. He wants nothing more that making the world a more peaceful place. But his top priority is the protection of the American people."
The administrations says that using force would be the last resort if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein refuses to disarm peacefully and continues to remain a threat to his own people, the region and the world. "Last resort" is one of the most important theological criteria for just war, according to St. Thomas Aquinas.
According to Oden, co-founder of the burgeoning renewal movement within the UMC, there is a gaping chasm between his denomination's religious leadership and its laity. "I believe most of our 70 bishops are liberal Democrats and pacifists," he said.
"On the other hand, the faithful in the pews don't pay any attention to them. They don't care. They don't know what the bishops are saying. The bishops have lost their moral authority when they speak."
Oden allowed that the traditionally social-activist positions of the Methodist Church, going back centuries, had praiseworthy roots: "liberal pietism, shot through with a lot of idealism."
The trouble was, he went on, "that the bishops suffer from a real deficit in realistic analysis."