Bush Visit to Calvin College Exposes Divisions
Commencement address invigorates debates about the Reformed relationship to American politics and evangelicalism.
by Collin Hansen posted 05/20/2005 09:30 a.m.
Professor David Hoekema couldn’t believe his ears when news spread in April that President George W. Bush would deliver the commencement address at Calvin College. He’s thankful for the national attention focused on the 4,300-student Christian liberal-arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy with the visit.
“While the media have sometimes portrayed evangelicalism as unanimous in support of a particular political agenda, that’s not the case [at Calvin],” said Hoekema, a professor of philosophy. “With the Iraq war in particular, the [Bush] administration really didn’t even try to make the case based on traditional criteria of justified warfare. The longstanding commitment of the Reformed tradition has been that war is to be used as a last resort when some very steep moral hurdles have been cleared.”
Hoekema and about 100 other Calvin professors plan to publicize their protest of Bush administration policies with a letter to The Grand Rapids Press on the date of his visit, Saturday, May 21. Roughly one-third of the college’s full-time faculty endorsed the letter. In addition to the Iraq war, the signatories fault Bush for burdening the poor, fostering intolerance, and harming creation. Another protest letter, signed by more than 800 students, alumni, faculty, and friends of the school, ran in Friday’s Press. That note calls on Bush to “repudiate the false claims of supporters who say that those who oppose your policies are the enemies of religion.” Many letter signers plan to wear “God Is Not a Republican or a Democrat” pins during the commencement ceremony.
The political leanings of Calvin’s faculty trend much closer to America as a whole than most of academia does. In a 2001 student-commissioned survey of Calvin faculty, 24 percent described themselves as politically liberal, while 28 percent said they were conservative, and another 48 percent identified as political moderates or none of the above. In straw polls during the 2004 election, more than two-thirds of Calvin students supported President Bush.
According to Calvin provost Joel Carpenter, White House political adviser Karl Rove approached former Calvin physics professor U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., with the idea of Bush giving the commencement address. Bush is only expected to give one other commencement address: to the Naval Academy on May 27. And despite his 2004 election strategy to maximize Christian conservative support, the President seldom visits such conspicuous Christian venues.
Though Calvin rarely draws commencement speakers from outside the close-knit college community—past addresses have been given by faculty, pastors, and parents—Carpenter said the opportunity for national exposure was tough to pass up.
“We know there are risks, too,” Carpenter said. “When the White House comes calling, you’re thrust into the national public eye. But we thought, What kind of a witness would it be to our students to say, ‘No thanks. We can’t handle your being here.'”
Carpenter said the earliest concern about Bush’s visit regarded disrupting the religious and communal nature of Calvin’s commencement. But he said the White House has allayed such concerns by asking detailed questions about the college and seeking input for the speech. “Our format this year will be just the same as last year,” Carpenter explained. “It will be a religious service, and the White House has been very respectful of the character of the event.”
Bush’s visit has added new fuel to the already raging debates at Calvin over the relationship of Reformed Christianity to contemporary American politics and even evangelicalism. Carpenter said the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin’s denomination, has remained loyal to the politics of Abraham Kuyper, who served as Dutch prime minister from 1901 to 1905. Kuyper created the first Christian Democratic party, which shares much in common with Roman Catholic political teaching in its commitment to peacemaking and alleviating poverty.
Calvin College remains devoted to doctrinal orthodoxy, and most faculty oppose abortion and gay marriage. But significant historical and theological factors at Calvin cut against the grain of popular evangelicalism. In particular, the high-church tradition of the Christian Reformed Church looks skeptically on revivalism and independent congregationalism. “This community, in regard to evangelicals,” Carpenter said, “has always been ‘Yes, but … ‘”
At this point, no one can be certain what long-term impact Bush’s visit will have on Calvin. Much will depend on what the President chooses to say. To be sure, the debates will continue.
“The first three or four weeks [after announcing Bush’s visit], alumni with more liberal political views vowed to never give another dollar or encourage their children to come [to Calvin],” Carpenter said. “Now that some of our faculty have been voicing dissent with Bush’s views, alumni with more conservative political views are vowing the same thing. I tell you, it feels like a crossfire. I think it goes to show, sadly, how deeply divided our country is on matters of religion and politics.”

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