Note: All letters about President Bush's visit to Calvin for Commencement which are addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org or submitted through the Spark letter web form will be posted on the Spark website. After Spark magazine covers the President's address to the graduates in the Fall (September) 2005 edition, some letters representing a variety of alumni viewpoints will be chosen to be printed in Spark.
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I wanted to write an email of support not only for having President Bush come to speak at this years commencement, but also for the Calvin professors who voiced displeasure. While I could point out some ironies in the left's point of view, I think it's most important to applaud how appropriately both sides conducted themselves publically in this debate.
While I'm sure that you have plenty of people telling you on both sides (well... one more than the other) that this issue is black and white, I'd like to be one who encourages you to continue to teach students how to discern the shades of gray.
This debate is precisely why Calvin exists.
Keep up the great work.
Send my best wishes to the faculty that are dealing with the "postlude" of this important ocassion.
Martin Wondergem '93
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Kudos to some of our June graduates and faculty for wearing buttons at commencement stating that “God is not a Republican or Democrat.” When posed a question about our duty to pay taxes, Christ instructed that we render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. His wise words were an early lesson in political philosophy on the importance of a separation of Church and State. We have obligations as citizens, and taxes are among them. But a central message in this story was that in order to maintain our spiritual integrity, we must not render unto Caesar more than is Caesar’s. By allowing the Calvin graduation podium to be cynically manipulated by Karl Rove for highly partisan purposes, and in the process displacing and disrespecting one of our own finest philosophers and interpreters of Christ, I believe that the college did exactly that. Flag and cross may inspire similar passions, and it may be tempting to confuse one’s own political interests and allegiances with those of God. But we should know better. The Bible tells us so.
David deBoer '86
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Just when I thought all the crazies had weighed in with every possible viewpoint from both right and left, and had those viewpoints published in the Grand Rapids Press (letters to the editor), I stumbled upon this website.
President George W. Bush was here. He spoke at commencement. He didn't embarrass himself or Calvin College. Calvin will survive — to the amazement of both Democrats and Republicans — with its reputation intact. Now why can't we all just move on to another topic? Please!
Chuck Vander Sloot '59
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Well, I really didn’t want to see an article in the press of how 1/3 of the Calvin professors, and 800 alumni and faculty, took out ads in the G.R. Press opposing our President’s visit to Calvin. Of the thousands and thousands who were happy to see a rare Christian President come speak, a few had to be heard grumbling. Why do those who scream for tolerance of so many non-Christian ideas end up being the least tolerant of what is good? Maybe you disagree with the President, but don’t forget, how many of us could take on the burden of the Presidency? Someone has to do it, and I prefer a Christian man.
Joshua Holden ‘96
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I am growing increasingly more disgusted with the politically liberal bent evident at Calvin. Our worldview must always line up with the Bible, and it seems like some of what I read and hear these days regarding what profs are doing or saying, what events are taking place, what kind of a cultural response Calvin is giving on current issues lines up with politically correct ideology rather than a traditional, conservative, biblical understanding. The most recent action taken by profs and students regarding President Bush’s visit was particularly disappointing to me.
Christine Toering Wiebenga ‘98
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I am disgusted with the liberal bias that is expressed by the faculty—who are questioning the authority of Scripture. I have withdrawn all financial support but will continue to pray for the college. I hope the administration works to bring God-fearing teachers back to campus who understand the biblical foundation of this once great institution.
Derek Hunderman ‘96
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As a Calvin College Alumni now living outside of West Michigan, I was surprised to see a major article in the New York Times newspaper (May 22, 2005) chronicling President Bush’s commencement speech. While opposition was voiced in the Grand Rapids Press prior to the President’s visit, he was still warmly received by the faculty, students, and families present at the commencement ceremony. The ability of the Calvin College community to openly discuss how a Christian faith should play a role in politics exemplifies the uniqueness and quality of this institution. An education from Calvin has given me the ability to critically analyze issues of politics and social justice from a Christian perspective. I’m proud to see that this strongly held tradition remains an active part of academic life at my Alma Mater.
Jill O. Helmus Lampen '97
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When told of K. Rove’s having invited Congressperson V. Ehlers to convey to Calvin President G. Byker the invitation to invite President G.W. Bush to sing and pray and read K. Rove's commendation of Rotary International and the Boy Scouts of America and the free-market wisdom of A. Kuyper in the Calvin Field-House, most Calvin students and alumni shared with College President Byker his exultation in the prospect.
Of those who scold and even curse the minority who expressed dismay with President Byker's disinvitation of Professor Wolterstorff so as to accept the Rove invitation to invite, a remarkable majority invoke an obligation to be silent about the policies or behavior of "all those in authority over us."
“The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” As Shakespeare probably anticipated, devout non-diabolical ordinary folks have been as adroit over the centuries with the verbatim of Holy Writ as the Devil herself.
Some years ago, the devilish ploy damned President Clinton for his adultery and the lies he told in the failed effort to conceal it. Few if ANY of the shocked, scripture-citing devout then invoked biblical injunctions against the very idea of lamenting or deploring the private or public behavior of “those in authority over us.” On them, the point must have been lost of the Christian whose sign observed on May 21 that “When Clinton Lied, No One Died.” One hopes for his soul's sake that as he sizzled at the stake, Michael Servetus didn't compound his iniquity by calling into question the divinely ordained fiat of J. Calvin, then in position of authority over him.
Whether the current President be “sitting” (as Calvin President Byker has him always doing) or standing or lying or inventing weapons of mass destruction so as to justify unjustifiable war or signing laws to over-rule judiciary authority in Florida or to preclude access to health care for the uncountable poor, thus ensuring the alleviation of their tax burdens for such devout supporters as those who endow C. Colson chairs -- his decisions and behavior are as deserving of public scrutiny, as of freely expressed exhilaration or dismay, as those of any President in the history of the country.
Although P. de Haan's "conclusion" that “at its heart the Commencement service was a worship service...” echoes President Byker's own reminiscence, it's not anti-American OR blasphemous to think the very idea a silly one.
Bernard van't Hul ‘53
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I have heard a little about the controversy over President Bush's presence at Commencement. As a donor and alumnus, I want to show my support to the students and faculty who expressed an opinion contrary to the college administration. In particular, whatever I may think of President Bush's visit myself, I think it is a sign of a healthy academic institution when there is open and honest discussion of any event. It is one of the things that I valued, deeply, about Calvin when I was a student, and it is something that I hope continues there. Students should be challenged to think critically, to question the status quo, and, if necessary, to protest when they think a wrong is done.
For the record, I nominally supported the invitation to the President — I think the publicity is good for the college, but not that good for the particular students. Commencement should be a celebration of the students, not a celebration of a person who has little to no connection with the school. However, as an alumnus, it benefits me if people know about Calvin, and so, like I said, I was not particularly opposed to his visit.
Anyway, I know that many donors have been upset and angered by those who opposed the visit — I feel the opposite. This kind of debate and protest is why I give to Calvin, and why I came to Calvin.
Christy VanArragon Prins '01
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I was excited to hear that President Bush accepted the invitation to speak at Calvin’s commencement ceremony. Shortly following this good news, however, I was disappointed and angry to read the letter of disapproval that was signed by a large number of faculty members. May I remind them (since they seem to have forgotten) that President Bush did not force his way onto our campus to promote a political agenda. He was invited to be a guest speaker and deserved to be treaded as a guest. Let me also remind them that the purpose of his visit was to honor and encourage the graduating class of 2005 who worked hard to earn their degrees as I once did.
The faculty members of Calvin College certainly have a right to express their opinions, but they also have a responsibility to act as professionals. Their behavior in my opinion was inappropriate, unprofessional and downright rude. By selfishly promoting their own agenda, they took the spotlight off the graduating students and caused it to shine on themselves.
I know there are many faculty members who acted appropriately and professionally regardless of their political views. It’s just too bad that the others had to spoil not only this significant event but also the reputation of Calvin College.
Crystal Langejans Bowman ‘73
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You may well have gotten flack concerning the letter written by several Calvin professors protesting President Bush's policies. Let it be known that some of us who are Calvin alumni, like my husband Arthur ('59) and myself ('60) are proud, proud, proud that these professors had the courage to speak out. We know at least one of them well. I am sure that all of them are believing Christians and patriotic Americans. Yet Bush and his henchmen are trying to brainwash the populace into believing that anyone who dares to speak against them is NOT Christian and NOT patriotic. The recent power plays of Bush, Frist, and the totally corrupt DeLay are very much like the power moves of Hitler. We must not forget that Hitler gained control of the Bundestag legally, and he got the judiciary to back him up. Hitler did not take over the country; he was given the country by the people, yes, the Christians who screamed his praises. If we let Bush and his cronies persuade enough people that it must be his way or no way, we will soon lose the democracy for which so many have fought and died. A thousand cheers to these courageous professors.
Trudy Faber '60
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I was appalled when I heard that a neo-fascist-who-prays was selected as this year's commencement speaker at Calvin. I was tempted to tear up my diploma and withdraw my millions from the institution, thinking extremism and money are the only things that can get anyone's attention nowadays. But I was so proud of the faculty and staff who voiced their dismay in the Grand Rapids Free Press, and the students who bravely stuck their necks out with buttons reading: "God is not a Republican or a Democrat," (as we know, God is a Calvinist, with leanings toward a nascent universalism-not an easy thing to fit on a button).
Bully for Calvin.
And next year, Calvin's administration might want to invite someone who speaks in full sentences-perhaps Nick Wolterstorff, a terrific speaker who should not be misunderestimated.
Thomas Fiet ‘79
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It is with great shame that I now say I am a Calvin alumna. I'm sure I'm not alone in being appalled at the rudeness of some of our faculty (30%, I've read) and students who insulted President Bush on his visit to Calvin. Such boorishness does not speak well for my alma mater. Free speech? Yes, at the appropriate time; however, this was in my opinion not the time or place. Anyone in the position of President of our country deserves the honor of a warm welcome. Anything less only reflects poorly on the college.
Dorothy Steensma Goffer '47
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On my way home from work today, I hear on the radio newscast, that the President of the United States will be giving the key note address at this year's graduation. Before I can be pleasantly surprised that my alma mater has been so honored, the newscaster goes on to say that apparently over 100 Calvin Professors have signed a letter of protest that the President will be speaking to our graduates and they will be protesting at graduation as well.
Now, instead of the story being about Calvin — its students, its academic excellence, its mission — it will be about how the faculty of Calvin are against the President of the United States addressing the graduating class.
Please, before you react with the predictable — You should be proud of us exercising our first amendment right to petition the government for a redress of our grievances — think about it. Look into your own hearts, is this the only way to make your point? Have you worked through channels? Have you met with your Representative, have you written the President, have you contributed to people and organizations that will promote your viewpoint?
So, Professors of Calvin College, I ask you, should this day be about you, or should it be about our graduates and our school?
David DeZwaan '82
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I was appalled and embarrassed to read about the recent faculty protest against President Bush before his commencement visit. I only attended one year at Calvin and have long since left the Christian Reformed Church, however I still care about Calvin's reputation. Unfortunately, the media attention on these professors will only serve to do the college harm. Frankly, these published objections came off sounding moralistic, smug and "holier than thou." Not to mention, of course, it was extremely small-minded and BAD MANNERS. What were these professors thinking? Furthermore, being a Christian institution, is it Christian to label another's actions as un-Christian? Didn't Christ say something about not throwing stones before picking out the log in one's own eye? One of the reasons I left the CRC was due to its sense of superiority over other religions. I have found the Episcopal church to be far less judgmental. What college wouldn't be proud to have ANY President speak at its commencement? I am re-thinking any further financial support to Calvin.
Ellen Strikwerda Borman ‘73
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The day after commencement, I couldn’t stop flipping on the TV to see if CNN was again showing the President of the United States giving an address with the Calvin College name and seal in the background (and my uncle and aunt, the Kalamazoo Bos’s, seated as distinguished alumni right behind him!)
As someone who has been dismayed by many (actually, most) of the current Presidents’ policies I was equally pleased to hear CNN giving prominent mention to the protest letter signed by faculty. The impression that Calvin made was, in my mind, perfect-as a place where serious discussion of political and religious issues of the day can be held, but also a place not easily co-opted by politicians of the day from either side.
I have heard rumors that, despite this public relations coup, some alumni are threatening to withhold funds from the college due to the perceived liberalism of the faculty. As faculty at a university that knows something about the left political flank, this accusation does not ring true for me. My Calvin education instilled in me a respect for tradition and intellectual discipline that has served me well working in academic fields that are sometimes too eager to chase after the latest trend. But the really radical idea I picked up at Calvin is that religion is something to be taken seriously, rather than something to be dismissed (as do most true ‘liberals’) or hidden away in anti-intellectual conclaves (the fundamentalist alternative). The desire to truly integrate faith and scholarship has caused me nothing but trouble in my academic career. For this I am also grateful. I also wish Calvin the best in its fundraising efforts. Education of the type Calvin is trying to provide is not cheap! (Religious indoctrination, by contrast, is much less expensive.)
Nathan Bos ‘91
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Many graduates recall who spoke at their commencement. Far fewer remember what the speaker actually said. I do. The year was 1980 and the commencement speaker at Calvin's graduation that year was Prof. Nicholas Wolterstorff.
He turned a common phrase to make his memorable point: "Don't just do something. Stand there." By this he meant don't simply pursue engaging employment and the American Dream, but above all, stand grounded on the rich principles of the Christian faith.
Those principles I learned in denominational Christian Schools all the way through Calvin College, emphasized an all encompassing view of life, to include the rich life of the mind, with the purpose of furthering God's redemptive work in whatever situation I may find myself.
While this world view certainly includes public service and the vast possibilities of political office, I was surprised to hear that the College has welcomed as this year's commencement speaker our country's President, who surely seeks the venue of a particular kind of Christian community for political gain. There is little honor, if any, in doing so.
Please do not rob the class of 2005 of the wisdom of your originally scheduled speaker Nicholas Wolterstorff by substituting the political opportunism of Bush's speech writers. In the words of another prominent republican of the late twentieth century, "Just say 'no'" to President Bush.
Mary Huissen Marissen '80
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When I learned the President Bush was going to speak at the commencement exercises at Calvin College, I was proud of my alma mater. However, following his speach, a article appeared in my local paper, the Baltimore Sun, that made me embarrased to be an alumni of Calvin. The article told how one-third of the facult openly protested his coming and on two occasions, the Grand Rapids Press ran adds from Calvin's faculty and students proclaiming that President Bush violated deeply held principles at Calvin College. I have no doubt that George Bush is President of the United States because our Lord ordained it. How dare Calvin College protest an elected man of God. After reading this article I am ashamed of the Calvin community. As Christians we are called to pray for our leaders. I hope that other Calvin alumni share may concerns and will pray for Calvin as well as our nations leaders during this difficult time.
Susan DeMeester Gearhart '89
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As a Calvin alumni I was very dissapointed at the responses of some of the proffesors and students during the president's visit and speech to the graduates at the commencment this year. Where have the morals and covictions of the Christian Reformed Church gone to? The liberal statements which were given to CNN and Fox were comletely out of kilter from the stands when I was at Calvin.
Edward S. Smith '58
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For educators to make political statements regarding the appearance at a commencement of a sitting President was not only an embarrassment, but showed a total disrespect that can only hurt Calvin in the long run. These individuals only show the hypocrisy in their statements relative to what they expound in the classroom. If they really followed the precepts that the Bible teaches, they would realize that Christ never tried to embarrass or disrespect his enemies in an arena of life that could be detrimental to the ultimate goal of why he was on this earth. I'm thankful that my daughter graduated from Calvin years ago because if she was entering at the present day, I would have strong reservations about her going there.
Gil Vanderkraats '58
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I am a 65 year old white Christian male. I attended a small Christian college just like you. You have every right to march, write letters, and take out full page ads in the newspaper protesting President Bush's actions, or whatever else you wish to protest. You can thank the United States Military for this.
I do however, think that your plan to conduct these protests while the President is ON campus reveals a lack of respect for the office of President of the United States. More importantly, it reveals a total lack of just plain class. I would expect this juvenile behavior at some state university, or at an eastern effete elitist Ivy League school. I expect better from you.
Your parents must be very embarrassed. Speaking for myself, I am disgusted with you.
Kenneth W. Weigel
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I, and I'm sure many alumni and students, are disappointed to note the newspaper story telling us that President Bush will speak at Calvin's graduation ceremony this year.
There are so many reasons to see this as a problematic and essentially reactionary choice in these troubled times of war, deficits and contiued choices by a President who transparently favor his friends and those who need no more favors in this nation while putting our solidiers and many outsider groups at a greater disadvantge.
Ron Vander Kooi '60
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Calvin College is my alma mater. I am proud of her and consider the alumni, faculty, and students to be my college family. The day I graduated was one of the highlights of my life. It must have been a great honor and thrill to have the President of the United States speak at graduation. I feel a sense of gratitude to all of the people who worked hard to make this possible.
At Calvin I learned to think, and that meant gathering information, exploring thoughts, wondering about options, and remembering the past to try to foresee the future that would result from my present actions. As I read news reports about the 2005 graduation, I have feelings of sadness about how some of the faculty inspired a media circus concerning President Bush’s visit to this graduation. I wonder if this is anti-Calvin, anti-Bush or anti-American behavior. I wonder if the actions by these faculty and students are a suitable way to thank the many donors who made great programs, buildings, and scholarships available for students and faculty. I wonder if protesting is the present mode for carrying on academic and intellectual discussion. I wonder how you can critique a person’s speech before it is given. I wonder what enables a professor to publicly proclaim that his ideas are more important than the institution that he represents. I wonder who is paying for the promotion and the two-day ad spread in the GR Press. I wonder if the feelings of the relatives of the graduates who made a great effort and traveled far to be able to witness this joyous occasion were ever considered. It was stated that the protest was being done for religious reasons, and I wonder if all involved experienced “the joy of the Lord.” I feel very sad that certain members of my college family greeted The President of the United States of America with a lack of respect.
Mary Jane De Weerd Byker '59 MAT'80
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It was with great concern and dismay that I watched the local news last week, reporting that President George W. Bush is scheduled to be the commencement speaker at Calvin College’s graduation this coming May.
Commencement is a special time for the graduates and their families, celebrating an achievement of four (or more) years of hard work and sacrifice by both the graduates and their families. The featured commencement speaker should be a person that has intimate knowledge of the academic process and the institution that has graduated the class. At Calvin, the speaker also has the unique and special responsibility to challenge the class as they go out into God’s world and be a part of Christ’s redemptive work. On all of these points, I seriously question the president’s qualifications as commencement speaker. I was dumbfounded when I learned that Dr. Wolterstorff was also considered, and is highly qualified to speak at Calvin’s commencement, but passed over in favor of the president.
Politicians, especially presidents, take every opportunity to speak about their agenda. Just last week while addressing a group in Washington DC about social security, the president urged the senate into action on the nomination of John Bolton to the UN. What would keep the president from doing this from the rostrum at Calvin College’s Field house? Would it be appropriate to have such a speech during Calvin’s commencement?
But beside all of these reservations, what about the president’s record as our leader of our country? He inherited a budget surplus and now we have record deficit spending. He led us into a war under false pretenses, a war that doesn’t come close to measuring up to any reasonable “Just War” standard. The execution of this war has not been done justly, from the prisoner of war abuses, the lack of justice for the detainees, and the extension of tours of duty for National Guardsmen and women. The president clearly is more concerned with the affluent in our society than the poor. Every Old Testament prophet to John the Baptist would have a field day with the leadership of this president and for what he stands. I won’t even get started on the “importance” of education in his federal budget, nor will I take up space discussing his environmental record. It leaves me very perplexed as to why would Calvin ask him to come. What would he speak about, “family values”, “faith based initiatives,” the need for judges who don’t legislate from the bench? Let him speak of such issues at Bob Jones University or Liberty.
On the behalf of all alumni who are concerned about this invitation, I ask that President Byker reconsider the commencement speaker choice.
Thomas C. Huissen '85
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I want to thank you for taking the time to forward Calvin College’s official response to what I hope are many alumni who are voicing their concerns about the commencement exercise at Calvin. The order of events and who was involved in the decision to have President Bush give the commencement address was helpful information and also gives me insight into what seems to be the priorities of this institution.
As I tried to express in my first letter, I can only reemphasize my concern about who is chosen to give the commencement address to Calvin’s graduating seniors, their families, and the Calvin community. In your communiqué you listed a great many people from a variety of walks of life, vocations, perspectives, and world views who have spoken at the Calvin. This is important and necessary to help educate and enlighten all who attend such events. Inviting the standing President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and a person such as John Perkins to speak at Calvin and share what they believe is important is appropriate and should be pursued. The opportunity to hear and ask questions of such people is important, and Calvin’s January Series is an example of a fantastic format for such dialogue. I know that Chief Justice Rehnquist was originally asked to speak at the series, but he turned down the opportunity. Commencement isn’t the venue that would give this type of interaction, give and take between the speaker and the audience.
Commencement should be a celebration of God’s faithfulness to his people at the institution of Calvin College and all of those who are involved in graduating the class. The speakers should have an intimate knowledge of this place called Calvin and its “…distinctively Christian, academically excellent liberal arts (program) that shapes minds for the intentional participation in the renewal of all things…” These are your words. An alumnus, professor (current, former, emeritus), or some other member of the Calvin family has more to offer than anyone outside of the Calvin community. If an outsider such as the current President of the United States comes to speak, there will be the temptation to use the opportunity to get his political message across. There is no time, nor is it appropriate at commencement for a question and answer, rebuttal, dialogue, or debate about the speaker’s address.
I ... read the president’s remarks that were given at Concordia. I have also read some of the works of Dr. Wolterstorff. Yet you believe that what the president will say will have a more profound and lasting effect on the class of 2005?
If you want Calvin College to make an impact on culture, or to make known the name of this institution to a larger population of the world, do so by continuing to shape the minds and hearts of young people. Reaching to a broader audience and making the name of Calvin College known to more people by inviting the famous and infamous to speak at commencement is the wrong means to reach a suspect end.
Thomas C. Huissen '85
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Just wanted to let you know that some ex-Calvinites are a bit worried about the many disgruntled Calvinites out there in Michigan who have spread controversy over the upcoming commencement proceedings by de-stabilizing those whose college has invited the President of the U.S. to speak to them. Not that one can't disagree with the President. You can respect one and disagree with him at the same time. However, it would seem to me that these people would not send a petition of one sort or another to a Pastor they didn't agree with. And some of these people probably have evangelical friends whose theology the CRC absolutely disagrees with and they probably wouldn't gather 100 plus people to send them a "we don't like you" letter. As we are called to hold our Spiritual Leaders in high regard, we are also called to place our civil leaders in high regard, to pray for them and to respect them...especially when the that nation's civil leader is an overt Christian man. It's hard to believe that so many educated people aren't thinking about what they are saying! Both sides of the fence have their fallacies. However, one side would have us depend fully on the government so that we do not have to fully depend on our God. One side would have social justice mean Government entitlements, the other would rather see religious institutions, homes, individuals and other charity organizations do it. One side would rather not see us defend human life, defend democracy and defend social atrocities and the other would have us divert our eyes from it. Bottom line is this man is our President, and these people who have shown the President the dark side of Christianity, are offering an awesome commencement the chance at mediocrity. These people are covering their graduating students with a blanket of controversy. These people are teaching their graduating students that they can go out into the world unsure of who they are, unsure of who their president is, unsure of the status of the world today and unsure of how to deal with it in a respectful, Christian manner. What they will know how to be is an activist. Great work, Calvin College.
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President G.W. Bush will be regarded as one of the greatest presidents in the history of the our country. He has guided us through some of the most difficult times with integrity, perserverence, and a commitment to do what's right, in the face of much opposition from his political and moral opponents. He has sought support of others, but doesn't act on the basis of it. Most of all, he has restored a sense of morality and dignity to the oval office.
What a wonderful opportunity for Calvin College to have a sitting President speak at it's spring graduation. This event should have been welcomed by the entire community. Rather, the front page news this morning is that a "Christian" college in West Michigan protested the President's visit. What a shame.
These protests, based on false and ignorant points of view, are a clear indication that many Calvin faculty and students are influenced primarily by the mainstream media, rather than their moral convictions. Any true Christian would support the removal of an evil dictator and the end of rape rooms, torture chambers, and the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. Christians are called to action, not to silence. G.W. Bush should be commended and praised for his strong leadership. The "welcome" that he was provided at Calvin College was improper and undeserved. What a shame.
As a native of Grand Rapids, I am absolutely ashamed of Calvin College. What was once a jewel of the community has degraded to a spineless, amoral liberal arts college. What a shame.
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[responding to an e-mail from a fellow alum] I've just read your remarkable stream-of-consciousness yawp calling your fellow protesters to arms against George Bush's pending appearance at Calvin College's commencement, which apparently has you and other media-savvy folks agog with excitement. As a Calvinite (Class of 1969) advising the Pentagon, I am outraged that members of the Calvin community feel entitled to treat a devout Christian president with the venom, the contempt and the derision — like graffit artists spray-painting a reeking underpass — that you so crudely convey.
As expected, your e-mail call to arms conveys the usual Hard Left trope that moral postruring is ALL. It's a heady mix of teeny-bopper self-absorption, sorta-'Christian' moral prancing and preening, hilarious intellectual loopiness (like good ol' frat boys halfway through a kegger trying to sound intellectual) and the usual snarky "Take THAT, BushCheneyRove !" defiance - safely expressed, as the Left is wont to do, via T-shirts saying mean things. I'm reminded of howler monkeys hooting overhead in the trees and shitting on the good guys below, the adults, the nameless Marine grunts sweating away wordlessly fighting evil, killing car bombers, protecting the innocent and rescuing God's children from death.
I graduated from Calvin in 1969 and ended up on Reagan's defense transition team. I helped launch 'Star Wars' on the Hill -- because, as a Calvinist, I held to the moral primacy of non-retaliatory self-defense over nuclear revenge against enemy non-combatants. (I was profiled in Calvin's alumni magazine Spark for June, 2004.) As a Hill staffer, I experienced a nuclear-war scare with Soviet missiles in the air while in a Colorado Springs restaurant with an Air Force general. I realized in a heart-stopping moment the hair-raising, crushing responsibilities that a president lives with every minute — because the nuclear-war 'red phone' on the table in front of me there went directly to a similar unit sitting right next to the Oval Office.
I worry that Bush's appearance at Calvin will trigger the usual moral exhibitionism and holier-than-thou preening by self-annointed renders-of-robes and noisy anathematizers of other Christians — the latter including a devout Christian named George W. Bush. I know that a lot of Calvin alumni and faculty don't care for him or his party and politics — but I am particularly sensitive to the complaints about his going to war with Saddam Hussein, which some of these critics equate to a pact with evil.
There is distressingly little appreciation among these Calvin protesters, whom I would have expected to be far better than most at meshing Christian beliefs with ethics of state and state behavior, of the incredible complexities, the inability to predict (much less control) events, that call on Christian policymakers to make huge life-and-death decisions on the basis of terribly imperfect information. That unfortunately will be all that they will ever have, as we've just learned from the Iraq war, despite our cultural fetishism about making decisions amid a torrent of "information plenty."
I say this in part because for the last three years I have worked with the defense officials who planned this war and who have worked long hours to protect our guys against suicide attacks, car bombs, ambushes and everything else Zarqawi and company have come up with. The decision to go to war was not made casually. Those in your crowd who see Bush's decision to take down Saddam as opportunistic or driven by 'Pax Americana' nostalgia or by personal, religious or domestic-political motives should have seen the genuine anxiety in the Pentagon, the grim acceptance of the prospect of heavy allied and Iraqi civilian casualties, if Saddam decided to use the chemical and biological weapons that we — and every intelligence agency in the world — believed he had in hand. Indeed, one reason why our leading forces took such huge chances in outrunning their supply lines was because rapid movement, even in bad weather, was by far the best way to deny Iraqi targeteers the precise information on our forces' position that they needed before they could use such weapons against us.
I keep thinking back on the Vietnam War, which framed my time at Calvin (1964-1969). In 1967, at the height of that war, a laws-of-warfare theologian at Princeton named Paul Ramsey wrote an essay called "Counting the Costs." In it he pointed to Christ's parable about a king who, threatened with invasion, begins to estimate the cost of building ramparts and defenses, not knowing precisely the strength or intentions of his adversary. Jesus noted that this action requires the king to know as precisely as possible his enemy's forces and intent — so that he can figure out whether to keep building or to offer terms.
The message? Even the most prescient, most devout, most well intentioned and Godly-minded Christian leader or diplomat CANNOT KNOW IN ADVANCE WHAT WILL WORK. And yet he does not have the luxury of inaction, of "kicking the can down the road" to the next president or turning it over to the UN, etc. Instead, an American president like Bush going up against madmen like Saddam must take forceful decisions amid appalling uncertainties and information blackouts. Like Eisenhower, who the night before D-Day in a howling storm rolled the dice for a "Go" decision on ONE weather forecast, a president facing a go-to-war decision cannot (and never will) fully know ALL the consequences of his decisions — or even if he has all the right information.
If Ramsey's framing of the moral calculus of wartime leadership holds true for today, THEN IT IS NOT JUST MISGUIDED BUT MORALLY DEPRAVED for fellow Christians to pillory and castigate those brave Christian statesmen as misguided, incompetent or even deliberately untruthful for going to war or making decisions during war. This is especially the case because these opportunistic critics enjoy the morally luxurious, after-the-fact vantage point called "Monday morning quarterbacking."
It is this daunting lack of predictability that Bush's team has had to struggle with. On WMD, for example, intelligence indicators suggested that Saddam had NOT dismantled what we and the UN inspectors had found over 1991-1998 to be a stunningly large program for "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD). Not only did US intelligence agencies conclude in spring, 2003 that Saddam still had WMD, but so did all the foreign intelligence services that we worked with, from the Israelis to the Europeans. Yet, as everyone knows, we didn't find what every service had predicted we'd find. WHERE DID THEY GO? We still don't know but there are indications they were smuggled out of Iraq. Still, given what we knew when we knew it, is it morally justified for Calvin protesters to pillory Bush as a war-monger or liar — per last year's common refrains? NO.
I wish there were at least a rudimentary appreciation among Calvin protesters of what it's like for Christian statesmen to face appalling decisions amid great uncertainty. Because over the next few months, Bush's team must decide in the face of dangers that dwarf those of spring, 2003:
...Iran: it is on the verge of nuclear warheads for its indigenously manufactured ballistic missiles. It refuses to stop its program — and the Europeans give every appearance of caving in to its resistance. All it takes is ONE Iranian missile fired from a ship (which they have done) that detonates in low earth orbit (which they have also demonstrated) to create an electromagnetic pulse that will burn out the electronics and relays on which a modern economy (Italy? Britain? Israel? The US?) depends, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. With Iran, there soon will be a no-kidding point of no return: world politics will be transformed for the worse by Iranian nukes. So — with diplomacy failing, WHAT DO WE DO? Does Calvin, as an intellectual center of gravity, have anything useful to say to the White House on this harrowing dilemma?
...North Korea: led by a psychopath — an Idi Amin with nukes — this nation has conducted live tests of chemical and biological weapons on prisoners, according to recent defectors who ran these tests. The goal? To determine how much is needed to kill the population of Seoul, a city of more than one million just 20 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. North Korea refuses to shut down its nuclear program — and now, as a result, Japan is talking about major defense rearmament — and THAT will unnerve the Chinese. Again — does Calvin have anything useful to say to our leaders?
...China: despite its courting of Taiwan's opposition party, China is slowly moving into position for a lightning (24-36 hours) grab of Taiwan, with the intent of moving so fast the US would have no time to react. Could it do so with 600+ missiles to call on for a massive barrage to decapitate Taiwan's government? Yes. Would it dare to do so before the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Well placed Navy analysts say Yes.
To repast: would Calvin have anything useful to say to Christian decision-makers facing these daunting challenges? Certainly its protesters do not. Do the college and its seminary have anything useful to say in terms of systematic, sustained ethical inquiry into extremely tough moral challenges? I wonder.
Let me close with a personal story. The enormity of what our leaders face (and my biggest motivation to promote missile defense) came home to me in mid-1982 at a crowded lunch table in a Colorado Springs restaurant with Gen. James Hartinger, the Air Force general in charge of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command). NORAD's command center, with its famous nuclear-war "red phone" and wall-size display of missile and bomber tracks heading toward North America, is buried in the heart of Cheyenne Mountain. NORAD commanders at all times are accompanied by an aide carrying the "nuclear football": a special phone tied in at all times with the watch staff inside that mountain — and to the White House and Strategic Air Command (SAC). If missiles are detected heading to the US, NORAD's commander is notified in seconds and asked whether to tell the White House and SAC that a nuclear attack was underway.
I had tracked NORAD's command-post upgrades and missile-attack early-warning systems as the defense staffer for the local congressman, who sat on the House Armed Services Committee. A few months before I joined him, a NORAD watch crew had accidentally run a missile-attack training tape on the wall display and thrown Washington and the Strategic Air Command's bomber force into a frenzy for a few minutes. Also, I had earlier worked for a corporate strategic-analysis group that 'played' the US nuclear-war plan against its Soviet counterpart (we always lost). There I tracked Soviet arms racing and their big nuclear-first-strike exercises. I knew what went on inside Cheyenne Mountain and at the Strategic Air Command's command post in Omaha.
Without warning, Gen. Hartinger's portable "red phone" went off — and my heart lurched into my throat. Here I was, supposedly your professional Hill staffer who knew it was probably just a Soviet test shot. Yet I was paralyzed, my stomach in knots. The disembodied voice of NORAD's watch officer came over the speakerphone: a Soviet missile sub had just launched two ballistic missiles off the Kamchatka Peninsula, what should the general tell Washington? I realized that if he said "Positive" all HELL would break loose. The president would be yanked out of the Oval Office and flown by helicopter to a special Boeing 747 — the airborne National Command Post — waiting at nearby Andrews Air Force Base. B-52s and their tankers would start rolling down runways, our missile subs would be ordered to firing depth. Within minutes, Soviet SS-18s and SS-19s would descend on our missile silos in North Dakota and Montana: a first strike the Soviets rehearsed in periodic exercises. The seconds ticked by. The general chewed on his cigar and compared notes with his watch staff about previous sub firings. Then he said "Negative" and hung up the phone. I started breathing again.
What really hit me was that American presidents for more than 40 years lived with the potential for this general's phone call. Bush lives with this every minute of every day. But does he get a thimbleful of useful moral advice, any guidance in the Paul Ramsey class, from all the Christian intellectual centers around the US? I doubt it. More to the point, is there even one nanogram of interest among Calvin's protesters of the horrific moral dilemmas that Bush must weigh every day as president, the kind that would intimidate a Churchill? I doubt it.
While there are those who feel strongly about Bush's decisions, remember this: he is a fellow Christian — and as Paul reminds us in Romans 13, he and we all bear special obligations before God.. What I and others can reasonably request of you and fellow Calvinites is that you forego the contempt and derision, doff the T-shirts and start acting like adults — heck, like Christians, for that matter.
John Bosma '69
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