How Bush fans, foes can understand one another

By William McElvaney, Special Contributor…

It’s not exactly a secret that President George W. Bush’s supporters and opponents think and speak differently concerning his eight years in office. I want to look at these differences and encourage mutual understanding that could lead to less hubris on both sides and stronger civil discourse befitting our democracy at its best.

No worthy purpose is served by vilification of George W. Bush as a human being, although I am willing to grant Iraq or Afghanistan veterans some leeway in their protests as long as they are nonviolent. Likewise, I find unwillingness among some Bush supporters to even consider some questionable choices and practices by the Bush administration to be counterproductive to meaningful conversation.

Wiliam McElvaney

How, then, might we best explain the differences in the way Bush supporters and detractors think and speak about his administration?

Many of us want to talk about the content and consequences of Mr. Bush’s decisions. This is not about “bashing George W. Bush.” It’s about what is considered most compatible with democracy. It’s about accountability at the highest level of government.

Is a pre-emptive war of choice against a country with no connection with 9/11 and with no evidence of WMDs simply to be dismissed? Are we to give an OK to 100,000 U.S. troops returning home with PTSD and/or traumatic brain injuries in a war that was sold to the Congress and public on misleading statements? Is there accountability for a war that will never be over for countless U.S. military personnel?

Defining freedom

What I frequently find in talking with Bush supporters or reading comments in the paper has nothing to do with the above stated consequences or any responsibility for them. Instead what I usually hear is something like this: “George W. Bush is sincere, honest and not afraid to stand up for his principles. He has done the best he could for our country.”

This perception, a kind of personality profile, seems to make everything acceptable, even admirable. How one presumes to know for certain the inner motives of another person is beyond my knowing. Apparently, “He comes across as earnest and forthright,” is enough for many to simply ignore the consequences of his decisions and the basis upon which they were made.

There is also a sense that whether right or wrong, the past is what it is and it’s time to move on rather than dwelling on the past. I imagine that most, if not all, of us can understand this longing whether we agree with it or not.

A second difference between Bush supporters and challengers has to do with the concept of freedom and how it is best achieved. Freedom is without question the main mantra of the Bush presidency and his policy institute at SMU. And who can challenge the concept itself? We all cherish freedom and do well to seek it for others.

This acknowledged, the question becomes how do we define freedom and how is it best served? Some of us believe that coercive methods, such as “shock and awe” bombing by the U.S., are not conducive to long-range development of freedom. The war is not over in Iraq, as many civilians remain under hospital care with 100,000 dead (according to wire reports) and with millions who are refugees in their own land. Is the use of torture in violation of virtually all religious statements to the contrary, as well as violation of the United Nations 1987 Convention and the Geneva Conventions, acceptable to democracy as a tool of freedom?

Is not freedom best served by setting an example on the home front—availability of health care and human services, sufficient food for all, procedural justice where all citizens are treated equally by the law—and internationally, by having respect for the history of other nations?

Better practices

So how can these two views of the Bush administration hear each other respectfully? How can we best discover those issues where we can work together for the best future of our democracy?

I suggest we begin with the assumption that something of value can be gained by listening to a contrasting view. I like to ask, “What are the factors that have influenced your view on this?” In other words, to what or whom do you attribute your present understanding? This really helps me “get inside” another person’s history of learning and formation. Almost without exception, I become more empathic in my understanding and more compassionate toward the person with whom I am in conversation.

Bush supporters might consider some of the above consequences with the hope and determination that they are not repeated in the future. Bush opponents would do well to give credit to Mr. Bush for challenging his own party about an immigration overhaul, his concern for stronger public education, and offering U.S. assistance in reducing AIDS in Africa.

I can’t speak for Bush supporters; I can only speak generally for those of us who have challenged some of the Bush policies and practices. What I can say is that I believe we owe to one another the practice of humility rather than hubris, compassion rather than conflict, discernment rather than dismissal.

The Rev. McElvaney is a retired UM pastor in Dallas and professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. He also served as president of Saint Paul School of Theology, and he’s the author of the book Becoming a Justice Seeking Congregation.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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