Students and alumni of a small Christian college in Indiana are pushing back against the state’s former governor — saying that Vice President Mike Pence shouldn’t deliver the school’s commencement address because he doesn’t represent their Christian values.
Taylor University, an evangelical school with about 1,900 undergraduate students, announced on Thursday that Pence had accepted an invitation to speak at its commencement ceremony in mid-May.
“Taylor University is pleased and honored to welcome to our campus and its 2019 Commencement exercises, Vice President Mike Pence,” Paul Lowell Haines, president of Taylor University, said in a statement. “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.”
A sizeable group of current and former students, however, disagree.
A Change.org petition in protest of Pence’s invitation to speak — which was launched by a Taylor University alumni just a few hours after the school president’s announcement — has amassed more than 2,800 signatures since its inception.
“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 petition states.
Alex Hoekstra, who started the petition, graduated from Taylor in 2007. As a gay man, he feels “personally injured” by the policies championed by the Trump-Pence administration, and thinks university officials should recognize that those policies aren’t reflective of Jesus’ teachings or the Christian emphasis on love, according to an interview he provided to Newsweek.
That argument is echoed in many of the comments from other signatories of Hoekstra’s petition, many of whom write that Pence doesn’t represent their faith.
“The politics and policies of VP Pence and President Trump are incongruous with the Christian values the university is sworn to uphold,” one supporter wrote.
“I stand for the values of that Jesus promoted and when people in places of power so blatantly oppose those values (or remain silent), they should not receive such a privileged position,” another commented.
Writing in the Christian magazine Sojourners, Taylor University alumni C. Christopher Smith argued Pence represents a version of evangelicalism that doesn’t resonate with him or many of the other students and faculty at Taylor.
“We need to ask ourselves the question: To what sort of gospel do Mike Pence’s political values bear witness, and is this the sort of gospel that we want to proclaim or to send out our young people out into the word with?” Smith writes. “Taylor University, and other evangelical institutions, should no longer give credence to this administration as representative of evangelicalism.”
Similarly, an adjunct professor at Taylor, Amy Peterson, penned a Washington Post op-ed describing the hurt, dismay, and dissent among the campus community in the aftermath of the announcement that Pence would deliver the commencement.
Peterson acknowledged that the strong reaction to Pence’s invitation may seem surprising to outsiders, given that Taylor University has a largely white, evangelical, and Midwestern student body. But she noted that evangelicalism is not a monolith — and argued that the school’s decision to invite Pence sends the problematic message that there is just one acceptable way to enage in politics as an evangelical Christian.
“Inviting Pence reinforces the creeping conflation of ‘evangelical’ with ‘Republican,’” Peterson writes. “The question of how our political identity relates to our Christian identity is up for debate in this cultural moment.”
Pence is not a stranger to dissent during his visits to college campuses. In 2017, as he delivered the commencement address at Notre Dame University — which is a Catholic institution — a group of graduating students walked out in protest of the administration’s policies that target the most vulnerable Americans.
But the controversy swirling around his invitation to Taylor points to a larger tension within the Christian community, as progressive people of faith argue that major Religious Right figures — who have become the most visible representations of Christianity in politics — don’t accurately reflect the version of the faith they practice.
For example, Pete Buttigieg — a longshot 2020 presidential contender and the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana — has been frank about his religious background, and outpsoken about the fact that he thinks it’s a mistake for Democrats to cede the language of religion to Republicans. Buttigieg is an Episcopalian who says he wants to challenge the Religious Right’s monopoly on morality and faith.
Buttigieg and Pence have recently been engaged in a public back-and-forth about Christian ideology and anti-LGBTQ theology. While giving a speech to an LGBTQ equality group on Sunday, Buttigieg directly addressed the vice president when he commented that his marriage to his husband has brought him closer to God.
One of the signatories of Hoekstra’s petition called attention to the contrast between the two Indiana politicians.
“I’m a husband of a Taylor alum and suggest that if Taylor is looking for a Hoosier Christian politician for the commencement they might consider inviting Pete Buttigieg,” he wrote.