Taylor University, a private evangelical Christian college in rural Indiana, has selected Vice President Mike Pence as its featured commencement speaker this May, and many from the Taylor community are deeply upset and alarmed. For those on the outside, the news that a largely white evangelical Christian school in Pence’s home state of Indiana would invite him as its graduation speaker seems hardly surprising, considering that for decades white evangelical Christians have constituted the largest religious bloc in the Republican Party, according to the Washington Post. But as Taylor alumni, faculty and students have told Salon — some of whom asked not to be named — the invitation has been met with substantial dissent and backlash.
“I was taken aback, I felt blindsided,” a tenured associate professor who has taught at Taylor for nearly a decade told Salon. “I immediately became angry and cynical, thinking that our dear seniors were being sold out, that the administration was hedging its bets that they could turn graduation into a political statement and, furthermore, a revenue stream — that this move would please people with deep pockets with whom the administration would like to partner — and that that outcome was more desirable to them than whatever the faculty and student body wanted.”
“I’m not surprised that President Haines has decided to publicly align the university with the Trump/Pence administration, but I am disheartened at this very clear institutional endorsement of that agenda,” Taylor alumna Liz Boltz Ranfeld (and one-time Salon contributor) told Salon. “Taylor was not a progressive or liberal environment when I was a student there, and yet the faculty modeled a lot of traits and values that should be non-partisan: hospitality, generosity, collaboration, compromise, humility, and curiosity. . . We were encouraged to voice dissent when we opposed actions taken by the Bush administration, and we were also encouraged to reject nationalism. Clearly that kind of discourse is no longer valued by the current TU administration.”
“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,” the change.org petition says.
The petition — which amplified multiple ways for participants to make their voices heard, by responding to Taylor’s announcement on social media, by listing the contact information for school officials responsible for the invitation — currently has more than 2,300 signatures and counting, which is significant momentum coming from a small liberal arts college with about 1,900 enrolled students.
A graduating senior who identifies as queer told Salon that the petition “has been a huge encouragement and way of solidifying our community.”
However, Taylor President Dr. Paul Lowell Haines’ statement announcing Pence as the commencement speaker sparked particular ire. “Mr. Pence has been a good friend to the University over many years, and is a Christian brother whose life and values have exemplified what we strive to instill in our graduates. We welcome the Vice President and his wife, Karen Pence, to this 173-year-old premier institution of Christian higher education, and thank them for their love and service for our nation, our state, and our institution,” the statement read.
But at Taylor, there are students of color, queer students and students from immigrant families who feel personally targeted and affected by the vitriol coming from the Trump administration and championed by Pence.
“The politicization of our graduation is a power play that will only perpetuate the systematic oppression that minorities face within evangelicalism every day,” Taylor student Whitney Martin told Salon. “This decision at the expense of the safety of marginalized students, faculty, and staff on campus is an inherently immoral one that goes directly against the Gospel of Christ that Taylor seeks to instill in their students.”
According to the Taylor professor, faculty learned of Pence’s invitation at the beginning of their regularly scheduled faculty meeting Thursday morning, and he said that before the President even sat down that a professor from the Philosophy and Religion departments introduced a motion to register a dissent. “He spoke boldly and graciously, saying that this decision would align Taylor in the eyes of the world with the values of the Trump administration, values he viewed as deeply at odds with following Christ,” the source told Salon.
The dissent was not sweeping, but after a discussion, ballots were distributed and 49 faculty members voted in favor of Pence speaking at Taylor’s graduation, while 61 voted against, and three faculty members abstained. The professor says at the very least he thinks the vote sends a sobering message to the president and board about where the majority of faculty stand.
The decision to invite Pence also comes at a time when marginalized students were already questioning the university’s commitment to prioritizing diversity and inclusion. Taylor student Nicki Mortland wrote in the school’s student publication The Echo, just six days before the announcement about Pence, that “Taylor, like many other Council for Christian Colleges and Universities campuses, has fallen behind in regards to intention towards diverse populations. . . Students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students with different theological backgrounds, or any number of other identities can find themselves unable to speak with the confidence that they will be listened to.”
Adjunct faculty member and author Amy Peterson echoed similar concerns Friday in an op-ed in the Washington Post, worrying that the decision to invite Pence serves as a line in the sand for the university in terms of declaring where it stands politically, as well as sending a grave message about its identity. “This decision doesn’t reassure those with underrepresented voices that they can flourish at Taylor; it leaves them feeling isolated and invisible,” she wrote. “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.”
Martin also confirmed that, like the surge in hate crimes nationally and globally, Taylor has experienced a rise in hate speech and bigotry as well. She says that Pence’s presence “will only perpetuate hate and bigotry on campus, directly jeopardizing student safety.” (Reportedly some students and their families will boycott the ceremony, while others are weighing the possibilities and tactics for protesting, including taking a knee during Pence’s speech.)
For Pence, this marks his return as a commencement speaker to his home state of Indiana, following his notorious appearance at the University of Notre Dame in 2017, when about 100 students walked out in protest during his speech. Pence has spoken at colleges since then — in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and at the United States Coast Guard Academy and Naval Academy in Connecticut and Maryland, respectively, according to the IndyStar. And this year, Pence was also selected as the commencement speaker for Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, another private evangelical school whose graduation ceremony will take place the week before Taylor’s. The Washington Post describes Liberty as “a bastion of the Christian right” and a coveted political stage for the GOP. The Taylor professor Salon spoke to rejected any conflation between the two universities. “I have no respect for Liberty or its leadership, and wish for no association whatsoever to be made between Liberty and Taylor now or ever,” he told Salon.
While Ranfeld said the announcement has sparked tons of dialogue throughout the Taylor community, including the alumni network, she is not optimistic that the dissent will sway the university’s decision. “I do hope we are able to communicate the ways in which this hurts the institution in the long term, even as it appeals to a very specific set of the university’s current supporters and stakeholders,” she said, adding that as a former donor, this situation, as well as TU’s policies that harm LGBTQ and other marginalized students, faculty and staff, has dissuaded her from ever contributing financially again and from encouraging her children to apply to her alma mater.
Pence’s invitation, along with the Trump administration in general, is sparking discussions within the evangelical Christian community about its political alignment. “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,” Peterson wrote in The Post. “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.”
As the queer graduating senior told Salon, “I love Taylor. I don’t believe the endorsement of Mike Pence accurately reflects us, but I do believe the gracious and thoughtful conversations coming out of it do.”
Author and Taylor alumnus C. Christopher Smith penned an op-ed in the progressive Christian publication Sojourners Friday stating that “Another evangelicalism is possible.”
“As a long-time Indiana resident, and an observer of Mike Pence’s political career for over a decade, one of the greatest flaws of his political career is his ambition,” he wrote. “This ambition has been particularly problematic during his vice presidency, because he has said little or nothing that disputes the character and political vision of Donald Trump. So, as far as we know, Mike Pence’s values are compatible with those of Donald Trump, whose false statements are off-the-charts in comparison to any politician in recent memory, who casually boasts of grabbing women’s genitalia, who has a long and well-documented history of racist behavior, who keeps immigrant children fenced off like animals in a zoo, and so on.”
Smith claims that the Trump/Pence administration has made blatantly clear that “they do not reflect the best virtues of evangelicalism.” (Emphasis his own.)
The professor at Taylor expressed a comparable view. “I do not see evidence of Christ-like love in the attitudes, policies, and actions that Mr. Trump, his Vice President, and his administration have espoused,” he told Salon. “In fact, I see the opposite. For this reason, I do not welcome Mr. Pence to be our commencement speaker unless he denounces the abominable actions of the Trump administration.”
But for now, Taylor’s decision to invite Pence as its commencement will only bolster how politically synonymous “evangelical” is with the GOP in 2019. Smith, for his part, is calling for a departure. “Taylor University, and other evangelical institutions, should no longer give credence to this administration as representative of evangelicalism,” he writes. “We need a new brand of evangelical politics, one that is increasingly marked by its habits of conversation, and the virtues that conversation fosters in us, virtues such as transparency, hospitality, and empathy.”
The rise in popularity of openly gay, Christian mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, seeking the Democratic nomination for president, offers a contrasting vision to Pence on what a fiercely religious politician can look like and how that faith can be mobilized. As he told The Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “I think there’s an opportunity hopefully for religion to be not so much used as a cudgel but invoked as a way of calling us to higher values.” Buttigieg’s candidacy also raises critical questions about the possibility of galvanizing religious voters to the left.
Of course a religious left has long existed, especially in the context of black freedom struggles, evidenced in current time by the Christian activism of Rev. William J. Barber II and his work reviving Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Poor People’s Campaign.” And, according to Elizabeth Bruenig, who wrote this week about the religious left in the Washington Post, 59 percent of registered Democratic voters identified as Christians, with the largest bloc being black Protestants.
Peterson writes that she hopes the palpable outrage to Pence’s invitation to speak at Taylor’s graduation ceremony is indicative of a growing fracture in the political conscience of evangelical voters, and that come 2020, “white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc,” she wrote.
Peterson’s not alone. “I do see this era as a flashpoint for the Christian Left to define and articulate its beliefs, grow and evolve in action, and attain visibility not only through its condemnation of the current administration’s conduct but also through its own good work serving those in need,” the Taylor professor told Salon. “I believe that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better, so although I have vocally opposed the decision to bring Pence to campus, I’ve spent a great deal more time and energy reaching out to vulnerable students, making sure they’re OK, that they’re heard, that their needs are met.”
“Many moderate to liberal Christians were surprised by the overwhelming white evangelical support of Donald Trump in the election because his behavior, words, and campaign promises ran so counter to the values we were taught as children and young adults in the evangelical church,” Ranfeld told Salon. “For those of us who have shifted from conservative to liberal, we also struggle to understand how the conservative evangelicals of our adolescence could now support the very behaviors they always claimed to oppose. That is what feels so bad about Taylor’s endorsement of Trump via Pence’s Commencement speech,” she continued, “not only does it violate our current values, but it also violates the values we were told the school valued.”