Bush-Whacked at Calvin College

Revolution #005, June 12, 2005, posted at

We received this correspondence from comrades in Detroit:

On Saturday, May 21, 400 people came from across Michigan to join a very significant protest against Bush's commencement speech at Calvin College, a small Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, a west Michigan city that many consider to be in a "red zone" of wealthy, conservative Christian Republicans. Calvin College's alums include many prominent Republicans, including Betsy DeVos, former chairman of the Republican Party, and Richard Devos and Jay Van Andel, founders of Alticor, the successor to Amway Corporation.

Calvin is in the evangelical Christian tradition, and there are daily and Sunday worship services and religious counselors in every campus dorm. But far from a warm welcome, Bush's planned visit generated a storm of opposition, including protest ads in the Grand Rapids Press .

One statement was signed by more than 800 Calvin students, faculty and alumni. It read, in part:

"We are alumni, students, faculty and friends of Calvin College who are deeply troubled that you will be the commencement speaker at Calvin. In our view, the policies and actions of your administration, both domestically and internationally, over the past four years, violate many deeply held principles of Calvin College."

Another ad, signed by a third of the Calvin faculty, read: "As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers and to initiate war only as a last resort. We believe your administration has launched an unjust and unjustified war in Iraq."

One professor felt he had to speak out, even though he is scheduled to get tenure this summer. David Crump, a professor of religion at the college for eight years, said, "The largest part of our concern is the way in which our religious discourse in this country has largely been co-opted by the religious right and their wholesale endorsement of this administration."

Bush's speech at Calvin College was one of only two commencement speeches he gave this year—the other was at the U.S. Naval Academy. Bush actually invited himself to speak, bumping a philosophy professor, Nick Wolsteroff, who taught at Calvin for 30 years. In an article in the Grand Rapids Press (May 20), Calvin's provost was quoted as saying, "I think the White House knows Calvin is not a clone of the more fundamental universities, like Bob Jones University. It's an opportunity to extend their constituency." In other words, Bush wanted to shove a Christian-fascist biblical-literalism-in-the-service-of-imperialism down the throats of those who have a different view of religion. But it didn't turn out exactly as the Bush team had planned.

The protest was organized by a group called Confronting Empire and the West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition. There were many Calvin alumni at the protest. One man, who carried a sign protesting "the dumbing down of Calvin," said he felt that the college had taught people "how to think for yourself, dialogue about the world, and change it for the better." He felt that Bush was leading "the dumbing down of America, a politics based on fear." A fellow alum with him said the war in Iraq was being waged "like a holy war, a throwback to the Middle Ages."

A common thread among many protesters was a desire to take on the attacks on science and critical thinking. A teacher decried how Bush plays on the fact that "some people don't want to know, don't want to think, because then they'd have to change."

One important aspect of the protest was the presence of veterans and families of soldiers. We met people like a West Point graduate who has many friends who are high-ranking military officers in Iraq, and a woman who has a son in the Navy.

Many of the protesters were Christians who felt that Bush is "hijacking Christianity." One Calvin grad said, "They're trying to steal Christianity and mask their politics with religion." Another said that "god despises those who take innocent life." On the one hand, it was positive that these Christians were drawing the line against Bush and Christian absolutism. At the same time, there were those who believed it was still possible to "dialogue" with the Christian fascists about what was "the real Christianity"—which revealed continuing illusions about the real danger of Christian fundamentalist theocracy in this country.