Commencement at Liberty University

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.

9 thoughts on “Commencement at Liberty University

  1. It’s painful to watch political conservatives rush to defend Pence on the grounds that he uses religious language to offer hope–maybe they can’t really appreciate the fact that in Penceworld this so-called hope is the hope of political salvation through cultural (re)homogenization and the right to inflict your intolerance and fear of change on other people. Maybe it’s easier to see when you’re not immersed in it. It’s the spectacle of a man with great power preaching to the conservative masses about how powerless they are and how much they need to keep believing in the same religious values that he has, in order to save the world from the true enemy of liberalism. It’s literally the demonization of the political other, equating the alternative party to instruments of the devil. It’s difficult to watch religion so flagrantly appropriated to manipulate the religious–but I imagine that when your audience is so deeply religious one must pander to entrenched religious bias in order to be effective. If Mike Pence didn’t do it, someone else would. Watching and listening to him, I wonder if he actually buys what he’s selling, how much of it is pretense; I imagine that after so many years of performing the same act it would get easier and easier to inhabit the role offstage.

    He’s a politician who profits from the shrewd manipulation of the public through religious rhetoric. It’s sad but completely predictable that he utilized a commencement address as an opportunity to plug his political brand on the national stage; it’s sad but predictable he would preach to the choir and all the spectating parents and other conservatives watching from the sidelines; it’s sad but predictable that they would eat it up so wholeheartedly. He was a talk-radio host who proudly compared himself to “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” Pence has spent a lifetime delivering entertaining monologues to this demographic and profiting personally from their approval and continued allegiance. Like Reagan, he’s an entertainer turned politician, not a minister, not a pastor. He’s built a very successful political career on his “conversion” out of liberal Catholicism and into conservative Protestantism. He knows how to tug on the strings of the evangelical heart like he’s playing a fiddle–and right now he’s got them dancing to Trump’s tune.

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  2. The fact that Pence is a convert has always struck me – he looked out at the broad world of American Christianity and he chose _this_ way.

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  3. John: I don’t think that it is possible for Mike Pence to have delivered a commencement address that would meet with your approval, even if he cribbed the entire thing from Churchill. (“We shall fight in the Hollywood hills, we shall fight in the transgendered bathrooms, we shall fight on the border, where there is a terrible, terrible crisis, we shall never surrender to the hostile press …”) I read the entire transcript. There are about five paragraphs — out of fifty — spent on touting the accomplishments of the current administration. I agree with you: too much like a stump speech, and not really appropriate for the occasion. I could have done without it.

    But I think your claim that this speech was about fear is misplaced.

    Yes, Pence did talk about some of the recent acts of terror against people of all faiths (Jews, Christians, Muslims) and how Christians here in America can expect to be received by a secular world:

    “Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs. So as you go about your daily life, just be ready. Because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture. So you need to prepare your minds for action, men and women. You need to show that we can love God and love our neighbor at the same time through words and deeds. And you need to be prepared to meet opposition.”

    First, do you think any of that is not true? Do you see this as promoting fear, as opposed to a straightforward and accurate description of modern culture? Second, here was Pence on how a Christian is to live in a world which rejects the Gospel:

    “So, Class of 2019, my word to all of you is decide here and now that you’re going to stand firm, that you’ll put into practice all the things you learned here on Liberty Mountain, that you’ll never give up, that you’ll persevere, and that you’ll always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have, and you’ll do so with gentleness and respect. Because our nation and our world need that message of grace and love maybe more now than ever before.”

    Prepare to give a reason for the hope you have, with gentleness and respect. This is fear-mongering? How about this?

    “To all our graduates, I say: Have faith. Have faith in yourselves, proven by what you’ve accomplished to get you to this very day. Have faith in the principles and the ideals that you learned here and the noble mission that’s always animated this university. And have faith that He who brought you this far will never leave you, nor forsake you, because He never will.”

    That doesn’t seem very fearful to me.

    I understand that you cannot stand Trump, and by extension Pence, a tainted emissary of Trump. And that Falwell, Jr. — a guy who deserves your Court Evangelical label — is a favorite punching bag. But I think your visceral loathing of Trump and all his works, so to speak, has rendered you incapable of dispassionately and fairly assessing Pence’s speech. Nothing would have sufficed, other than to have him not deliver it. (Which I think is sort of your default position.)

    All in all, I did not like the part of the speech which engaged in rah rah, Trump-extolling campaign messaging. But your criticism that this was a speech peddling fear is unjustified.

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    • John,
      I have to concur with Tony. You make way too much of the “fear factor” in your comments here and in BELIEVE ME. I wouldn’t call Mike Pence’s speech fear-based so much as it was a rallying cry to fight against evil and anti-faith bigotry.

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  4. Two comments—-

    Why didn’t young Falwell wear an academic robe? Robes are simply a cultural tradition which might be construed by some viewers as pompous. Personally, I don’t have a problem with academic garb but don’t see it as important one way or the other. After all, why do some clerics wear robes when they are behind the pulpit and some do not? There are cultural and even theological reasons supporting the positions of both sides.

    Why did Pence stress culture wars in his speech? That is obvious. The left will not stop pushing its cultural agenda. One of the only bills Mrs. Pelosi’s House of Representatives has recently pushed is the so-called Equality Act which aims to legalize aberrant sexual behaviors further marginalizing Christians who do not support it. Furthermore, we now see left-of-center celebrities urging that women in Georgia and other places “turn out” men who support anti-abortion legislation. The cultural left has not given up its fight; why should Mike Pence be silent?

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    • …the so-called Equality Act which aims to legalize aberrant sexual behaviors further marginalizing Christians who do not support it.

      I,e, HOMOSEXUALS! HOMOSEXUALS! HOMOSEXUALS!
      Even the mention of the word shuts down every neuron above the Christianese brainstem and waves the bright red murder flag in front of what’s left. Stimulus –> Response. Dr Pavlov would be proud.

      …we now see left-of-center celebrities urging that women in Georgia and other places “turn out” men who support anti-abortion legislation.

      Abortion — second Person of the New Christian Trinity.
      All we need is to add Evolution and we have three-for-three.

      P.S. Ever heard of “The boy who cried ‘WOLF!'”?

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      • C’mon Headless, it’s not funny. You know the Bible is 66 books that talk of nothing but the horror of abortion and same-sex marriage.

        Stealing from the poor to give to the rich? Part of God’s great economic plan.

        Fomenting hatred and bigotry? Hey, you know the bad guys go to hell in the end.

        Increasing military spending on weapons of mass destruction by an ungodly amount? The apocalypse is in the Bible, bub.

        Keeping immigrants out so our country is pure? Read about Jericho, have to destroy every vestige of the bad guys.

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        • Paul,

          You and the Unicorn missed the point entirely. The discussion was not essentially about the merits or drawbacks of any particular political or social position vis a vis the Bible. The issue raised by Dr. Fea was that Mike Pence should have found new speech material rather than the culture wars. I simply responded that Christians are often simply reacting to subjects raised first by the left.

          If you wish specifically to discuss any of the subjects you raise in your posting, please let me know and we can dialogue about the Bible in relation to any of them.

          James

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