12 May 2005

Bush at Calvin: redux

Dale Van Kley, Calvin alumnus and former history prof. there, is pissed off!

To the Editor:

That my former professor and colleague Nicholas Wolterstorff should have had to yield the podium on Commencement Day to President George W. Bush via the agency of Rep. Vernon Ehlers represents a particularly poignant moment in Calvin College’s progress from an institution of Reformed Christian higher learning into one of the high points in a Republican Party pilgrimage.

A man of many parts and for all seasons, Professor Wolterstorff exemplifies at its best the Reformed Augustinian project of learning in the light and service of faith. If Calvin enjoys more than a local or even national reputation in the world of higher learning, this is due in no small measure to Wolterstorff’s long and distinguished tenure in the college. The field of philosophy and ontology in particular will not have been unaffected by the way he minded it. Institutional self-respect should have ensured him the podium against any and all comers; everyone would have been the wiser for whatever he might have said.

By dint of a perseverance greater than that of the saints — an inertia even greater than that of ennui itself — as a professor at Calvin Vernon Ehlers almost single-handedly distracted the faculty into self-induced suffocation by committee in the form of governance known by the acronym of Fosco. While reducing to platitudes the injunction to do all for the greater honor and glory of God, as a congressman he has not resisted a social Darwinian “conservative” conversion to an ideology devoted to the proposition of making the rich fewer and richer and the poor more numerous as well as poorer still.

In need of no introduction, George W. Bush’s chief achievement before becoming president is to have given up drinking, although the whole world would perhaps be better off were he still on his back in a Texas saloon. In his self-styled role as the Lord’s Anointed, he has launched the country on a bloody crusade without a plausible semblance of a cause. While George H. W. Bush may have killed his thousands, George W. has killed his tens of thousands.

What, finally, is one to make of college president Gaylen Byker’s contention that students are going leave the college “challenged” by this experience? Is it conceivable that students at Calvin might have had the opportunity to be similarly “challenged” by, say, Albert Gore or John Kerry, had either of them become the nation’s president? So much as to ask that question is to answer it, and the answer is “no.”

What, further, does the “challenge” amount to in the instance at issue? How are students as students to be “challenged” by someone who, having had privileged access to some of the nation’s finest educational institutions, learned absolutely nothing from them and moreover takes pride in that fact? And how, except negatively, are they going to be “motivated to renew God’s world” by someone who has set out with ideological malice and aforethought to squander its remaining resources?

The benefit that will accrue to George W. Bush and his junta from this event is clear enough. It will lend additional credibility to his blasphemous claim to be the leader of an American Christendom. The benefit for Calvin College is less clear, aside from making indelible its already prominent place on the educational map of the Religious Right. But what will it profit the institution if it competes on equal terms with Liberty University while it loses its own soul?

—Dale K. Van Kley, ’63

Allow me to answer a couple of your questions, Dale. The graduates will be “challenged” by wondering why all their family and friends won’t be able to see them graduate from college, since tickets are even harder to come by, thanks to the presence of the greatest man on earth. They’ll also be “challenged” by his tortured sentence construction. They’ll be “motivated to renew God’s world” when they realize how much damage the greatest man on earth has been able to do to it.

I’d like to end with a snarky “I can’t wait to be ‘challenged’ and ‘motivated’ by the Preznit!”—but I probably won’t be able to get in. Then again, neither will some of the graduates’ blood relatives. Maybe we can chat outside, or something. . . .