I did not attend my college commencement because, at the time, it did not seem that obvious a demarcation in my life.
I’d split my post-secondary time between two schools, with military service in the middle. I still lived with my parents for the first phase at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and commuted from 45 minutes away for the second one at Ball State University, so I never had that “bonding with a campus” experience requiring a formalized coda.
So now I do this weird mental exercise: If I had planned to attend the graduation ceremony, which speaker would have made me stay away in protest?
Jane Fonda comes to mind. She and I were both in Vietnam, but on different sides of the DMZ. I can’t imagine I would have been too eager to hear her insights.
On the other hand, I wasn’t thrilled with the political establishment at the time, since they had risked my life on a military adventure they seemed intent on ignominiously abandoning. So I probably would not have welcomed Robert McNamara, either.
But looking back on youth’s passions with the wisdom of age, I can say it would have been wise to listen to either of them. Vietnam was the wedge splitting the country in two, and trying to hear voices on either side would have been valuable. In fact, having both of them on the same platform could have been quite memorable.
I say all this by way of explaining that I do not criticize the Taylor University students who walked out of their graduation ceremony in protest of having Vice President Mike Pence as the commencement speaker. The “dozens of students” (so described by nearly all the news accounts) were merely upholding the noble tradition of tweaking the nose of authority.
I don’t criticize them, but I don’t understand them, either.
As the nation’s most well-known evangelical Christian, Pence is clearly on one side of a divide far deeper and wider than our Vietnam agonism. It might be useful to hear his take on that divide, especially at a place like Taylor, which is ... well, an evangelical university.
The news stories don’t help. Apparently, the students wanted to put out an “everyone is welcome here” message, and Pence’s presence would have overridden that message because: 1) He has too narrow a definition of Christianity; and 2) he is complicit in the evil Trump administration, tacitly supporting a man with no moral core.
But I don’t see how both can be true.
As far as I can tell, Pence’s beliefs match exactly Taylor’s mission statement (readily available at its website, all you intrepid reporters), so students who don’t like his values must not like those of the school they have been attending. And President Trump would fit few people’s definition of a faithful, committed Christian.
So, what do students believe about Pence? That he is a rigid fundamentalist always on the lookout for heretics to condemn? Or an amoral opportunist willing to sacrifice principle to his ambition?
I’m not certain. And, based on the superficial coverage of their protest, I’m not sure they are, either. Perhaps, after age has cooled their youthful passions a bit, they might regret missing what they could have learned — about Pence, about the country, about themselves — by listening to him instead of ostentatiously signaling their displeasure.
Or perhaps not.
I went to Ball State’s website to find out what speaker I had missed by ditching commencement. It was John Brademas, then the sitting U.S. representative from Indiana’s 3rd District. I remember him as a decent person but an uninspiring politician who didn’t excite much passion one way or the other. I doubt if anything he said would have stayed with me.
Brademas was no Jane Fonda or Robert McNamara, not even a Mike Pence. These days, I expect it’s better to be worth protesting than not worth listening to.
Leo Morris is a columnist for the Indiana Policy Review. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.