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Not All Follow Bush Gospel at Christian School

His address to Michigan graduates draws cheers, but some highlight the diversity of views.

May 22, 2005|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In the run-up to President Bush's appearance Saturday at Calvin College's commencement ceremonies, hundreds of faculty, students and alumni bought local newspaper ads objecting to his visit to the small Christian liberal arts college.

But when Bush took the podium, he was greeted with the cheers and loud applause that White House officials must have expected when they picked Calvin for one of the president's two commencement addresses this year.

Bush's speech never touched on the hot-button issues of his presidency. Instead, he used his 15-minute address -- half an hour shorter than the time allotted on the White House schedule -- to deliver a call to service that Bush took pains to note carried no partisan bent.

"As Americans, we share an agenda that calls us to action -- a great responsibility to serve and love others, a responsibility that goes back to the greatest commandment," the president told more than 800 graduates, their families and friends crammed into the college gymnasium.

In his only acknowledgment of the controversy that preceded his brief trip, Bush added: "This isn't a Democratic idea. This isn't a Republican idea. This is an American idea."

No one sought to disrupt the speech, and even Bush's critics said they wanted to remain civil in their opposition.

A small number of the graduating students wore protest buttons saying, "God is not a Democrat or a Republican." Even fewer were spotted with color-coded armbands protesting various Bush policies.

The White House's selection of 129-year-old Calvin College, attended by many evangelicals, seemed designed to appeal to the religious conservatives that are a key part of the Republican base. The college, however, is more centrist than such schools as the very conservative Bob Jones University in South Carolina, where Bush's appearance during the 2000 campaign sparked controversy.

Bush was not Calvin College's original choice to address the graduating seniors. But after chief political advisor Karl Rove pulled aside the local congressman, Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), during a recent Washington reception to indicate the White House's interest, Calvin officials were happy to change their plans.

Michigan was a battleground state in last year's election, and strategists in both parties believe it will remain competitive in future elections, including races for Senate and governor in 2006.

School leaders said they were surprised that the commencement drew criticism from what they called a minority of students and faculty members at the college, which they described as largely conservative.

But some said they were pleased to have an opportunity to show that, despite the high profile of evangelicals' in GOP politics, there are nuances to Christians' views when it comes to war, tolerance and the environment.

"We want to make sure the world knows that this is an academic institution, and there are lots of views," said Larry Louters, a chemistry professor who said he did not sign either of the two open letters to Bush that were published in the local newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press. The second letter, signed by about a third of the college's 300 faculty members, was published Saturday.

"We believe your administration has launched an unjust and unjustified war in Iraq," the letter said. "As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers and to initiate war only as a last resort."

The letter cited "conflicts between our understanding of what Christians are called to do and many of the policies of your administration." In the earlier ad, signed by alumni, students and faculty, the protesters said they were disturbed by the choice of Bush as commencement speaker.

The protests illustrated that "the Christian faith can speak to both parties, and the Republican Party doesn't necessarily have everything to say about the Christian faith and how it impacts policy," Louters said.

Sarah Page, a graduating senior from Chicago who pinned one of the red, white and blue protest buttons to her black robe, said she supported Bush's decision to come to the college, "but I don't want people to think that being Christian means you have to be Republican."

Although Bush steered clear of the issues that have made him a polarizing figure, he used Saturday's appearance to talk up a centerpiece of his domestic agenda: boosting government funding for religious charities.

"Our faith-based and community groups provide the armies of compassion that help people who wonder if the American dream is meant for them," he said. "These armies of compassion are the great engines of social change, they serve individual and local needs, and they have been found at the front of every great movement in American history."

He told the students that they should commit themselves to service in their local communities because government has its limits -- sounding a key theme of the "compassionate conservatism" that Bush has long identified himself with.

As for the protesters, Bush told Ehlers before the speech that he was unfazed.

"It doesn't bother me," the president said, according Ehlers, who joined Bush on Air Force One for a ride back to his district. "It happens all the time."

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