President George W. Bush encouraged graduates of Calvin College to embrace the school's heritage of service and work as "agents of renewal," during his May 21 commencement address in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"As Americans we share a great responsibility to serve and love others," Bush told the 900 graduates, "a responsibility that goes back to the greatest commandment."
"This isn't a Democratic idea," Bush said, pausing for effect. "This isn't a Republican idea. This is an American idea."
His bid for bipartisanship seemed to respond to the controversy that stirred prior to Bush's arrival at the Christian Reformed school. About one-third of Calvin's more than 300 faculty signed an open letter to Bush that appeared in that morning's Grand Rapids Press, and which criticized his administration for launching an "unjust" war, burdening the poor, and harming creation. Another letter, published one day earlier in the Press and endorsed by more than 800 students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the school, urged Bush to "repudiate the false claims of supporters who say that those who oppose your policies are the enemies of religion."
The scene during commencement, however, defied portrayals of a divided campus. Following the student procession, when an assistant ornamented the podium with the presidential seal, the crowd of nearly 5,000 cheered loudly. Bush received hearty ovations before and following his speech, with a few students and faculty remaining seated in protest.
Many dissenting professors did pin "God is not a Democrat or a Republican" buttons to their academic gowns, while dozens of students adorned their mortarboards with like stickers. But even the button design, borrowed from a controversial election-season ad in The New York Times, had been toned down. Philosophy professor Ruth Groenhout helped organize the faculty Press ad, and said organizers flipped Republican with Democrat to downplay its provocative nature.
Bush's 15-minute speech steered clear of partisan rhetoric. Instead, Bush lauded civic and religious organizations as "great engines of social change." To illustrate, Bush enlisted an audience-appropriate ally: Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch prime minister who delivered landmark lectures on Calvinism during his 1898 tour of America.
"And in a famous speech right here in Grand Rapids," Bush said, "he urged Dutch immigrants to resist the temptation to retreat behind their own walls. He told them to go out into their adopted America and make a true difference as true Christian citizens."
Calvin president Gaylen Bkyer told CT he expects the Bush speech will raise national consciousness of the 4,000-student Christian liberal-arts school. Bush will give only one other commencement address this year, to the Naval Academy on May 27.
However, not all publicity has been positive for Calvin. Provost Joel Carpenter told CT before commencement that when news broke of the President's visit, politically liberal alumni threatened to withhold money and their children from the school. Then, when liberal faculty voiced concern about the visit, conservative alumni followed suit with threats to deny Calvin their cash and kin. Byker acknowledged that some fences will need mending, but cited the smooth-running commencement as proof of Calvin's vitality and unity.
"Most of our supporters understand that this institution teaches students and faculty to think and be engaged," Byker said "There's a lot for both Democrats and Republicans to like about Calvin, and when the dust settles, that will [be recognized]."
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Earlier coverage includes: Bush Visit to Calvin College Exposes Divisions | Commencement address invigorates debates about the Reformed relationship to American politics and evangelicalism.
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