Students protest Pence during commencement address, walk out

It’s the season of commencement ceremonies and the unavoidable controversies provoked by invited speakers. Why would 2019 be any different than previous years? The students have opinions and they want you to know about them.

The latest commencement speaker to come under fire is Vice-President Mike Pence. Pence accepted an invitation to deliver a commencement address to the graduating class of Taylor University, a small private, interdenominational, evangelical Christian college in Upland, Indiana. Pence, remember, is the former Governor of Indiana so the invitation isn’t unusual on the face of it. It does seem a little unusual that a few dozen students (out of the total 494 graduates) got up and walked out in protest as he spoke.

Taylor University is one of America’s oldest evangelical Christian colleges. I assume it is not out of the ordinary that a commencement speaker would bring a religious component to the address, given it is a Christian school. Pence’s statement about Christian beliefs being under attack lately wasn’t out of the ordinary. He urged the students to stand up for their religious beliefs. The call to stand strong was very similar to the message Pence delivered to the graduates of Liberty University last weekend.

“Throughout most of our American history it’s been pretty easy to call yourself a Christian, but things are different now,” Pence said. “Lately, it’s become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign traditional Christian beliefs. So as you prepare to leave this place and build your life on a Christ-centered, world-engaging foundation poured here at Taylor University, be prepared to stand up.”

I have to think that the student protest of Pence’s address was an organized effort, planned well before Saturday’s ceremony. Online petitions circulated since Pence’s invitation was announced, both in favor and against that decision. Students in opposition voiced concern about Pence’s association with the Trump administration and of his conservative Christian beliefs. There was plenty of time for graduates to decorate their graduation caps with messages of protest.

Laura Rathburn was one of the dozens to walk out, disappointed that the school’s administration picked Pence to address her class. Rathburn decorated the top of her mortarboard in rainbow colors and added a message on top that said, “Ally Visible For Those Who Can’t Be.”

“I think his presence makes it difficult for everyone at Taylor to feel welcomed,” she said.

Graduates Katie Tupper and Anna Streed wore stickers on their mortarboards that said, “We are Taylor too,” which they said represented support for marginalized people hurt by the Trump administration’s policies.

“For me personally, I think we should identify as Christians first before we have political ties,” Tupper said. ”That might not be a good choice for everyone but I think that we struggle a lot at Taylor in trying not to raise our political views. … The purpose of this is to recognize that we’re all a part of Taylor.”

Fortunately for the others present, the protesters were somewhat respectful by simply rising and walking out. I haven’t read about any loud, vocal protesting or disruption to the ceremony. At the time of the walk-out, an associate music professor was leading the audience and graduates in singing a hymn.

Most of the students were appreciative of Pence’s presence. They gave him a standing ovation when he was introduced and clapped in response to parts of his speech. He spoke about the successes of the Trump administration, including a strong economy and positive employment news.

The day was exciting for graduate Emmanuel Boateng, who said it was exciting to have a vice president speak at graduation.

“Because of his position it’s a privilege to have him speak here,” said Boateng, who was born in Ghana and raised in Spain. “I know that on campus the emotions range from very positive to not very positive. No one dreams that way. But despite our differences, the whole entire campus has come to celebrate together.”

I can understand the students who didn’t want politics brought into the speech but that’s not realistic when the speaker is the Vice-President of the United States and already running for re-election with the president. Welcome to the real world, kids. Politics creep into absolutely every aspect of our lives. Frankly, if a college graduate can’t sit all the way through commencement remarks from a politician without leaving the room, that person is ill-prepared for life as an adult. The world doesn’t need more snowflakes so easily triggered. That quota is filled. Next Saturday Pence will address the graduating class of U.S. Army cadets at West Point, where I’m certain no one will walk out in protest.

There’s a t-shirt for that, too.

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