After news leaked that Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Ontario was planning an invitation-only fund-raising breakfast with George W. Bush, it only took two days for the Sept. 20 event to be canceled.
The Toronto Star got word of the unpublicized event and ran a Sept. 12 article about it. The breakfast was to be held at the Toronto Hilton and sponsored by billionaire Prem Watsa, a supporter of Tyndale, an interdenominational evangelical school with 1,400 students. In the Star article, school president Gary Nelson acknowledged that Bush is a "lightning rod figure."
Lightning struck quickly. The next day, the Star -- Canada's most widely read newspaper -- quoted Mark Groleau, Tyndale's valedictorian from just a few months earlier, and Arthur Boers, a Tyndale professor, who both opposed the event. An online petition against the breakfast had also been started by three alumni.
The day after that, Tyndale posted a one-line statement on its website: "Unfortunately, due to scheduling change [sic], the breakfast on September 20th 2011 has been canceled."
It is possible that Watsa, who shuns media attention, pulled the plug on the event. But that is just speculation. No one has stated who actually canceled the event or why, other than the dodgy euphemism about a "scheduling change."
In fact, Bush still spoke at a Sept. 19 event, also hosted by Watsa at the same hotel. Dan Oudshoorn, one of the petition instigators, reported on the petition website that Tyndale president Gary Nelson acknowledged to him that people associated with Tyndale were present at that event.
Arthur Boers said by phone that his primary concern is about how the situation was handled. "I wanted to have a healthy discussion about how Christians should interpret the legacy of George W. Bush."
Boers, who taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana for much of Bush's presidency before coming Tyndale, said he could not remain silent about the breakfast given Bush's impact on Christianity. "I saw during the Bush years in the U.S. that most Christians chose to remain silent in the face of pretty serious abuses of power and distortions of faith. For me silence is not an option."
In an article Boers wrote for Christian Week, he gives examples of how Bush "distorted sacred texts" to align American militarism with Christianity. "The ideal of America," Bush once said, "shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
"Such claims need to be tested for blasphemy and heresy," Boers wrote. "Yet few Christians raised questions."
Boers was the only faculty member to publicly oppose the Bush breakfast, though an administrative staff person quietly resigned over the issue.
Communications staff at Tyndale indicated initially that Gary Nelson would be available for an interview, but subsequent calls and emails were not returned. A Tyndale professor known to support Bush also did not respond to an interview request.
Valedictorian Mark Groleau thinks Tyndale should host controversial figures, but they should be part of open "forums of academic inquiry" not promotional galas with "hand-picked distinguished guests."
Groleau, who is now a pastor at The Meeting House, Canada's most innovative mega-church, said that for the school to align itself with Bush in this way was "a huge tactical and marketing blunder."
"The major capital that Tyndale has is that it is transdenominational," Groleau said of the school's reputation as an objective institution. "I just felt that Tyndale was about to squander that in epic proportions."
Despite his criticism, Groleau said he had a very positive meeting with Tyndale president Gary Nelson on Sept.15. Groleau said the two discussed their differences in an open and respectful way. "I really think we demonstrated the best that Tyndale stands for," said Groleau.