Choice of Pence as graduation speaker divides evangelical university

The controversy at Taylor University highlights a growing generational divide among white evangelical Protestants on LGBTQ issues, experts say.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the creation of Space Force at the Pentagon on Aug. 9, 2018.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the creation of Space Force at the Pentagon on Aug. 9, 2018.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
By Gwen Aviles

Vice President Mike Pence is set to be the commencement speaker at an evangelical Christian college in his home state of Indiana, but not everyone affiliated with the university is pleased.

More than 5,000 people — many of them alumni and current students — have signed a petition urging Taylor University in Upland to replace Pence because his beliefs “are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear.”

“Inviting Vice President Pence to Taylor University and giving him a coveted platform for his political views makes our alumni, faculty, staff and current students complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration's policies,” the petition states.

Alex Hoekstra, a 2007 Taylor alumnus who started the petition, told NBC News that the “Trump-Pence administration’s policies don’t represent Christianity, Jesus or the Bible.”

“The Jesus that I read about in the Bible said, ‘Let the little children come to me,’ yet this administration is locking children up along the border, and Pence’s discrimination against the LGBT community is disgraceful,” Hoekstra said.

The Change.org petition is addressed to Taylor University President Paul Lowell Haines.

Haines, however, does not appear to share the petition supporters' views on the vice president’s religious beliefs.

“Mr. Pence has been a good friend to the University over many years, and is a Christian brother whose life and values have exemplified what we strive to instill in our graduates,” Haines said in a statement last week announcing Pence as the commencement speaker.

Along with alumni such as Hoekstra, a number of students and professors have also spoken out against the university’s speaker of choice.

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"There are students here on campus who feel extremely hurt by this decision, as they may see it as condoning non-Christian actions such as racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination," Emily Knight, who identified herself as a current Taylor student, wrote on the petition's page. "Whether you agree that the decision to host Pence does actually condone these actions is less relevant — there are students who are hurt by this decision."

Following the Pence announcement, a “motion of dissent” was introduced at a faculty meeting, according to the school’s newspaper. The Echo reported that 61 of the 113 faculty members present voted in favor of the dissent, opposing the university’s choice of Pence.

Amy Peterson, an adjunct professor at Taylor, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post detailing the Pence controversy and the impact it has had on the small, rural campus.

“In our increasingly polarized political climate, this decision does not encourage unity, but exacerbates existing divisions,” she wrote.

Peterson also had a message for those who “might not expect this decision to be a controversial one” at a largely “Midwestern, white, evangelical community.”

“Since the 2016 presidential election, young evangelicals have had to rethink everything we’d been taught about what it meant to be faithful Christians engaged in politics,” she wrote. “If the uproar at Taylor this week is any indication, white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc the next time around.”

Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, agreed with Peterson’s “monolithic” assertion, noting the controversy at Taylor highlights a growing generational divide among white evangelical Protestants on LGBTQ issues.

“It’s no longer sufficient for someone in Pence’s position to say ‘The Christian view on sexuality or LGBT issues is this,’” Jones said. “Those days are behind us. Not just because liberals are on one side, and conservatives are on the other, but because age is the greatest determinant when it comes to religious individuals’ belief system.”

Jones cited PRRI’s recent “American Values Atlas” survey, which revealed that 63 percent of young white evangelical Protestants, ages 18-29, favor LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, compared to 45 percent of white evangelical Protestant seniors, 65 and older.

He states that the difference is in part because seniors are less likely to know someone who identifies as LGBTQ, and because younger evangelical Protestants are “reticent to support a politicized version of their religion” compared to just 15 years ago, when opposing same-sex marriage was part of the political messaging during the re-election of President George W. Bush.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at the 2019 National Action Network National Convention in New York on April 4, 2019.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The debate over whether Taylor should have Pence speak at commencement is unfolding alongside Pence’s public spat with Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg has called out Pence’s stance on LGBTQ issues, and Pence has accused Buttigieg of attacking Pence's faith in order to score political points. Both men identify as Christians and speak openly about their faith.

“Some folks are calling on Taylor to balance the perspectives at the commencement by featuring someone who represents Christianity from a different angle and having Buttigieg speak alongside Pence,” Hoekstra said. “If Taylor really wants to encourage students to be bold thinkers, it should show other views.”

Jones said Buttigieg, who is married to a man, is showing that same-sex marriage is “not something in conflict, but something that is consistent with Christianity.”

“This resonates with young evangelicals,” Jones said. “There’s no longer this assumption that to be a serious Christian, you must oppose gay rights.”

Jim Garringer, a spokesperson for Taylor University, said it’s unlikely that the school will reconsider its choice for commencement speaker — especially since some of the signatures on the petition are from people who don’t currently attend the school, which has less than 2,000 students enrolled.

“Mr. Pence has been a friend of Taylor’s for a number of years,” Garringer said. “As governor of Indiana, he’s been quite familiar to us and we feel the faith that he espouses is orthodox and felt he was an appropriate choice.”

Taylor University has canceled a commencement speaker before. In 2008, then-Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, was scheduled to speak at commencement but was replaced after a “backlash for a variety of reasons,” Garringer said.

“We don’t want to go down that road again,” he added.

Pence is also scheduled to be the commencement speaker the week before at Virginia’s Liberty University. Last year, more than 100 students walked out of their commencement at Notre Dame in protest of the vice president.

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