Five Years Later… The Legacy of GW Carlson

I’ll never forget February 1, 2016. I had just got back from the first meeting of a spring course and barely sat down in my office when the phone rang: G.W. Carlson had had a stroke.

I was stunned. Not just because GW was my friend and mentor, or because he had seemed so hale and hearty the last time we talked, but because that terrible news came less than two months after our colleague Stacey Hunter Hecht died of cancer. The reason Cath was calling me was that GW had agreed to come out of retirement that spring long enough to cover Stacey’s class on political philosophy. So I stumbled upstairs to let those students know what was going on, then started praying for GW’s recovery.

He died eleven days later.

The most familiar icon of GW: a man and his books
All images Creative Commons (Bethel University Digital Library)

“It’s an odd kind of celebrity,” I wrote for GW’s retirement in 2012: “to be so well known to thousands of people that your mere initials conjure instant recognition and appreciation, while being so little known beyond that community that it would take me considerable time to even begin to describe him to anyone else.” But even if the proportion of Bethel folk for whom “GW” means something is shrinking, his legacy looms as large as ever: for our university and our department, and for me, personally.

I’m not walking around most days asking myself, “What would GW do?” But not only are my courses those in our curriculum most likely to discuss Communism and Soviet history, but he still shapes how I think of my purpose as a Bethel professor. This morning, I shared with my Intro to History class the four dreams GW said he had for all his students:

1. That they know and love Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and commit themselves to his Gospel

2. That they pursue a spiritual journey

3. That they engage in lifelong learning

4. That they serve others, particularly those who inhabit the margins of society

As I told our faculty in an email marking today’s anniversary, those four dreams don’t “exhaust the list of what we hope to see our students do with our lives, but it’s as good a summary as I know of the objectives we’ve inherited from what GW called Bethel’s ‘Baptist Pietist heritage.'”

The young professor: GW (second from left) joined the faculty of his alma mater in 1968-1969

It’s not just in the classroom. It’s no accident that so much of my non-teaching work since his retirement has been so GW-like. Chairing the History Department? Advising Social Studies Education majors? Interpreting Bethel history and articulating its Pietist heritage? Leaving early to play golf? Check, check, double-check, and… well, I’m sure someone else is extending GW’s legacy on the links.

And I can’t imagine I’d have written so much about Christianity and politics since GW’s death if he’d been around to say what needed saying about Donald Trump and his evangelical enablers.

Part of me is grateful that he never had to take seriously the possibility of a Trump presidency. His stroke came the morning of the Iowa caucuses, in which Trump finished just behind Ted Cruz. GW was still in a coma eight days later, when Trump won New Hampshire’s primary, and he died just over a week before Trump added a victory in South Carolina. As far as GW had to know, the Trump presidential campaign was a vanity project that led to nothing more than a prime time slot on Fox News.

But mostly, I wish he’d been here for the Trump era, thundering against that administration’s injustices and corruptions, articulating a kind of populism that did more than manipulate working Americans, and helping to organize the Democratic response to Trump in his city and state. Off and on these past few years, I’ve tried to rise to the occasion, but my heart was never in it the way GW’s would have been.

GW urging students to get involved in the early stages of the 1984 presidential election.
He later won elections himself, as a member of the St. Paul school board.

But if I don’t share the pleasure he took at engaging in that arena, I do mean to continue one legacy that stemmed in equal parts from his passions for politics and education: his commitment to “graduate thoughtful Republicans.”

GW was certainly happy to meet and mentor fellow Democrats in the Bethel student body, but they were few and far between for most of his career. (And not exactly common today.) What mattered at least as much to him was how his many conservative students would hold their principles and live them out in practice.

If anything, his commitment to such young people is even more important now than it was during GW’s lifetime. If we want to defuse the appeal of demagoguery and insurrection, this country badly needs to rebuild a center-right party that will work within the constitutional confines of our democracy. Instead of resentful inhabitants of an alternate reality constructed by talk radio and social media, we need thoughtful Republicans who can listen empathetically to competing ideas and rebut them with meaningful evidence and reasonable argumentation, trusting in voter persuasion more than voter suppression. And Christian universities like Bethel need to prepare politically conservative Christians who will live out the love of neighbor through their self-sacrificial love of a nation — all Americans, including those on its margins — rather than pledge themselves to the angry agenda of white Christian nationalism.

I’m a different kind of teacher than GW, but there’s much I can learn from his approach. He didn’t shy away from controversial topics or too quickly cool down heated discussions. But he always shared multiple sides to every argument and poured as much of himself into students and advisees from the right as into those from the left. I’m sure many Bethel students took just one gen ed class from GW and misunderstood his passion. But those who stuck with him — for multiple courses, or just talking for hours in his office — learned to learn from someone who did something more important than agree with them: he loved them.