It's that time of the year when graduates' thoughts turn to jobs, relationships, grad school, relationships, jobs, student loan payments, relationships, the "real world," and jobs. It's also that time when commencement speakers try not to make fools of themselves.

Enter Newt Gingrich at Liberty University yesterday (text of his prepared remarks here — thanks, TSF!):

In a speech heavy with religious allusions but devoid of hints about his presidential ambitions, Gingrich drew applause from the graduates and their families in the school's 12,000-seat football stadium when he demanded: "This anti-religious bias must end."

"In hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive," Gingrich said, deriding what he called the "contorted logic" and "false principles" of advocates of secularism in American society.

"Basic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard," he said during his 26-minute speech. "It is wrong to single out those who believe in God for discrimination. Yet, today, it is impossible to miss the discrimination against religious believers."

Discrimination? I must have missed all those stories of people getting refused service in restaraunts because they are Christian, or all the stories of religious folks getting shuffled around by realtors, because "your people" don't buy houses in this neighborhood.
Have I had my religious beliefs challenged? Absolutely — including around here — and I'm the better for it, thank you very much. But discrimination against Christians? Not so much — not even in the SF Bay Area.

On the other hand, there are other commencement speakers with a religious bent, like the late Fred Rogers. He was better known as "Mr. Rogers," and was an ordained Presbyterian minister who taught preschoolers (and their parents) the basic values of acceptance, unconditional love, and delight in the world via Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. In 2002, he was the Dartmouth commencement speaker:

Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not. Have you heard my favorite story that came from the Seattle Special Olympics? Well, for the 100-yard dash there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying; they slowed down, turned around and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, "This'll make it better." And the little boy got up and he the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long, time. People who were there are still telling the story with great delight. And you know why. Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then. . . .

I'm very much interested in choices and what it is and who it is that enable us human beings to make the choices we make all through our lives. What choices lead to ethnic cleansing? What choices lead to healing? What choices lead to the destruction of the environment? The erosion of the Sabbath? Suicide bombings or teenagers shooting teachers? What choices encourage heroism in the midst of chaos?

I have a lot of framed things in my office which people have given to me through the years and on my walls are Greek, and Hebrew, and Russian, and Chinese, and beside my chair is a French sentence from Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. It reads, "L'essential…l'invisibles pour les yeux." What is essential is invisible to the eye.

Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person that you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person and often many who have believed in him or her. We just don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.

I can just hear the sputtering from the right: "What? Slowing down when you're ahead? Changing course? Helping others win, too? It takes a village? Didn't anyone ever tell Mr. Rogers about pulling on your own bootstraps?"

Another great commencement address was delivered in 1996 at the Southampton Graduate Campus of Long Island University by Kermit the Frog (Real Audio here):

You have dedicated yourselves to preserving the beauty that is all around us. While some might look out at this great ocean and just see a magnificent view, you and I know that this ocean — and every ecosystem — is home to an indefinable number of my fellow animals.

As you go out into the world, never lose sight of the fact that you are not just saving the environment, you are saving the homes and lives of so many of my relatives.

On behalf of frogs, fish, pigs, bears and all of the other species who are lower than you on the food chain, thank you for dedicating your lives to saving our world and our home. In the words of my cousin, Newt — no, not that Newt, this is another Newt — "We appreciate what you are doing more than you can even imagine."

To the wisdom of the Rev. Mr. Rogers and the compassion of Kermit the Frog, let me give a nod to the theological acumen of Stephen Colbert, speaking last year at Knox College:

I wanted to say something about the Umberto Eco quote that was used earlier from The Name of the Rose. That book fascinated me because in it these people are killed for trying to get out of this library a book about comedy, Aristotle’s Commentary on Comedy. And what’s interesting to me is one of the arguments they have in the book is that comedy is bad because nowhere in the New Testament does it say that Jesus laughed. It says Jesus wept, but never did he laugh.

But, I don’t think you actually have to say it for us to imagine Jesus laughing. In the famous episode where there’s a storm on the lake, and the fishermen are out there. And they see Jesus on the shore, and Jesus walks across the stormy waters to the boat. And St. Peter thinks, “I can do this. I can do this. He keeps telling us to have faith and we can do anything. I can do this.” So he steps out of the boat and he walks for—I don’t know, it doesn’t say—a few feet, without sinking into the waves. But then he looks down, and he sees how stormy the seas are. He loses his faith and he begins to sink. And Jesus hot-foots it over and pulls him from the waves and says, “Oh you of little faith.” I can’t imagine Jesus wasn’t suppressing a laugh. How hilarious must it have been to watch Peter—like Wile E. Coyote—take three steps on the water and then sink into the waves.

Mr. Rogers, Kermit, and Stephen Colbert provide a stark contrast to Newt. Newt's all about the fear, but religiously speaking, I'll take Mr. Rogers' love, Kermit's pleas to care for creation, and Stephen Colbert's divinely inspired humor any day.

Happy graduation season, all you graduates out there. Even — or especially! — those who graduated from Liberty U.

(h/t to Southampton Graduate College of Long Island University for the photo of Kermit the Frog, D.A.L.) 



I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.