Christianity Today has an excellent analysis of media coverage of the Bush commencement and accompanying protests at Calvin, my alma mater. Although I’ve followed this whole chain of events closely, I wanted to wait until the commencement had come and gone before commenting on it. Now that it’s over, I have two observations.
First, while I disagreed with their views, I was deeply impressed by the attitude of the protesters as evidenced by the much-publicized ad they took out in the local paper:
We, the undersigned, respect your office, and we join the college in welcoming you to our campus. Like you, we recognize the importance of religious commitment in American political life. We seek open and honest dialogue about the Christian faith and how it is best expressed in the political sphere. While recognizing God as sovereign over individuals and institutions alike, we understand that no single political position should be identified with God’s will, and we are conscious that this applies to our own views as well as those of others. At the same time we see conflicts between our understanding of what Christians are called to do and many of the policies of your administration.
This is, in my opinion, a rare thing of beauty in our world of nasty politics: an expression of both genuine respect and serious disagreement. I almost want to print out this historic document and frame it as a model for reasoned political discourse. To the crafters of this ad: I salute you, and am glad you’re a part of the Calvin community.
My second observation is a bit harsher: at least one Calvin professor’s public statements during this event were rude and inappropriate. This is Ken Pomykala, chair of Calvin’s Department of Religion, quoted in the Washington Post:
Calvin is confessionally Reformed/Presbyterian (in other words, Calvinistic — no surprise there, I guess), with a much more positive view of the intellect and participation in the broader culture than is characteristic of American evangelicalism, much of which is anti-intellectual (e.g. ‘creation science’) and escapist (e.g. the Left Behind series), not to mention morally barbaric (e.g. opposition to stem cell research; anti-gay)…. As a faculty member, I’m required to attend commencement, but I plan on reading a book during the president’s speech — probably My Pet Goat.
This is the most vicious, elitist, and insulting partisan comment to emerge from the entire affair. (While you’re at it, read Bush’s commencement address and then re-read Pomykala’s comments above, and ask yourself: who is really guilty of using the commencement event as a platform for making partisan political statements?)
I have several extremely serious questions in the wake of Pomykala’s statements. First, why is the chair of Calvin’s religion department publically voicing such open disdain for a large swath of his brothers and sisters in Christ? Wouldn’t the position of Religion department chair place upon its holder an extra responsibility to be tactful, discerning, and respectful of other beliefs, especially other Christian beliefs? Are conservative-leaning students in Mr. Pomykala’s classes taught that it is “morally barbaric” to disagree with his views on ethically difficult issues like stem cell research?
Calvin is an amazing Christian institution of learning precisely because of its strong roots in and support from the evangelical community, conservative and liberal and everything in between. It is not an excellent institution because its “enlightened” views on political and theological issues have somehow elevated it above the huddled masses of evangelical Christendom.
It is true that politics brings out the worst in people. I’m glad that those disagreeing with Bush’s presence at the commencement did so honorably and in a Christian manner. I am sorry that Calvin’s religion department is chaired by somebody who holds me and millions of other evangelicals in contempt.