Features

Cold shoulder

Education | Calvin College serves up a chilly reception for commencement

Issue: "Judicial filibuster deal," June 4, 2005

First Lady Laura Bush said she wasn't surprised by protests she met when visiting religious sites in the Middle East last month. Her husband didn't say if he was surprised by protests he met when visiting a Christian college in the Midwest the same weekend.

President Bush addressed 900 graduates at Calvin College's 85th commencement ceremony in Grand Rapids, Mich., on May 21. One day earlier, more than 800 Calvin College "alumni, faculty, and friends" took out a full-page ad in The Grand Rapids Press protesting the president's visit.

Another 130 professors, representing one-third of Calvin's faculty, took out a half-page ad in the same newspaper the next day, saying: "No single political position should be identified with God's will." The professors criticized Mr. Bush's war policies, as well as his environmental policies, saying that he has "harmed creation."

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The conflict began in April when White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove offered a presidential appearance and Calvin College announced that Mr. Bush would deliver the commencement address. School officials invited previously scheduled commencement speaker Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Yale University professor and for 30 years a member of Calvin's faculty, to speak at next year's ceremony instead, and offered Mr. Wolterstorff a seat on the platform with Mr. Bush. The professor declined the latter invitation, saying he would rather weed his garden.

More ill-will followed. When Sally Steenland, a 1969 Calvin grad and consultant for the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, learned of the Bush visit, she helped spearhead a protest that led to a $9,598, full-page newspaper ad with 823 signatories who said they were "deeply troubled" by the president's visit.

Calvin's student newspaper lent its voice to the opposition as well, but Calvin President Gaylen Byker defended the president's appearance, calling it an "extraordinary opportunity. . . . We need to hear and learn from thinkers and leaders whether we agree with them or not."

The evangelical school founded by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has certainly swung wide its doors to Bush opponents. Just three weeks before commencement, Calvin hosted Jim Wallis, the Christian left author who unabashedly criticizes both Republicans and the Christian right. Mr. Wallis urged students to voice opposition to President Bush.

In the midst of the precommencement fracas, something seemed lost on Mr. Bush's opponents: the honor of a visit by a sitting president. "I can see that the Bush administration is gaining capital from his appearance, but I don't see what it does for Calvin," Dale Van Kley, a former Calvin history professor, told the Detroit Free Press.

On commencement day, a 5,000-plus audience in the Calvin Fieldhouse seemed to think the appearance did plenty. As the president entered the stadium, an enthusiastic crowd welcomed Mr. Bush with a standing ovation. Student protests went largely unnoticed.

Mr. Bush urged the graduates to fulfill Abraham Kuyper's admonition to "make a true difference as true Christian citizens." He told the students that they have "a great responsibility to serve and love others, a responsibility that goes back to the greatest commandment," and added: "This isn't a Democratic idea. This isn't a Republican idea. This is an American idea." That line drew the longest applause of the speech.

Conservatives for years have observed a leftward movement at Calvin on issues like homosexuality and feminist theology. Chuck Walton, a CRC pastor in Iowa, said the commencement controversy revealed "a spirit of liberalism" at the school: "This is a campus that claims the Reformed worldview is big enough to embrace on-campus gay entertainment, but then they send a public statement that they spurn a visit by the president of the United States? I don't get it."

Mr. Walton and other conservatives echoed the protest sign of a liberal demonstrator on commencement day: "What's happened to Calvin College?"

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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