May 23, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, May 23, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why have college commencements become so contentious? The real ambition behind the coercion
There are few events more instantly recognizable than a college or university commencement, and for good reason. This is a very venerable tradition. The commencement goes back to the very existence of the modern university and before that, the medieval university. It was about the end of the 11th century that the university as we now know it emerged in the context of Christian Europe. And amongst the formalities of the university was a ceremony at the beginning of the term of study, it was known as convocation, and at the end of convocation that marked commencement or the graduation of students.
This is a tradition that has made its way all the way into the modern world. The modern research university was born in Germany in the 19th century. The model soon spread to the United States. It’s now the prevailing model in terms of what most Americans think about in terms of higher education. But even as we are now in the midst of such a very modern age, indeed a hyper modern age, it’s really interesting that when you look at the commencement ceremony, the people who are involved, the faculty, the leadership, and the students graduating, dress up, harkening back to that medieval model. It’s a mute but very visual testimony of what is at least implicitly a continuity.Show Full Transcript
But if you look back at the medieval university, the center of the university was theology; it was the “uni” in terms of the university; it was the queen of the sciences. In the modern research university, born in a very secular or secularizing age, it’s interesting to see how sidelined theology and all religious truth claims have become from the square, the public square of the university. But it’s interesting to note that in this new secular age, this has not led to the promised age of secular peace but rather to an increased divisiveness and disharmony that of all things has become this year extremely evident at commencement time.
This is not entirely new. The closing of the American mind has politicized many commencements such that some commencement speakers have been controversial going back at least about a decade. It’s also interesting that this was a matter of controversy during the campus unrest in the 1960s and 70s. But something significant has happened this year that should gain our attention. We are looking at the fact that commencement is now not only controversial in some places, it seems to be increasingly controversial almost everywhere you look. It’s also interesting to note the political imbalance in terms of these controversies. When a speaker is proposed to virtually any college or university from the left, there appears to be very little controversy no matter how far left the speaker might be. But when the speaker is from the right, when the speaker is a conservative, it turns out that that has often led to a very public, if unexpected controversy, and sometimes in some unexpected places.
Just in the last several weeks at commencement time there have been some interesting headline stories. One of them from Florida where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was publicly confronted with students at Bethune-Cookman University who in the graduating class were displeased with the fact that she was the speaker. The president of the university rebuked the students, telling them that if they did not restore order and allow the Secretary of Education to speak, the commencement service would be terminated and the students would receive their certificates and diplomas by mail.
But that story was echoed just a few days later in Texas where the second ranking Republican in the United States Senate, Texas Senator John Cornyn, was effectively disinvited and canceled as the commencement speaker in his home state at Texas Southern University. Both Bethune-Cookman University and Texas Southern University are identified as HBU’s, that is historic black universities, and that was at least a part of the background in terms of these controversies focused not so much on the two individuals at stake, but rather at the larger context of the Trump administration.
But what is even more interesting is what has happened in just the last several days. And at the center of these two news stories is yet another individual, in this case, the Vice President of the United States Mike Pence, and the two institutions, Notre Dame University and Grove City College. In those cases you are not looking at academic institutions where this kind of protest would’ve been anticipated, as would be the case in many other school. At Notre Dame University, the Vice President was protested, we are told, by dozens of graduates. The New York Times reported over 100 graduates left before the Vice President of the United States received an honorary degree from Notre Dame and gave the commencement address.
Now we need to put those numbers in perspective. You’re looking at about 100 students or slightly more than 100 out of more than 3000 graduates. So that was only about one out of every 30 of the graduates. But still in terms of an event with the formality of a commencement, this is unsettling for a school with the kind of reputation as the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame is, of course, the largest Catholic institution of higher education in North America. It’s no stranger to controversy over speakers on the campus in the last several decades.
What’s interesting to note is that most of the controversy has occurred when this officially Catholic institution has invited liberal officeholders, politicians who had publicly held positions contrary to Catholic doctrine. These include former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, himself very much an advocate of legal abortions. He spoke at Notre Dame on Catholic moral theory and how it informed him as a Democratic governor, quite controversial, especially to those who expect a Catholic institution to uphold Catholic teaching. That was extended also to the last president, the last incumbent president of the United States, President Barack Obama. He also received an honorary degree and spoke at the University of Notre Dame. He is also, needless to say, a fierce advocate of legal abortion, contrary to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, controversy ensued, but the Notre Dame administration pressed forward with having both Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama as speakers. The administration went forward over against threats of controversy having Vice President Mike Pence just in the last several days to speak at the university’s commencement, and even as we’ve been looking at news stories, it’s really interesting to note how the situation has changed.
The controversy concerning Vice President Pence had mostly to do, according to student organizers of the protest, with his tenure as governor of the state of Indiana. During his time as governor, two issues in particular caught the attention of the students and their opposition. The first had to do with the governor’s advocacy of religious liberty legislation. That was seen over against the opposition of the LGBTQ community. And the second issue that was cited was Governor Pence’s actions as governor upholding the sanctity and dignity of human life in terms of restrictions upon abortion. What’s really interesting, very important to notice in all of this, is that the Vice President, in holding those two positions, was actually holding positions that are consistent with Catholic moral teaching on questions concerning the sanctity of human life, marriage, and human sexuality.
The student protesters against Vice President Pence indicated that their protests were not specifically directed only at the Vice President and solely because of his tenure as Indiana governor, but in more general terms toward the Trump administration, citing immigration and refugee policies in particular. The headline in the article from the Associated Press included these words,
“Graduates Walk Out On Pence At Notre Dame Commencement”
That would insinuate that either all or at least a majority of the graduates walked out. It turns out that’s not nearly the story. There are several overlapping issues here of worldview importance, but paramount amongst them is this: if an institution of higher education, any institution for that matter, but in particular an institution of higher education, does not make its own worldview commitments clear, then it’s going to find itself in this kind of situation. And by making those commitments clear in terms of philosophy, theology, and moral judgment, if the university is accepting a large number of students or, for that matter, any percentage of students who are in open disagreement with that policy, well, you shouldn’t be surprised then that this kind of controversy at commencement is the result.
The University of Notre Dame was no doubt embarrassed by this incident, but the university set itself up in recent decades for this very incident. Notre Dame has been hand-in-hand with Catholic identity in the United States now for well over a century. That’s easy to understand, especially in terms of the heritage of Irish Catholicism in the United States. But in terms of defending Catholic doctrine, it’s safe to say that Notre Dame has not been a faithful and dependable defender of the teachings of the Catholic Church. It’s extremely telling that so many of the student protesters identified LGBT issues and abortion as those upon which they focused in terms of their vocal and public opposition to the Vice President’s appearance on the campus—remember, on the campus of an institution that supposedly holds to the very same judgments.
There’s another dimension that has come out in so many these stories, but perhaps more graphically in the Notre Dame story. Several of the students interviewed in the mainstream media said that their problem with the Vice President’s appearance is that it was simply out of place in terms of their understanding of commencement. One young man looked squarely into the camera and said, “Commencement is about us. It’s not about national politics. This is a distraction.” Now let’s just think about that for a moment. “This is about us.” The us to whom he referred had to do with the graduates, but that’s a profound misunderstanding of the commencement ceremony. It’s also a reflection of the exceeding narcissism that seems now to infect so many at various age levels in American society.
Let’s just ponder for a moment what it means for these graduates to make their way across the stage and receive those degrees at the University of Notre Dame or, for that matter, at any institution of higher learning. As I say over and over again in my own commencement messages, no graduate crosses this stage for them alone. Especially when you’re looking at a university in a baccalaureate graduation, there are parents who have paid dearly in most cases for those students to have the opportunity of study, and there are many others who have made a similar contribution. The commencement is not first and foremost about the graduates, rather the graduates are the glad occasion for the commencement ceremony taking place.
The commencement is actually a celebration of learning and the dignity of education. It’s about achievement, yes, but it’s also about promise. It’s about obligation and responsibility on the part of the graduates even as they depart the campus of the university or other institutions of higher education and pursue their callings in life. But that statement, “It’s about us,” when it comes to commencement is more generalized. It tells us a very great deal about a fundamental moral shift that is taken place in this country.
The second headline story concerning the Vice President of the United States was not at a Catholic institution, but rather at an institution that has been long identified with evangelical Christianity and also with political conservatism in the United States there in Pennsylvania, Grove City College. In this case we should be glad to say the protest did not affect the commencement ceremony formally, but as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports,
“Protesting Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement speech at Grove City College, members of the Slippery Rock Huddle, the Grove City College Advocates for Inclusion and Acceptance and the Democratic Women of Mercer County, as well as Grove City residents, marched around the college from 11 a.m. to noon today.”
One of the women behind the protests there indicated that her opposition to the Vice President was rooted in the fact that as an undergraduate she had come out as LGBT. Once again, those are the issues that rise to the fore. The biggest worldview implication of this particular story has to do with the political and cultural pressure now brought upon historically Christian institutions. Any institution that dares to stand for a biblical standard of sexual morality, to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman exclusively, and frankly to stand against any aspect of the current weltgeist or world spirit, well, that institution is going to find itself at the center of this kind of controversy and even targeted protests.
It’s very telling that here you have the Vice President of the United States at the center of controversy that comes down to this: the Vice President has articulated positions entirely in keeping with the positions of the two institutions where he spoke, in the case of Notre Dame, of the Catholic Church that is the historic sponsor of that institution’s existence. But in this strange moral world in which things are being turned upside down, it was the Vice President of the United States standing in agreement with those principles who was at the center of the controversy and even of the walkout at Notre Dame and the somewhat smaller protest that took place in the town square of Grove City, Pennsylvania. We dare not miss the point that these protests or even the threat of this kind of protest is being used against institutions in order to force coercion in terms of joining the moral revolution. We’re about to find out in very short order which institutions are going to continue to withstand that kind of coercion whatever the cost.
Hunger, poverty, and politics: The tragic political realities behind a starving Venezuela
Next we shift to the reality of hunger and poverty and its causes. We look to a recent headline story that has continued to reverberate in recent weeks, this one was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The headline,
“Venezuela is Starving”
The subhead in the article,
“Hobbled by economic policies, Latin America’s once richest country can no longer feed its people.”
We’ve talked previously about the political crisis there in Venezuela. Violence has been breaking out in the streets and we’re looking at the fact that Venezuela is increasingly looking as if it is run by a rogue regime, in this case a dictatorial autocrat by the name of Nicolas Maduro, who seems to be doing whatever it takes to remain in power. We’ve also seen the fact that Venezuela has been transformed from the economic miracle of South America into an absolute disaster. And there’s no accident that at the center of that is what amounts to a Marxist revolution in that country. That revolution is now represented by the Maduro regime, but the story in the Wall Street Journal, both in the headline and in the subhead, tells us some very important facts that we need to understand.
One of them is indeed that there’s been a great economic reversal here. Venezuela had been very rich, now it is increasingly poor. That over against the fact that Venezuela’s been benefiting by an absolute avalanche of cash coming from the discovery of oil deposits in that country. But nonetheless in the hands of a Marxist government, those riches have not gone to the people nor to feeding the people, but rather to corruption and to enriching the regime. But there’s another big lesson here. Even as we understand that Venezuela now includes many millions of persons who are losing weight, documented by world health authorities, simply because they do not have an adequate diet, even though children are now targeted in particular as some of the main victims of the poverty and famine that has afflicted that country, even though Venezuela cannot now feed itself, we need to understand that famine and hunger are now primarily political problems.
What do we mean by that? Well we mean this. There is plenty of food, food resourcing, and ample opportunity for the growth and distribution of food worldwide. There is no reason why anyone should be hungry in the year 2017. Given the ability of the planet in terms of its agricultural resources, and given the fact that the rise of modern agriculture has now multiplied the ability of relatively small amounts of land to yield very large harvests, the reality is that poverty and especially hunger are now very political. Wherever hunger is now found, the reason for it is almost always political. It comes down to a political problem. It comes down to something like the economic collapse in political hands there in Venezuela. It also comes down to the fact that there are many who have used food as a weapon in terms of international history, and there are those who have regimes such as what we see in Venezuela who apparently are willing for their own people to starve so long as the regime remains in power.
Juan Forero reporting for the Wall Street Journal tells us that,
“Hordes of people, many with children in tow, rummage through garbage, an uncommon sight a year ago. People in the countryside pick farms clean at night, stealing everything from fruits hanging on trees to pumpkins on the ground, adding to the misery of farmers hurt by shortages of seed and fertilizer. Looters target food stores. Families padlock their refrigerators.”
I then read,
“Three in four Venezuelans said they had lost weight last year, an average of 19 pounds, according to the National Poll of Living Conditions, an annual study by social scientists. People here, in a mix of rage and humor, call it the Maduro diet after President Nicolás Maduro.”
But later in the article, we also read that,
“For the government, there are no malnourished children.”
The government simply refuses to acknowledge hunger as a problem or to acknowledge even that babies are dying without food. But from a biblical Christian worldview perspective, this doesn’t make the problem less significant, it actually in moral terms makes the problem even more significance because here we’re not looking just as something that could be categorized as natural evil, something occurring like a bolt of lightning or a hurricane, we’re talking about human moral evil. There is human responsibility here, and it also points to something else, and that is this: this is not a problem that is easily solved, because when you look around the world, there are many regimes that are more determined to stay in power than to take care of their own people. There are many, many sad stories out there in the world today. But this is one of the saddest, and it’s sad particularly in moral terms. This is a problem that was avoidable, and yet it wasn’t avoided. This is a problem that even now could be solved, but it cannot be solved with this government remaining in power. And once again it shows us what’s at stake in politics, because it’s never just about politics. In this case, there is a direct link between starving babies and politics, the politics of Nicola Maduro.
The last performance of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the end of an American era
Next on Sunday night in New York State, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus observed its very last performance. This after well over a century of business and entertainment. We’re talking about a major cultural institution in the United States for decades, indeed, for well over a century going back to the 19th and into the 20th centuries, in many communities the traveling circuses that crisscrossed the United States were the biggest event that either annually or at least recurrently in the same region. These circuses provided the biggest entertainment seen by millions and millions of Americans.
Many of those Americans did not know that a good many of the acts they were observing had rootage back on the ancient Silk Roads about which we talked on Friday, especially in terms of the Middle East and in Asia, but it was the allure of the exotic, the unusual, and the spectacular that brought millions of Americans to watch the circus. And the circuses were also fun. It was a mixture of the thrilling and also the absolutely cute. It was a mixture of entertainment that caused crowds to gasp and also to laugh.
Many of the news stories about the end of the great circuses, in this case the most venerable of all, have pointed to the fact that much of the opposition that brought about the conclusion of the circus came from animal rights activists concerned with the animal acts that were at the very center of the attractiveness of the circus to millions of people. But even though the opposition from animal rights activists was a part of the story, it wasn’t the whole story.
The bigger picture is economic, the reality that with a full spectrum of entertainment available to Americans, they simply didn’t appear to need the circus anymore. It was also well known that many in the traveling circuses had formed what amounted to extended families. And thus what took place in terms of the close of America’s most famous circus on Sunday night was more than just the close of the business, it was also the turning of an age and a transition in relationships. The New York Times tells us that,
“When the ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson, first saw the circus as a 9-year-old at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, he could have sworn that the spangled horses that galloped there were real unicorns. At 41, after nearly two decades with Ringling Brothers, he has an awe in his voice when he speaks of the place that suggests that his certainty endures”
Speaking to his circus family before that final call on Sunday, he said,
“You can cry after the curtain closes.”
Well now the curtain is closed and not only on the circus but on an American age.
Finally, we also have to note that late yesterday news came of a terror attack in Manchester, England. At least in terms of reports as of early this morning, 19 were killed, almost 60 injured in a blast took place at an Ariana Grande concert held mostly for teenagers there in that northern British city. It’s already a sad story, but surely we’ll know even more in coming days. Meanwhile, it’s a reminder of the fact that the war on terror is all too real.