Drew Shriner on the Controversy Sparked by Mike Pence’s Planned Commencement Address at the Evangelical Taylor University

Image: Keith Srakocic / AP
Vice President Pence spoke at Grove City College’s commencement in 2017.

Taylor University recently made national news with its announcement that Vice President Mike Pence will deliver this year’s commencement address—spurring backlash from students, alumni, parents, and faculty.

This is not the only recent political clash to put the small evangelical college in the spotlight. Last year, an anonymous newspaper titled Excalibur was created and distributed by a group of Taylor faculty who wanted to take a stand against the increasing liberalization that they perceived on campus.

In many ways, it is fitting that the 2019 commencement has become so controversial. During their time at Taylor, this graduating class has experienced a trial by fire that few others have. As a member of the class of 2020, I have watched the class before me face these issues with conviction, dedicated pursuit of the truth, and a growing sense of grace and love for those holding the opposite view.

Generations of college students have encountered political issues and passions anew on campus, but the past four years have been particularly politicized. As freshmen, they were thrown into the chaos of the primaries, then the election of one of the most polarizing leaders in US history. President Trump’s election has led to debates and soul-searching among young evangelicals in particular.

Students still tell stories of the ugly conversations that took place during those years, as they debated the NFL’s Take a Knee movement—which led to controversy over dozens of undergrads kneeling at a basketball game—and conflicting approaches to addressing racism—with dueling campus newspaper op-eds on whether our discussions of race actually make a difference.

As emotional wounds slowly healed, the stitches were torn out last spring when Excalibur was published. Among other topics, the paper likened those making calls for diversity and inclusion to false prophets, spurring further clashes over race and the notion of Christian-informed social justice. The rural Indiana campus once again descended to a place of deep division rather than one of Christian unity that the New Testament calls for.

Gradually, campus reached a delicate peace this year, and then the administration announced that Pence will speak at graduation in May, threatening to reopen the divides. A faculty meeting turned into a vote where 61 faculty members voted in opposition to Pence speaking and 49 in favor, reported Amy Peterson, an adjunct faculty member, in The Washington Post.

Alum Alex Hoekstra, class of 2007, created an online campaign asking Taylor to rescind their invitation. His petition, which has over 2,900 signatures, states that the invitation “makes our alumni, faculty, staff, and current students complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration’s policies, which we believe are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear.”

Supporters say the former Indiana governor is a good choice for a guest speaker due to his Christian beliefs and high public office. Current students like Peter Williams, Sam Jones, and James Gilhooley—who created a counter-petition in Pence’s favor—do not see the invitation as tacit approval of the Trump administration. Pence, who spoke at Hillsdale College last year and Notre Dame and Grove City College the year before, would be the highest-ranking US politician to address Taylor’s graduating class.

As members of the community began to take sides, it seemed that campus was once again heading down a path of deep division and political stalemates. However, the conversation is different this time.

Fiery, angry, impassioned discussions have been replaced with thoughtful questions, care for one another, and a desire to understand the other side: What does it mean for us to live out our Christian beliefs in politics? What place do political figures have as guests on our campus? If our common faith both inspires and supersedes our political views, what do we make of our differences? How can we better understand the principles beneath each other’s stances? Name-calling and demonization have largely been replaced with recognition and humanization.

Still, students on both sides have reported feeling resentment directed toward them. Vulgar posts on social media and comments on the initial petition have obviously crossed lines of Christian love, but it generally seems that the opposing view is not an enemy to be destroyed but a brother or sister to be heard and loved.

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Source: Christianity Today