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.
Some of this tempered discussion stems from the administration’s quick reaction. Through several campus-wide communications, both over email and in comments through the school newspaper, The Echo, the administration has provided a rationale for its actions, citing Pence’s connection to the state of Indiana, his Christian faith, and his success in his field as reasons for the invitation. Further, they have planned three listening forums in the upcoming weeks, moderated by administrators, to hear out student concerns.
While fellow evangelicals and fellow Americans weigh in on the Pence controversy from outside our community, the students most affected by it are more ready than ever to have a clear-headed, open conversation here at Taylor. And our exposure to this kind of discourse—as uncomfortable and difficult as it may be—has positioned us for a future amid increasingly stark partisan divides.
“I think I have benefitted from these conversations, and, idealistically, I think that Taylor as a student body has benefitted from realizing that not everyone agrees on these things even in our small microcosm of a Christian university,” Taylor senior Jon Meharg told me.
“As a student, as much as I would rather not have these things happen … I think it’s given—after the initial explosive manner—people a place to say, ‘Let me hear what people are saying on this side. Let me hear what people are saying on this side. How do those things align with my beliefs and what our university stands for?’ Ultimately, those controversies exist and will continue to exist.”
At times, we’ve found common ground. But we also know the frustration of hearing fellow students apply cold logic with seeming disregard for human concerns or evoking emotional pleas without heeding a reasonable argument.
This time, conservative students are acknowledging the voices of racial minorities and members of the LGBT community who have decried Pence’s place on the commencement stage, and they want to know more about their fears and concerns around the current administration. Students who have joined the petition against Pence are looking to those in favor to explain how they view his invitation in relationship to the president and his offensive rhetoric. On both sides, students share concerns about whether this is the right time to have to a major US executive at Taylor, given the campus’s recent past with political controversy.
Students have taken seriously the Ephesians 4 call to “bear with one another in love,” knowing that a deeper call to unity lies beneath their attempts at civil discourse. These discussions require a sense of humility, acknowledging that we only know in part (1 Cor. 13:12), and a willingness to listen well to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
According to Taylor University’s mission statement, the school seeks “to develop servant leaders marked with a passion to minister Christ’s redemptive love and truth to a world in need.” Each year at graduation, we hear a charge that echoes that mission and encourages our graduates to Christlike service in their careers and calling.
As we confront real-life questions over how we apply the gospel we believe to policies, politics, and elected leaders around us, we become more mature Christians. We are more equipped to recognize and meet the needs of our neighbors.
Regardless of what the vice president might say when he addresses the Taylor community at graduation, his invitation has already taught us a lesson.
Drew Shriner is a staff writer and former opinions editor for Taylor University’s campus newspaper, The Echo.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.