By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., May 21 -- Saying that the strength of the nation ultimately rests on the compassion of individuals, President Bush on Saturday urged the graduates of Calvin College to serve others by working in religious groups, civic organizations or government.
Bush issued the call to service during the school's commencement, telling graduates that individual sacrifice makes a profound difference by helping to build a better society. "When you come together to serve something greater than yourself, you will energize your communities and help build a more just and compassionate America," he said.
Bush's appearance at Calvin, a moderate evangelical Christian college, was greeted by a rousing standing ovation from the 900 graduates and their guests, a sharp departure from the protests that rippled through the campus in the days leading up to his visit.
On Friday, more than 800 faculty members, alumni, students and friends of the school signed a full-page ad in the Grand Rapids Press decrying Bush administration policies. "In our view, the policies and actions of your administration, both domestically and internationally over the past four years, violate many deeply held principles of Calvin College," the ad said. Another ad protesting Bush's visit appeared in the paper Saturday.
Many of those objecting to Bush's visit said his administration has violated the religious principles espoused by the school, which is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America. They argued that the war in Iraq, Bush's environmental policies and what they described as choosing tax cuts for the wealthy over programs for the poor all deviate from what they see as a righteous vision.
"It was our attempt to make clear that our Christian convictions lead us in different ways on policy matters than the president's Christian convictions have led him," George N. Monsma Jr., an economics professor who signed one of the ads, said before the graduation ceremony. "We plan to be gracious hosts, but this is part of a long Calvinist tradition of speaking truth to power."
The idea for the protest was hatched among students and faculty members, who debated the merits of the idea for weeks. They received help in circulating the protest document from some of the school's graduates, who were concerned that having Bush deliver the commencement speech would be construed as support for his policies.
"We don't want the school to be abused or used for partisan purposes," said Sally Steenland, a 1969 Calvin alumna who helped alert news organizations about the ads. Steenland is a consultant on religious issues for the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning Washington research organization founded by John D. Podesta, who served as White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. She also consults with the Center for Women Policy Studies.
Steenland said her efforts on the letter were done apart from her work for Podesta's organization. Assisting the protest, she said, was motivated not by politics but by her personal moral convictions.
"There is a feeling among many that the actions and policies of this administration violated the principles of Calvin College," she said.
Before the commencement, a small band of demonstrators could be seen on a corner just outside the college's neatly manicured campus, holding signs saying "Where has Calvin College gone?" and "No More Blood for Oil."
The protests against Bush underscored the political debate going on in the religious circles of Christian denominations. Bush, who often refers to his religious faith, has enjoyed strong political support from Christian conservatives, who form the core of his political base. They have generally backed his policy positions -- including his opposition to abortion and his limits on stem-cell research -- and have provided vocal support for his conservative appointees to federal appeals courts. Religious moderates and liberals, meanwhile, have often chafed as they try to demonstrate that people of faith can have other priorities.
Bush's speech at Calvin marked his second appearance at the school. In January 2000, when he was still governor of Texas, he participated in a nationally televised debate here among candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
In his speech, Bush did not acknowledge the controversy over his appearance, and there was little evidence of opposition among the audience. Some students had promised to wear armbands and buttons protesting the president's speech, but those efforts were not noticeable at the ceremony.
"It is by becoming active in our communities that we move beyond our narrow interests," Bush said. "In today's complex world, there are a lot of things that pull us apart. We need to support and encourage the institutions and pursuits that bring us together."