Some years ago, the British musician Elvis Costello had a hit with a song titled “What’s So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?”
The song is typical of Costello’s penchant for using humor and clever wordplay to make a serious point. In the case of “What’s So Funny” he pleads for humanity not to give up on the dream of choosing kindness over negativity.
During the months surrounding President Bush’s visit to Calvin at Commencement, the tune of that song has been bouncing around my head, but with a slightly different title: “What’s So Funny about Politics, Faith and Civility?” (Obviously, Costello’s version is catchier.)
Immediately after the college made the announcement that President Bush would be Calvin’s Commencement speaker, numerous calls and correspondences were received from alumni, unhappy that the President would be speaking to the Class of 2005.
Some said that the college was wrongly injecting partisan politics into an important academic ceremony — an event reserved for a decidedly “Reformed” message. Others claimed that some of President Bush’s policies were antithetical to Calvin’s mission. Eventually, 700 alumni felt so strongly that a full-page paid advertisement appeared in the Grand Rapids Press the day before Commencement.
The college’s response? That hosting the President of the United States — no matter who the person and from what political party — was a singular honor and an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. I agree with that assessment. Most U.S. Presidents speak at just a handful of graduation ceremonies each year and for most institutions, this occasion will come around once in the school’s history.
Internally, the debate about hosting the President was lively, too. Because the announcement came at the end of the academic year — amid final
papers and exams — no series of public forums could be scheduled, but there was discussion and debate everywhere, as one would expect on a college campus.
What came of this is known by most alumni and friends. Word of an “open letter” to President Bush, written and signed by some Calvin faculty members, was discovered by national media and the floodgates of alumni opinion opened once again — at an even larger volume — declaring that faculty members were being disrespectful to the President.
Many constituents of the college received news of President Bush at Commencement only through edited national media accounts, which made it appear that Calvin had a major protest ready. In reality, countless hours were spent preparing for a grand reception and keeping the focus of Commencement on the Class of 2005 and their families. I trust, by now, readers know that May 21 went very well.
President Bush gave a speech that attempted to connect with Calvin traditions. By most accounts, he did well, invoking Abraham Kuyper and the service-orientation of the college. The alumni advertisement and the faculty open letter were published in the Press that weekend, sparking weeks of further conversation about faith and politics.
Obviously, we on the Calvin campus could have handled things better. I wish we had not splintered into two working groups — some laboring to make certain President Bush’s visit was a success and some intent on making sure the world knew there was diversity of political opinion at the college. We should have worked together better to ensure that both goals were met.
But what was further disappointing is that many of us seem to be completely buying into the secular mindset that opinions on the President and on political parties must be entirely skewed to the extremes. It is love-or-hate, for-or-against, all-or-nothing. Doesn’t being a Christian make us different from what we see on political television shows? As some writers have asked, “Isn’t there a third way?”
Five months after the first announcement of President Bush’s visit, what have we learned? That Calvin is too conservative? That Calvin is too liberal? I hope those aren’t the choices.
I suggest that Calvin College, tempered by this whirlwind of living in the national spotlight, ought to proclaim ever more loudly that one can hold fast to Jesus Christ and deeply held political perspectives and communicate with uncommon civility. And may I ask Calvin alumni, employees and supporters to do the same, not giving up convictions, but being models of Christian discourse and charity. Now that would be a refreshing change to the polarizing commentary of today’s political landscape!
What’s so funny about faith, politics and civility? Instead, may our guide be this: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
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