Bringing Politicians to Christian College Campuses

Embedded in last week’s post about how Christian voters evaluate political candidates was an educational issue: How do colleges decide which speakers to invite to campus?

First, Oklahoma Wesleyan president Everett Piper, who made clear that he and his institution — unlike Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Liberty University — would not invite one particular Republican presidential candidate to speak:

Donald Trump at Liberty University
Screen shot of Donald Trump addressing Convocation at Liberty University on Jan. 18th

In selecting speakers for Oklahoma Wesleyan, party affiliation and political positions do not matter. Personal conduct, public statements, theological integrity and moral consistency do. In short, unless it is an open debate where different sides of the issue will be presented, we choose speakers who generally promote our university’s mission and who do not stand in opposition, either in word or deed, to what we claim to hold dear as a Christian community. I believe I owe it to our students, faculty, staff, board, donors and church to do nothing less— and frankly, Donald Trump simply doesn’t represent OKWU’s behavioral, theological, moral or political ideals.

A Christian university has “political ideals”? And guest speakers must align with them? (Keep in mind that this is the same president who thundered that his university was not a “day care.”)

It does seem that most of the speakers invited to Liberty fit a certain political profile: Republican candidates Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush spoke there last year; NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre is scheduled for March 23rd. But before Trump’s visit in January and Falwell’s “Let’s teach them a lesson” comments about concealed-carry permits in December, Liberty’s Convocation was perhaps best known for a guest appearance by a certain democratic socialist.

It’s not entirely clear if Piper meant his criteria solely in terms of choosing speakers for chapel services, since those gatherings at OKWU are meant “to help students grow in both their understanding and application of biblical truth during their four years the university… to uphold the mission of OKWU by worshipping the person of Christ, hearing from the truth of Scripture, and helping students to engage culture with a biblical worldview.” Or did he mean that — apart from a debate — speakers who fail to represent the ideals of Oklahoma Wesleyan would not be invited to speak at any kind of university event?

While Liberty’s Convocation is featured on the Spiritual Programs section of the school website, an FAQ insists that “is not a chapel service. We derive our definition of Convocation from its Latin root, ‘to convene, gather, or assemble.’ This distinction allows us to view Convocation as a platform for an artist, a pulpit for a guest pastor or theologian, and a podium for a scientist or politician.” Conformity to institutional ideals are not among the stated criteria for choosing these speakers; rather, the question is simply “whether or not they possess a message that will contribute to pivotal cultural conversations that stretch both the hearts and minds of our students, faculty, and staff.”

So while I’m much closer to Everett Piper’s view of Donald Trump than Jerry Falwell’s, I’m more sympathetic to Liberty’s argument for inviting a wide variety of speakers:

We believe “how you think” is just as vital as “what you think.” A fundamental part of the college experience is being exposed to a variety of viewpoints so that students can better understand why they hold their own beliefs and be better prepared to defend them.

As President Falwell has always said, “Students are not only free—but encouraged—to form their own opinions about what they hear in Convocation. This is a vital part of the higher learning experience”

We also believe that “how you disagree” is as vital as “why you disagree.” Learning how to disagree without being disrespectful is a vital tool for any world-changer who is truly more interested in winning people than winning an argument.

Of course, this gets murky when students are required to listen to a presidential candidate whose speech is accompanied by a long, effusive introduction by the same university president who wants them “to form their own opinions about what they hear….”

Better was how Dordt College president Erik Hoekstra explained his institution hosting a Trump campaign event not long before the businessman finished second in Iowa’s caucuses:

Each time a candidate comes to campus, I have a certain sense of “cringe” for what it says to our students—political speeches are always full of broad-brush promises about what the candidate will do. There isn’t a candidate or party that can be 100% biblical or reformational—at least it seems that way to me. Opening our facilities to political candidates in no way implies an endorsement of their views.

…Our goal is to have Dordt students graduate with a commitment to be politically active and biblically obedient, which I believe can only be helped by having first-hand access to candidates. Part of that goal is for our students to be politically active with wise minds and compassionate hearts, which their four years at Dordt College will—by God’s grace—hopefully encourage.

In response to the concern we have received about the upcoming Donald Trump event: I certainly understand that allowing Trump access to our campus may seem to send a certain message to people near and far. It isn’t entirely positive for many people. However, I believe that the educational benefits for our current students are more important.

Of course, this turned out to be the same event at which Donald Trump gloated that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

In his hasty follow-up Hoekstra rejected Trump’s “odd and inappropriate comment,” but concluded by promising prospective Dordt students that “We won’t spoon-feed you the answers to every question, but you’ll grow in your faith in Jesus Christ and be challenged to put real-world decisions into the context of Scripture—and we’ll walk with you through that process.”

What do you think? What criteria should guide Christian and other colleges as they decide on guest speakers — especially when they’re candidates in an election cycle?

One thought on “Bringing Politicians to Christian College Campuses

  1. Re: “Our goal is to have Dordt students graduate with a commitment to be politically active and biblically obedient”, I’m not sure that this is possible. The more I see of what political involvement leads Christians to do, the more I doubt that being obedient to the Bible will lead us to be politically active.

    For example, many evangelical Christians have supported Donald Trump, bringing to mind Paul’s question, “what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?”. And, in what was to me the most astounding statement so far of this election season, Jerry Falwell Jr., said, “In my opinion, Donald Trump leads a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment.” If involvement in politics blinds a Christian leader like Falwell (who presumably knows something about Jesus’ teachings) to the mind-boggling fallacy of such a statement, why would Christian colleges want to encourage their students to be involved? What is the Biblical basis for involvement?

    My vote would be to not invite any candidate to speak at a Christian college during an election cycle.

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