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May 20, 2005 1:19 pm

Rough Rafting in Grand Rapids ...

As I noted earlier, President Bush will give the commencement address tomorrow at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 110 faculty and 20 staff members will advertise their opposition to the Bush administration's policies in the local newspaper. The college newspaper is urging the school's 900 graduating seniors to carry signs and wear armbands to signal their sympathy with the protest. This report from the Washington Times verifies some of my earlier suspicions about what was going on in Grand Rapids.

As I suspected, my dear friend and fellow historian, Randal Jelks, is at the bottom of all this. Here, George W. Bush, the President of the United States, condescends to come to a small, evangelical college in Michigan and this up-start history professor gets up a petition in protest! He reminds me of another history professor, 30 years ago, who was the only untenured faculty member to sign the petition protesting his Pennsylvania college's award of an honorary degree to G. H. W. Bush. Well, that was me and it was probably one of the reasons that I was denied tenure. But, let me tell you about Randal Jelks.* He's one of the most interesting people I know. Randal is an African American, of course, but that's only the beginning of it. Jelks grew up in New Orleans, but – get this – he grew up in the Lutheran Church. Now, that's already a fairly complicated picture: a black Lutheran in New Orleans. He did his undergraduate work at an evangelical college, went to seminary, and was ordained. He did his doctorate at Michigan State and, then, he got mixed up with those Calvinists at Calvin College.

The Times also points out that Calvin College has been attacked by other evangelicals for its"drift" to the Left on issues like creationism, feminism, and homosexuality. Some drift! In a 2001 poll of the college faculty, 25% described themselves as politically liberal, 45% identified themselves as centrists, and 28% identified themselves as conservatives. I'd say that is a pretty healthy distribution of faculty opinion. What is especially important about the protest of my friend, Randal Jelks, and his colleagues at Calvin College is that it isn't based on political ideology. Randal says it all in the Times:

"We are a serious theological and intellectual school, and we try to have our students informed by thoughtful reflection about the concerns," said history professor Randall Jelks, who is rounding up signatures for the ad."We are not Lynchburg," he said, referring to the more conservative Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell."We are not right wing; we're not left wing. We think our faith trumps political ideology."
Now, those evangelicals at Calvin College have also been known to lift a cup of cheer now and again. So, on this commencement day, I'm lifting my cup of cheer to my good friend, Randal Jelks, and those other evangelical rabble rousers in Grand Rapids.

* Among other things, I owe Randal for saving me from a mob of enraged little old white ladies in tennis shoes at The Citadel Conference a couple of years ago. According to them, I had been insufficiently appreciative of their moderate white heroes in race relations. Yes, I'm afraid that I did quote Revelation:"I will spew you out of my mouth, saith the Lord."

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Hugo Schwyzer - 5/20/2005

Ralph, I'm so glad to know about Randal Jelks; come Sunday, I'll join you in lifting that cup of cheer (though a cup of grape juice will suffice) for he and the rest of the fine folks at Calvin.