The first text message arrived while the faculty meeting was still in session. “Pence speaking at commencement,” it began. “Yeah, I know, horrible, but it’s the most exciting faculty meeting ever.”
My phone didn’t stop buzzing Thursday. None of the people texting me were happy about the selection of Vice President Pence as the 2019 graduation speaker at Taylor University, an evangelical Christian college of about 2,000 students in rural Indiana.
I’ve worked part time at Taylor for eight years, teaching as an adjunct in the English, honors and communications departments. My husband and I moved here so that he could help build the school’s ESL (English as a Second Language) program for international students. As Christians and former missionaries, we believed in Taylor’s mission of developing servant leaders who would minister Christ's redemptive love and truth to a world in need, and this intimate community has been a rich and nourishing place for us and our children.
But the selection of Pence, a former Indiana governor, as the May 18 commencement speaker is deeply disappointing, for me, and for many of the faculty. It reflects a failure of the university’s leadership to live up to its mission.
Taylor is largely a Midwestern, white, evangelical community; one might not expect this decision to be a controversial one. Pence spoke at Notre Dame’s graduation in 2017, when some graduates walked out, and he will speak at Liberty University’s commencement the week before he is at Taylor.
But a lot of people here are upset. As soon as the announcement was made, a professor from the biblical studies, Christian ministries and philosophy department called for a vote of dissent. After some discussion, during which some faculty expressed support for Pence’s presence, comparing him to the biblical figure of Daniel, and others critiqued the decision, 49 faculty voted in favor of Pence addressing the community at commencement. Sixty-one voted in opposition.
Many students and young alumni aren’t happy, either.
“I’ve been shaking all morning,” one young woman, a sophomore, texted me. She felt threatened by a white student shouting “USA” and “Mike Pence” on campus.
In our increasingly polarized political climate, this decision does not encourage unity, but exacerbates existing divisions.
Over the past few years, political tensions on campus have intensified. The open bigotry expressed by Donald Trump during his campaign led some students to feel safe expressing their bigotry. Shortly after issues of race were discussed publicly in a 2017 forum on the #takeaknee movement, an anonymous group of faculty, staff and students started an independent, underground newspaper — Excalibur — to be the “conservative voice” at Taylor. The paper aimed to promote “conservative-libertarian approach to race relations” over “incessant calls for social justice, diversity, and equality,” according to a 2018 Christianity Today story. In some dorms, it was only distributed to the rooms of students of color and sexual minorities.
Taylor, an institution without denominational ties, has a chance to be a place where deeply divisive political questions on issues like racism, immigration policy and sexual ethics can be faithfully worked through by Christians from many backgrounds. But giving Pence a position of honor makes that difficult, if not impossible. It doesn’t build bridges; instead, it ratchets up the already-high level of division and distrust on campus.
This decision doesn’t reassure those with underrepresented voices that they can flourish at Taylor; it leaves them feeling isolated and invisible. It reads like a deliberate and definitive statement about who we are and about what we think virtue in the public sphere looks like — and, by implication, who doesn’t belong.
Giving our commencement stage to Pence sends a message about Taylor’s identity and public witness. As one former student wrote to me in an email, this sends “the explicit message that Mike Pence, whatever private virtues he undoubtedly possesses, serves as a model for the type of Christian leader, witness, and spokesperson in the public sphere that Taylor aspires to produce … and that the rhetoric, action, and cultural vision of the current presidential administration is not only accepted on campus but is seen as something to aspire to by Taylor University as an institution.”
A Puerto Rican student wrote that her “heart broke” when she read a sentence in the university’s announcement that described Pence as “a Christian brother whose life and values have exemplified what we strive to instill in our graduates.’
“I didn’t know how much a commencement speaker would matter to me until today. I was excited for graduation, since neither of my parents have a degree. Today I sat in my car and imagined my Puerto Rican family having to sit and listen to a man who is a part of an administration that doesn’t care for our people,” she wrote. “’ His life and values shown through the administration he is a part of has lacked love, compassion, and understanding. If he speaks I hope my family knows I have not lost my values while being here at Taylor.”
Within a few hours, alumni had started a petition, and students planned protests.
The negative response of so many faculty, students and alumni isn’t primarily partisan. Inviting any politician to the commencement stage would have sparked critical responses. But had Taylor invited former president Barack Obama, the decision would have been a gesture toward reconciliation. Inviting Pence reinforces the creeping conflation of “evangelical” with “Republican.”
This is about something other than knee-jerk political disagreement: Students texting me weren’t upset because it was a Republican who had been invited to their graduation. The anger and confusion are about something beyond party affiliation. They’re about our desire to be a faithful Christian presence in a hurting world.
The question of how our political identity relates to our Christian identity is up for debate in this cultural moment, and Taylor’s administration has made its answer clear.
But the answer is not so clear to all of us at Taylor. Since the 2016 presidential election, young evangelicals have had to rethink everything we’d been taught about what it meant to be faithful Christians engaged in politics.
If the uproar at Taylor this week is any indication, white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc the next time around.
Amy Peterson is an adjunct faculty member at Taylor University and the author of “Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World” and “Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy” (W Publishing, 2020).