Taylor University’s decision to invite Vice President Mike Pence to give the 2019 commencement address may have been imprudent, but it was not inconsistent with Taylor’s character or its mission. The call for what amounted to a faculty “vote of no confidence” in the decision was appropriate, even though there is no precedent for subjecting the choice of graduation speaker to a faculty vote. In a highly polarized political culture, some prominent conservative evangelical leaders have uncritically supported President Trump despite inflammatory rhetoric that undermines his credibility as head of state. In inviting Mike Pence, Taylor risked being as politically yoked to the President as Liberty University, even if that was not its intention. Because of this I probably would have joined the dissenting faculty.
If, as I hoped, the University’s reason for inviting Mr. Pence was not to align itself to a political agenda but to commend him as a supporter of Christian education, a faithful follower of Christ, and one who regards electoral politics as an honorable calling, then the invitation was not inconsistent with the practice of inviting other friends of Taylor who have been successful in their vocations to speak at commencement. The introduction of the Vice President and his remarks were consistent with this hope.
Mr. Pence’s bona fides as a Christian example should be based on his own words and deeds and not on things Mr. Trump has said or done. It is not reasonable to expect the Vice President or any other high official in this or any other Administration to publicly admonish the President, who was elected, however narrowly, in accordance with constitutional procedures. I am not convinced that the policies of this President are so immoral and illegitimate as to mandate the resignation of anyone in the Trump Administration who is a professing Christian. Much of the opposition to the President is moralistic in its eagerness to condemn actions without regard to the competing goods or moral dilemmas that difficult issues present. Much of the opposition to the Vice President is based on his identity as a conservative evangelical, and especially on his support for traditional marriage.
Some members of the Taylor community believed that having the Vice President speak signaled the University’s alignment with a conservative political movement. While the orientation of Taylor’s constituency remains overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, Taylor has historically put Kingdom above politics, from the chapel to the classroom. Surely a tradition of encouraging students to think for themselves within a context of Christian commitment strongly affected President Lowell Haines in his many years as a student and then as a staff member. He spent twenty-five years in a major Indianapolis law firm interacting with a wide variety of people and relating non-profit organizations to the legal system. His pursuit of a doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania signified a genuine interest in cultivating Taylor’s connection with the broader academic world. (The presence of members of his doctoral cohort at his inauguration suggests that he was succeeding in cultivating such a relationship.)
The Pence controversy erupted in the wake of unrest in the Taylor community over the “Excalibur affair.” At first I found it hard to believe that conservative voices were stifled at Taylor, such that it was deemed necessary to issue a conservative apologia and to do so anonymously. However, it seems that in the wake of the 2016 election there was a concerted effort within the Taylor community to challenge dominant assumptions related to issues such as race, inequality, immigration and sexuality. Progressive evangelicals such as Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren and Rachel Held Evans had spoken on campus before, but never as the featured speaker for the National Student Leadership Conference or as a Staley Lecturer. Challengers to the status quo drew on critical race theory, feminism and multiculturalism in exhorting the Taylor community to recognize and repent of complicity in bigotry, racism and ethnocentrism. As on other campuses, minorities and advocates for them among the majority testified that they were hurt or threatened by the hostility or indifference of many.
Excalibur’s warning about the dangers of promoting social justice, especially in terms of equality, would seem unnecessary in a constituency of students and families who have, on the whole, overwhelmingly supported conservative Republican candidates and tended to regard American patriotism and Christian commitment as going hand in glove. During my adult lifetime many evangelical leaders became convicted that conservative believers had neglected the connection between Christian discipleship and social issues such as race, poverty, and war while defending theological orthodoxy and promoting individual faithfulness. Also, the internationalization of the evangelical movement made it more difficult to define Christian identity in terms of party or nation. As a professor of political science, I had to make a case to most Taylor students that the gospel implied social reform. But evangelical political involvement was being defined by the more limited agenda of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition, and by Ronald Reagan’s appeal to patriotism. In this environment, I was a relative liberal.
There are several good reasons why professors, students and staff who shared such concerns would be dismayed by Excalibur’s warning about social justice. First, declaring a “social justice worldview” to be incompatible with a Christian one appeared to delegitimize engagement with social issues at odds with conservative or libertarian politics. Second, issues associated with “identity politics” resonated with members of the Taylor community for good reason, and linking “group identity” with the “social justice worldview” implied that the assertion of minority views threatened community.
However, the nature of the reaction to both Excalibur and the Pence invitation vindicates at least some of the Excalibur’s concerns. One has only to sample the vitriolic comments attached to the change.org petition (created by a Taylor alumnus on April 11, 2019) opposing the Pence invitation. The pursuit of justice through shaming, silencing, and labeling as bigots those who disagree has become commonplace in institutions of higher education. Established authorities or majorities can and often have used power to suppress challengers. But it is no less problematic for challengers or minorities to subordinate good-faith argument to mere assertion and to refuse to entertain objections in order to further their own quest for power.
There is also no question that if the Taylor community is to be meaningfully Christian there must be boundaries. Excalibur’s proposal of the imago Dei as the basis for a Christian understanding of what it means to be human and for engaging social issues is consistent with this. Defining and maintaining such boundaries is challenging in a changing culture. Crucial to this is the involvement of all quarters of the community as well as truthfulness in stating one’s views and in representing those with whom one disagrees.