In case you missed it, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address on Saturday at Liberty University, a school that claims to be the largest Christian university in the world.
Court evangelical and Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. was the master of ceremonies (Why didn’t he wear a robe like most college presidents?) At one point in the ceremony he made his wife stand up to model the black and orange flame (as in Liberty Flames)-patterned dress she was wearing. Falwell convinced her to wear it because she was the “hottest first lady at any college in the country.” Again, context is everything here.
Surgeon and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson also spoke. He urged the graduates not to conform to the “forces of political correctness” that “want you to shut up and not express what you believe.” He extolled the apparent Judeo-Christian founding of the country and told the graduating class that they were our best hope to “save America.”
When Jerry Falwell Jr. introduced Mike Pence, he praised the Vice-President for doing such a great job despite constant attacks from a “hostile press.” He described him as one of the greatest Vice Presidents of all time.
Early in Pence’s speech some folks in the crowd starting chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A, U.S.A.” This is an odd thing to chant at a Christian college graduation, but there seems to be no big difference between Christian education and patriotism at Liberty University.
Pence wasted no time turning his commencement address into a Trump rally. He praised the Trump economy, reminded the audience that “America stands with Israel,” talked about abortion, and attacked Barack Obama for his supposed threats to religious liberty. Like Carson’s brief speech, Pence’s speech was filled with the typical victimization rhetoric and fear-mongering that one often hears from conservative evangelicals these days. Pence cannot seem to move beyond the culture wars–this is how he sees the world. It is “us” vs. “them.” The crowd loved it.
At one point in the speech, Pence gave a moving testimony about his conversion experience. I appreciated it. But in the context–both in terms of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s politicization of Liberty University and Pence’s connection to the Trump administration–he seemed to suggest that an evangelical conversion will naturally lead to Christian Right politics and the unrelenting support of an immoral president. It does not.
A commencement address should be a celebration of the graduates. A commencement speaker must put down the self and offer words of encouragement and some wise advice about life after graduation. To his credit, Pence did some of this. But even his words of exhortation to the graduates sounded like a Trump stump speech for 2020 and a warning to watch out for the progressives lurking in the shadows ready to undermine Christian America. This was a message of fear, not hope. But that is how they do things at Liberty University.
I am sure we will hear similar things from Pence next week at Taylor University.