Carefully screening his audiences has not inoculated Pence from backlash, however. Two years ago in South Bend, Ind., more than 100 students of a few thousand earning degrees from Notre Dame walked out as the vice president began to speak.
The latest sign that even Christian colleges are not safe spaces for Pence came last week, when Taylor University, an evangelical school in rural Indiana, announced that Pence would speak at the commencement ceremony on May 18. As a former governor and congressman of Indiana, the vice president has a home-state advantage at Taylor, a school of about 2,500 located in Upland, about 75 miles northeast of Indianapolis.
“Mr. Pence has been a good friend to the University over many years,” said the school’s president, Paul Lowell Haines, calling the vice president “a Christian brother whose life and values have exemplified what we strive to instill in our graduates.”
But not everyone at the nondenominational school, whose mission is “challenging each generation of students to integrate faith with learning and follow Christ’s calling,” is enthused about Pence’s planned appearance, as became clear this week. A Change.org petition asking the school to rescind the invitation had garnered nearly 5,000 signatures by early Thursday, with copious commentary appended. Appeals to university leadership have been plastered across social media. Some are pledging to withhold donations.
“Not my Taylor. Not my Jesus," one signer wrote.
“Inviting Vice President Pence to Taylor University and giving him a coveted platform for his political views 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,” wrote the petition’s author, Alex Hoekstra, who graduated from Taylor in 2007 and has since then held roles with the Democratic Party, including in Oregon and at the national level.
The vice president’s planned appearance at the evangelical college has become a lightning rod in the intensifying debate over faith and politics.
The blowback comes as Pence seeks to fend off recent criticism from Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend and upstart presidential contender, over the religious justifications for his hard-line social policies on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The Democratic candidate, who has labeled the vice president a “cheerleader of the porn star presidency,” is aiming to break the Republican hold on the devout. Pence dismissed what he called the “attacks on my Christian faith.”
Meanwhile, as the commencement controversy deepened this week, Christian leaders and conservative news outlets closed ranks around Pence. The reaction to the dissent from some students, faculty and alumni revealed not only the tight embrace binding the religious right to the Trump administration but also right-wing media’s alacrity in painting protesting students as oversensitive.
On Monday, “Fox & Friends” featured an alumnus who thanked the school for “standing firm” and refusing to bow to student demands. From there, the story tore through the conservative Web — the latest indication, to these outlets, that students weren’t interested in opposing viewpoints. The websites Townhall and PJ Media wrote incredulously of those who said they were “shaking” or “ashamed” over the announcement.
On Tuesday, Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist and son of Billy Graham, weighed in on Facebook.
“What are these people smoking?” he asked, turning for insight to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which forms the ninth book of the New Testament. “This reminds me of Paul’s words, ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ ”
Graham, who argues that Trump “defends the faith” even if he is not the “best example of the Christian faith,” concluded of Pence: “There couldn’t be a better, more qualified, more inspirational speaker for graduates to hear from or a better example for them to follow in life.”
Students and alumni who added their names to the online petition expressed varied objections, from Pence’s support for the president’s conduct to his role in the 2015 implementation of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics said gave license to service providers to refuse to do business with gay and lesbian patrons. Many of those who commented cited Buttigieg as a notable counterexample from the Hoosier State.
Benjamin Krapohl, who said he was a graduating senior, claimed the invitation was a sign of disrespect to “all the non-white, non-straight students who are already pushed to the fringes of Taylor’s community.” An alumnus, Graham Hauser, argued, “'Republican' isn’t ‘Christian’ anymore and this administration has made it easier than ever to see that.”
Not everyone was supportive of the petition’s aim. “I think you are a bunch of pansies,” one man wrote. “I am signing this to mock you.”
And a competing petition, supporting Pence as Taylor’s commencement speaker, had drawn nearly 2,500 signatures by early Thursday.
Faculty members were divided over the issue, though a majority, 61 to 49, voted to condemn the university’s decision at a meeting last week.
Trump’s commencement appearances have followed a similar pattern as Pence’s. Since becoming president, he has spoken at the U.S. Naval Academy and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where Pence is also slated to speak next month, shortly before his remarks at Taylor University. In 2004, Trump delivered advice that now resonates with new meaning, telling graduating seniors at Wagner College in Staten Island, “If there’s a concrete wall in front of you, go through it.”
George W. Bush was also a regular at the commencements of Christian colleges, appearing at Calvin College in Michigan and Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania, among others.
His father, George H.W. Bush, spoke before more diverse audiences, including graduating seniors at Texas A&M University and the University of Michigan. In Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1991, the elder Bush delivered a message that could just as well come from the lips of his successors in today’s Republican Party, denouncing “political correctness” as an assault on free speech.
This is the first time in Taylor’s history that a member of the executive branch will deliver a commencement address, the school newspaper reported.
Its sudden identification with Pence is not the first time that the campus has been the terrain of charged political battles.
Last year, the community was roiled by the appearance of an anonymous newsletter, called “Excalibur,” which featured jeremiads about the college’s “permissive views of human sexuality, hostility toward creationist perspectives, rejection of the rule of law (especially on the immigration issue) and uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideas."
Its aim, the handout stated, was to foster a “conservative underground” that could oppose “leftist trends” more vehemently than official outlets allowed, according to Inside Higher Ed.
The university president said the anonymity of the project, even if it had the best of intentions, “sowed discord and distrust, hurting members of our community.”
Four members of the faculty and staff eventually came forward to claim responsibility for the publication. They were a professor of philosophy and religion, a professor of biblical studies, a men’s soccer coach and a marketing director.
In a column in the campus newspaper, a student, Halie Owens, strained to find a righteous response to that flare-up.
“Because we’re a Christian collective, we’re expected to extend grace to them, yet grace is given by too many of us on a daily basis,” she wrote.
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