Now, about the commencement speakers. Joining Dr. Paige Patterson, the President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is Glenn Beck. Upfront, I should say I don't feel Beck is a good choice. What is Liberty thinking?
According to the News and Events release on Liberty's website, both men were chosen for their, "positive impacts on society in all walks of life." And Beck, "one of the few courageous voices in the national media standing up for the principles upon which this nation was founded," was selected, it seems, because of his media popularity. "Beck's radio show, 'The Glenn Beck Program,' is currently the third-highest rated radio program in the U.S.; his new television show, 'Glenn Beck,' is one of the most successful shows on FOX News."
There have been many objections to Beck speaking at Liberty. The first is because he is LDS (Mormon). Of all the objections, this one is by far the least compelling. Yes, there are some serious differences in theology between the LDS and Liberty University, and there is the possibility that an LDS speaker at an Evangelical school could be used by the LDS to further their mainstreaming efforts; however, to this issue, the news release from Liberty stated,
“The baccalaureate ceremony always includes a gospel message brought by someone who is in complete theological alignment with the university,” Falwell said. “Commencement, however, has always featured leaders from all walks of life and all faiths who share the university’s social values and traditional family values. Commencement speakers have included representatives from the following faiths: Roman Catholicism, Judaism, mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church, and even some speakers with no religious affiliation at all.” (Emphasis added.)Asking a person of a different faith system to speak should not be too problematic for an Evangelical student body that should be fairly grounded in their beliefs. Ben Stein (Jewish) delivered a commencement address in 2009. Karl Rove, who has also addressed the student body at graduation is, as best as I can tell, an agnostic Episcopalian.
Another objection is the message Liberty broadcasts by hosting a politically motivated speaker, and a conservative one at that. I understand this objection, but I don't think it should come as a shock that a conservative Republican who is highly engaged in the political realm is asked to speak at Liberty. As I previously mentioned, Karl Rove has delivered a commencement speech, as well as John McCain.
Still another objection is that Beck is not an academic. I don't believe he holds any degree, but I may be mistaken. Karl Rove dropped out of the University of Utah. I'd also like to remind you that a number of other innovators, movers, and shakers who do not hold degrees are often invited to speak at schools all across the country. "But he's just an entertainer" some might say. Again, many entertainers speak an commencement ceremonies all across the country. Chuck Norris and Ben Stein--both selected to offer commencement speeches at Liberty--are entertainers. And some students of the media and broadcast fields might see Glenn Beck as a success story in their field, just as theater, film, creative writing, and music majors might see many other entertainers. In addition, having a popular speaker might serve to draw in a larger audience, creating a boisterous feel at the ceremony. (Although I realize Glenn Beck is the type of person that could very well keep people away, including myself, but this may not be a factor in Lynchburg, VA.)
And yet another objection is Glenn Beck's polarizing personality. There is no question that Beck creates an unhealthy, unhelpful us-vs-them atmosphere. He's emotionally charged and divisive, recently encouraging people to flee churches engaging in any issues of social justice. He's disrespectful to those in political office with which he disagrees. He does what he does and says what he says to drive up ratings on his television and radio shows. It's how he earns his paycheck, no different than Howard Stern. To this, I can offer no defense. I do not see that Glenn Beck has made a positive impact on society in any walk of life. This is the reason I feel Glenn Beck is a poor choice as the politically conservative entertaining draw for the graduation ceremony. Beck's icky reputation is now entangled with the already challenged reputation of Liberty University.
I don't know if Liberty extended invitations to others who turned them down; it's possible that Beck was an alternative choice. It seems that there are so many other options. For example, if the school was looking for a Republican Mormon, I know Mitt Romney is on tour promoting his book right now. He was a businessman, a governor, and did run for president. That's a fairly respectable resume for a commencement speaker if the objection is not his faith. And I'm sure there's a small number of politically conservative actors that might have been willing to speak. A politically popular conservative (but less divisive) person could have been found. And given some of the connections of the seminary, a popular Christian author, such as Dr. Norm Geisler might have been on option, although he is probably not political enough. This is where I have concern. I'm not so sure this is the best list of credentials: politically conservative and popular.
If the responsibility fell to me to invite the commencement speakers, I'd like to believe that I would keep politics and popularity out of the decision as much as is possible. I would look for a positive example of someone who has excelled in his or her chosen field, can deliver an encouraging, thought-provoking speech, and can foster an attitude of honor fitting of a university graduation. Attendance draw and press coverage really are irrelevant. Isn't graduation about the students? If not, shouldn't it be?
Congratulations Liberty University graduates of 2010!
[Follow up, 5/17/2010. Rather than speaking on politics, Beck spoke mostly about faith through a lens of poor theology.]
*Photo of Glenn Beck, taken by Gage Skidmore; used by permission.