Mike Pence will be the 2019 commencement speaker at Taylor University. We wrote about this yesterday.
This morning Steve Long, the Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University and a Taylor alumnus, sent us these thoughts and gave us permission to publish them. -JF
I went to Taylor University from 1978-1982. I grew up thirty miles from it. As an Indiana kid, I went to its basketball camp. My church went on spring break trips led by Taylor students. I’ve had doctoral students who were TU grads. I have been back only a few times since graduating, but I was invited by some faculty to be part of a symposium for the inauguration of TU’s new president. Little did I know that his vision for TU was to make it look like Liberty University. I am ashamed.
I’m saddened and disappointed by this commencement invitation, but not surprised. I was surprised in 2016 when midwest evangelicals enabled the Trump presidency. I thought I knew them. I was wrong. I remember a different Taylor University and a different kind of evangelicalism.
Here is what I remember: When I was at TU, we were less interested in state power and more interested in mission. Many were reading Ronald Sider’s “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.” I spent my last semester at TU working in a medical clinic in Haiti and was encouraged to do so by faculty and fellow students. Most of us wanted to do something about poverty and global inequality. I was first confronted with nonviolence at TU when we read Mark Hatfield’s “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” in a Chemistry class. He was a Republican who because of his faith came out against the Vietnam War. It was that book that prepared me well to hear Stanley Hauerwas when I went to Duke. I remember a TU and an evangelicalism that was vibrant, concerned with issues of poverty and violence. I was also there during the transition from the Carter to Reagan presidency and I think that Reagan’s cooptation of evangelicals, like Trump’s, set the rot in the evangelical movement. Reagan and Trump said to evangelicals, “Come let us build a (Trump) tower to the heavens and make a name for ourselves.” Evangelicals said, and are still saying, “Yes.”
Of course, my memory is kind. Some of the rot was already there and I was not paying attention. I double dated with an interracial couple during my time at Taylor. I think they were the only one on campus. I recall how devastated he was when he received an anonymous letter telling him that interracial dating was against God’s law. I thought it was a fluke and did not take it seriously. I was not paying attention. I did not know that the origins of the Religious Right that has now taken over the administration of TU and most of evangelicalism was its opposition to the Civil Rights legislation that required Bob Jones to permit interracial dating. The Reagan administration sided with Bob Jones. Cal Thomas, who was an early leader in the Religious Right and close associate of Jerry Falwell Sr., later left the movement convinced that the seduction of power had led it to abandon truth. He wrote, “Christian faith is about truth, [and] whenever you try to mix power and truth, power usually wins.” Pence has proven himself immoral in so many ways since joining the Trump administration, but the one thing that stands out most prominently for me is his willingness to be complicit in the bold deceits emanating daily from the White House. Who is the “father of lies?” Have evangelicals forgotten?
I had a friend who came out as gay. We dared not tell anyone. There was a cruelty to gays back then that is slowly receding. (I am grateful to see that some TU alum will hold an alternative “Gay Bash” during the commencement). Has TU and evangelicalism drastically changed in the 37 years since I graduated? I don’t know. Maybe my memory is too kind. I’m encouraged that so many students, faculty, and alums have spoken out against president Haines’ invitation that makes TU complicit in the racist, homophobic, xenophobic and cruel Trump administration. But in the end, we know, donor wealth and political power will trump mercy and kindness.