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.”
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.