Hooray for Calvin College

Saturday, May 21, 2005

I spend several days last January at Calvin College, and was very impressed by the level of teaching and studying at this highly-regarded Christian Reformed institution. It is therefore a great pleasure to post this article:

Calvin protests should be source of pride for graduates
by Charles Honey for The Grand Rapids Press, Saturday, May 21, 2005

Well, at least they can’t call us dull anymore.

By “they” I mean most everyone who doesn’t live in Western Michigan and believes we all worship twice on Sunday, drink nothing stronger than coffee and vote Republican.

A lot of people around here do those things, and God bless them. But the dust-up over President Bush’s commencement speech at Calvin College shows this is not a uniformly conservative, compliant place.

In fact, the protests of professors, students and alumni against Bush policies shouldn’t surprise anyone who has spent time on the pretty East Beltline campus. Calvin’s classrooms are lively incubators of inquiry based on a theology that calls for transforming souls and society. That Christian world view takes people in politically unpredictable directions, as our commander in chief has discovered.

If Bush was expecting a trouble-free photo op in the conservative heartland, he got more than he bargained for. About 150 Calvin faculty, staff and former faculty and about 800 students, alumni and supporters saw to that.

Their ads in The Press, one that ran Friday and one that was to run today,
take Bush to task over the Iraq war and his alleged neglect of the environment and the poor. They challenge his much-publicized faith on its own grounds, charging his actions do not match their faith and, by implication, his.

Are these protests inappropriate, as some have complained? This is, after all, the president. Shouldn’t he be welcomed graciously? Absolutely. And should the host community exercise its democratic right to free speech? Absolutely.

As long as the protests are civil, and Bush’s commencement speech this afternoon is not disrupted, this whole affair will be a win for all. For the students, it’s a high honor, a chance to be part of history and a great story to tell their children. For the Calvin community, it’s an opportunity to clue the wider world into the school’s intellectual vigor and depth of Christian thought.

And for President Bush, it may be an eye-opener that not everyone out here in the heartland wears the same color of Christianity. He may have known that already. So says the Rev. Peter Borgdorff, who as a board member of Call to Renewal has met with the president.

“Calvin would hardly be thought of by people knowledgeable about the place as a right-wing Christian college,” Borgdorff said. Maybe. But when news broke Bush was speaking at Calvin, I feared the college’s reputation would suffer from the perception it was being used politically.

Instead, Calvin’s reputation will enlarge as a place not easily used for politics or any other partisan purpose.

Its intellectual feistiness stems from the stubborn-mindedness of its parent Christian Reformed Church. Delegates to its annual Synod drag out debates on theology and social policy long after the likes of Pat Robertson have turned the TV off.

Calvin has bumped up against CRC conservatives on issues such as the teaching of evolution but has landed on the side of academic freedom. And it has produced some of the leading lights in academia, including Nicholas Wolterstorff, the retired Yale Divinity School philosophy professor originally scheduled to speak today.

Although conservatives aplenty teach and study there, Calvin attracts a wide swath of political and artistic talent to its doors. Two weeks ago, liberal evangelical Jim Wallis packed the college chapel.

This is a college that likes to mix it up on a firm platform of faith. The hubbub over Bush is an object lesson in the school’s intellectual strength and American democracy. That’s an exemplary thing for today’s graduates to witness.

2005 Grand Rapids Press.

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