Taylor University and Mike Pence

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As some of you have heard, Taylor University, an evangelical Christian college in Upland, Indiana, has invited Mike Pence to be its 2019 commencement speaker.

Not everyone is happy about Taylor’s decision. Taylor alumni have started a Change.org petition claiming that the Pence invitation makes “our alumni, faculty, staff and current students complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration policies, which we believe are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear.”

Chris Smith, a Taylor graduate and founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books (which is based in nearby Indianapolis), wrote a piece at the Sojourners website condemning the Pence invitation.

Amy Peterson, an author, evangelical missionary, and adjunct professor at Taylor, also condemned the decision.  Her piece at The Washington Post provides some context and quotes students and alums who are unhappy about Pence’s upcoming address.

Back in March 2018, several disgruntled Taylor employees, including a philosophy professor, a biblical studies professor, the men’s soccer coach, and the university marketing director started an underground newspaper with a mission to expose what they believed to be Taylor’s move in a “liberal direction.”  At the time, Taylor president Lowell Haines condemned the anonymous publishers for “sow[ing] discord and distrust” and “hurting members of our community.”  We wrote about this incident here.

Peterson’s Post article notes that the Taylor faculty voted 61-49 on a motion to dissent at Pence being invited.  (At least two Taylor sources I have consulted confirmed this vote).

Progressives are going to condemn Taylor for inviting Pence because, among other things, the Vice-President holds a conservative position on marriage, condemns homosexuality and has recently mixed-it-up with gay presidential candidate and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg.  But this kind of criticism lacks nuance. Most evangelical schools have traditional positions on marriage and believe that homosexual practice is unbiblical. Progressives are going to need to deal with the fact that a significant portion of the United States population share Pence’s views in the area of sexual ethics.  I hope they will see the need to work with evangelicals to cultivate a more inclusive and pluralistic society in which deeply held religious beliefs are respected.  Both Pence and many progressives seem unwilling to take on this project, preferring instead to dig in their heels and continue to lob grenades in the culture war.

The real issue is Pence’s willingness to carry water for Donald Trump.  He has stood behind a president who is a liar, has paid hush money to an adult film star, has faced dozens of charges of sexual harassment, has separated children from families at the Mexican border, disrespects American institutions, boasts of his materialism, understands religious liberty as something that only pertains to his evangelical base, seems incapable of seeing anything beyond himself, inspires white supremacists, and has generally governed our country with no moral core.  Pence has defended or remained silent about nearly everything Trump has done.  Trump has used him as a pawn to win white evangelicals and keep them in the fold.

Gabby Carlson’s piece at the Taylor University student newspaper, The Echo, quotes both Taylor Provost Michael Hammond (a historian who studies evangelicalism and the Civil Rights movement) and Alan Blanchard, associate professor of journalism.  Hammond said:

Commencement is a special day for Taylor University…Above all else, we want to honor our graduates with their diploma and towel. There is always something to be gained from listening, even when we do not expect to find agreement with the speaker. This is an opportunity for our community to hear one another, working through our opinions and differences together.

And here is Blanchard, referencing what he said at the faculty meeting in support of the Pence invitation:

I suggested a benefit exists from listening to people speak on our campus with diverse views. Even if we do not see eye to eye, and even if the person speaking is the vice president of the United States…It’s a hallmark of our country to foster the idea and the ideal of free speech. I think our faculty meetings generally are a testimony to our ability to speak freely, agree or disagree on issues, but at the end of day show respect and love for one another.

I am fully on board with campuses inviting all kinds of people, of all kinds of political persuasions, to speak.  (I visited Taylor University on the Believe Me book tour last Fall and the students and faculty welcomed me and gave me and my message a warm reception).  But there does seem to be something different about a commencement address, especially at a Christian college.  The choice of a commencement speaker at a small Christian college like Taylor University reflects the beliefs and ideals that animate life at such a college.  Commencement speakers send a message–to graduating seniors, to alumni, to parents, to donors, and to the larger community–about what a school values.  A commencement address should not be a venue for displaying a school’s commitment to a “free marketplace of ideas,” nor is it a place where a school shows its commitment to ideological diversity by hosting speakers with controversial political and social views.  Taylor University had the entire 2018-2019 academic year to show its commitment to diverse viewpoints on campus.  Commencement is a time to celebrate a Christian college’s Christian mission.  Does Mike Pence, the chief water-carrier for Donald Trump, represent Taylor University’s mission?

I find it ironic that president Lowell Haines, who decried “discord” back in March 2018, has decided to invite Pence.  Haines is fully aware that many in the evangelical community, most of his own faculty, and many of his students, see Pence as a morally problematic figure.  He had to know that the invitation would provoke a firestorm on campus.  Yet he invited him anyway.  Indeed, as Provost Michael Hammond noted above, “commencement is a special day” for Taylor graduates and the larger community.  Then why invite Pence?  If Pence does end up speaking, Haines and his staff, who I assume care about the campus climate, will be forced to spend the next several years trying to heal a self-inflicted wound.

Or here is another way we might look at this. Perhaps Lowell Haines and his staff are fully aware of the fact that the choice of commencement speakers always sends a message about the things that a Christian college values and cherishes. And perhaps this is exactly why he invited Pence.

Several of my sources at Taylor University view the Haines presidency, and the invitation of Pence, as an attempt to solve some of Taylor’s financial woes by taking a more pronounced turn to the Right.  One alumnus, writing on a private Facebook page, described a phone conversation he had with one of Haines’s right hand men, Vice President for University Advancement Rex Bennett:

For some reason, Rex Bennett (VP for University Advancement) actually took my call, and we talked for nearly 30 minutes.  We actually could have talked longer, but I needed to get off the phone and help my with some things.  During this phone call, Mr. Bennett was respectful to me and did listen to my concerns, but he also, sadly, confirmed that Taylor wishes to actively exclude and marginalize the LGBTW and immigrant/refugee communities.  He also stated that he does not expect a situation in which Taylor will reconsider the Pence decision.  After this conversation, I learned that Mr. Bennett is actually a very close friend of Pence.

Christian colleges are faced with difficult choices in these days of divisiveness and fear.  One type of Christian college will defend Christian orthodoxy (yes, even in the area of marriage), respect the civil rights of all Americans (including those in the LGBTQ community), support creative solutions to defend religious liberty in a pluralistic society, welcome the stranger, respond to the culture with a posture of hope, and pursue the common good.  These schools will provide a prophetic voice against the kind of America that Donald Trump and his court evangelicals (including Mike Pence) want to create.

Another type of Christian college, which seems exemplified best by court evangelical Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (Pence will also speak at its commencement this Spring), is to defend orthodoxy, reject creative attempts to defend religious liberty in a pluralist society, and support (at least at the level of the administration) what I believe to be the anti-Christian policies of Donald Trump.  After the Pence invitation, I will now need to be convinced that Taylor University is not following this path.

As I once wrote in The Washington Post, we are starting to see new alignments in American Christianity.

12 thoughts on “Taylor University and Mike Pence

  1. “The real issue is Pence’s willingness to carry water for Donald Trump. He has stood behind a president who is a liar, has paid hush money to an adult film star, has faced dozens of charges of sexual harassment, has separated children from families at the Mexican border, disrespects American institutions, boasts of his materialism, understands religious liberty as something that only pertains to his evangelical base, seems incapable of seeing anything beyond himself, inspires white supremacists, and has generally governed our country with no moral core. Pence has defended or remained silent about nearly everything Trump has done. Trump has used him as a pawn to win white evangelicals and keep them in the fold.”

    This whole paragraphs suffers from the association fallacy (guilt by association). Fea needs to demonstrate that Pence himself has engaged in inappropriate conduct, not just that he works for or is associated with a tempermental, brash, rude, and crude President who sometimes pursues questionable policies (although the policy debate is difficult; “separating children” is a distortion of immigration policy). General support for the President is not the same as cheering when Trump incites white supremacists.

    I think the best objection to this whole incident is the prudential one. Haines surely knew having Pence would cause an uproar and perhaps divide the community further. Why risk it? Perhaps he has good reasons. Perhaps the financial bit is true, I don’t know. But on principle, there’s nothing wrong with inviting Pence to speak at commencement, and I wish the TU community (staff, faculty, students, alumni), and America in general were mature enough to handle a 20 min speech by someone they disagree with or personally dislike. The real troubling thing here is the willingness for Christians to turn into an online mob that petulantly demands rescinding the invitation and does so on the murkiest and most ill-thought out grounds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “This whole paragraphs suffers from the association fallacy (guilt by association)”

      We elected “TRUMP PENCE.” They’re a packaged unit. Pence signed up to be associated with Trump. It’s not an incidental or loose association but an essential connection upon which Pence’s elevated role in our government is founded.

      Fea is right in associating Pence with sexual harassment, separating children from families at the Mexican border, disrespecting American institutions, materialism, inspiring white supremacists, and generally governing our country with no moral core (and much more) because that is what Pence signed up to participate in (even though it is a marked contrast with the “family values” he espoused before he signed on).

      You can protect Pence by dismissing his “guilt by association” but we know birds of a feather congregate together.

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  2. Thank you, Dr. Fea, for your thoughts regarding my alma mater’s conundrum.

    President Haines is an old friend from my Taylor days, and I know him to be a gracious human being. I communicated my regard for our decades-long friendship, as well as my dissent regarding his decision about Mr Pence in a letter this weekend. His response was grateful and warm.

    I think Mr Lucido’s comments above neglect the actual wording of the announcement, which claims that Mr Pence shares the same values as Taylor. This is what has many alumni and students flabbergasted and saddened. Without that statement, the negative response might have been lessened. After all, Commencement is The Big Event, and you want your star speaker for your biggest show. The wording, however, was unfortunate, and it is easy to see those words as a line in the sand. Whether Dr Haines’ intention was to draw a line in the sand is not for me to judge.

    I wrote to Dr Haines that now is the time to decide what a city on a hill should look like. I hope the Spirit speaks to him, and that Taylor can rise up from the ho hum status quo of American Christendom and truly ascertain how to be the body of Christ again, versus making America great “again.” Oh, for the day when the American church’s obsession with human sexuality and the institution of marriage is eclipsed by a desire to feed the poor, to welcome the outcast, and to do the real work of Christ in this world.

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  3. John: what you have essentially adopted is the position that no member of the Trump administration — including a devout Christian who holds, as you acknowledge, a Biblical view of marriage (which is the major reason he has been caricatured and demonized by the media) — should be permitted to speak at a Christian university’s commencement, because: guilt by association. Or, perhaps framed another way: you would support the exclusion of anyone who wears the tell tale red hat, so to speak. (Frankly, I suspect you would extend that abolitionist principle — and why not? — to the commencement at ANY university, not just Christian ones.)

    Yet, I can pretty much guarantee — I’m sure you will correct me if this is not the case — that you would have been sternly opposed had an orthodox Evangelical or Catholic university refused to allow, say, Joe Biden or other members of the Obama administration to deliver a commencement address, by citing EXACTLY the same grounds: that Obama’s policies related to, say, abortion, religious liberty and LGBT issues were not consistent with its core “mission” and “values”; further, that Biden’s “silence” on these issues was disqualifying. I’m confident that you would condemn this as fear-based, closed-minded, intolerant, amounting to a dangerous supplanting of inclusive faith with tribalist political concerns and damaging to the school’s Christian witness.

    You have created a purely political litmus test — expressed as moral outrage — whereby anyone even associated with Trump should be ostracized for that “taint.” The application of this scarlet-letter approach is not only deeply illiberal, it is exactly the kind of rationale you would rail against if it was used by “court evangelicals” to reject hearing from members of the sulfurous Other Team. And it does no good to say: well, Trump is a special case. No, if we are engaged in identifying those unfit to speak due to their association with immoral people or policies, well — those judgments are going to vary based on the political, philosophical, moral and religious convictions of the deciders. But they will be made, and enforced.

    There is no logical or intellectually consistent end point to the slippery slope you’re advocating here, and it promotes ongoing cultural division, not reconciliation.

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    • Why shouldn’t Trump be considered a special case?

      I am for free exchange of ideas and for freedom of conscious within Christian communities for a number of issues. But Trump doesn’t have a political philosophy that he is advocating. He is an advocate of cruelty. He may or may not be an advocate of White nationalism, but White nationalists think he is.

      In cases like abortion, there is a political philosophy, that while many disagree, they can point to both a desire to work to reduce abortion and why think think it should be still legal as they attempt to reduce abortion.

      But cruelty is something different. Removing children as a deterrent for people seeking asylum, demonizing both legal and illegal immigrants or refugees, calling for violence against political opponents, not just figuratively, but literally in his rallies is something that should be a step to far.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mr. Lucido: I don’t think the issue is purely guilt by association. If Mr. Pence had expressed at any time his concerns about the immoral activities of the current president, or even if he had expressed his Christian faith’s effect on his own beliefs in any areas other than the current cultural flashpoints of gender and abortion, I for one might feel differently about this matter. But I’ve not been able to find any source where he expresses the way his faith affects his feelings about government policies—except on those two issues (basically). For many of us, our faith is not capable of being reduced to those two current cultural (and Christian) concerns. So for me, at least, there is a logical consistency: absent other evidence, Mr. Pence’s Christian faith has not led him to condemn the president’s lying (in fact, he’s repeated some of those lies), his sexual immorality, his lack of concern for the poor (see Matthew 25), and so on. It doesn’t strike me as a strictly political litmus test; far from it.

      It’s also very difficult to view this as a careful choice on the part of Taylor’s president to clearly state his alignment with the current administration. Surely he knew what the effect would be. This choice strikes me as at least foolish if not worse.

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    • You used the phrase “guilt by association” but the reality is that Pence is guilty by participation; he’s not a generic GOP political character loosely affiliated with the Trump administration or policies, he’s an integral part of the administration’s inner workings. Moreover by posing as an ultra-conservative religious character within the Trump administration he has helped an immoral charlatan to exploit the evangelical demographic. Whatever religious or moral values he may hold individually, he has publicly exchanged them in a pyrrhic compromise for temporary power and influence in the political sphere.

      Sometimes people act like there is a inherent equivalency between Republicans and Democrats, as if allegiance to one side or the other is the only valid expression of one’s commitments within the culture wars; they seem to have bought into the model of a secular two-party political system as an extension of the good/evil moral dichotomy present in their religious and spiritual thinking. That kind of brainwashing is kind of a bummer to see, but I appreciate the necessary reminder that large pockets of people are immersed in an politically religious worldview that leaves them vulnerable to manipulation. Because I’d departed the evangelical bubble before Donald Trump’s ascension, it was difficult to remember that there were so many still caught within that network, and it was (and is) painful to see their sincere faith so effectively weaponized against their higher interests for political gain.

      When the dust settles and Trump is no longer president, whether that is in 2019 or 2020 or 2024–what will they do then? Will the evangelical base stay committed to their fervently declared beliefs that supporting a supremely unchristian president was a justifiable act of moral compromise, or will they adopt a new set of rationalizations? I expect that by then the political machine will be selling new excuses for them to buy, or repackage the old rationalizations (abortion! babykillers! gays! aahhhhhhhhh!).

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  4. Yes, I think we are seeing Christian colleges and seminaries choosing sides, as people forced into us-and-them choices over culture and politics. In addition to the Taylor-Pence news, this weekend also saw a seminary deciding to include the Nashville Statement as a confessional statement: https://www.christianpost.com/news/baptist-seminary-adopts-nashville-statement-as-confessional-statement.html?fbclid=IwAR2syTOfXTt-GIFbAjmxh9vAftPAtmZC-41-vMtnsqnT8ZrJ0LdLrDSHvpc

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