Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush gave the commencement address today at Liberty University, the Virginia institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell.
The all-but 2016 presidential candidate gave a spirited defense of Christianity.
How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force. Outside these seven thousand acres of shared conviction, it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated. We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.
The text of his speech is below:
“Thank you very much, President Falwell. Trustees, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, parents and friends: I appreciate your kind hospitality. And to all the graduates: Thank you for letting me share in this wonderful day, as you become proud alumni of Liberty University.
“It’s so good to be here, and especially to visit with the Falwell family. My Dad thought very highly of your father, President Falwell, and knew him as a loyal friend. Jerry Falwell had a gift for friendship, spoke to everyone, and turned his back on no one. His legacy endures, and it only begins with this great American university.
“My Dad received an honorary degree here 25 years ago, and so many of you have asked this morning how he’s doing, just a month shy of his 91st birthday. I’m happy to say he’s in pretty good shape. And it’ll stay that way, if we can just keep his mind off that parachute.
“Today was also my first chance to meet Pastor Jonathan Falwell. Jonathan has a unique place at Liberty, among other reasons because, here at this university, his father used to be president, and then his brother became president. Somehow – I don’t know what it was – we really hit it off. I’m not sure what’s in store for you next, Jonathan, but I’m pulling for you.
“The proudest people here won’t be collecting degrees. And maybe the parents of this class are thinking of another time, when your milestones in life were, well, a little less ceremonious than today. Things like standing up that first time, or starting to read books, instead of just chewing on them, or performing little miracles, like blowing your own nose or sitting still in church.
“It doesn’t always feel that way to parents, but they must have done a lot of things right. Today, by the thousands, Liberty is sending forth across America civilized, confident, true-hearted men and women – which happens to be just what America needs.
“When the rest of the world hardly knew of you, you were all the world to your Mom and Dad. And by the way you still are – so how about we all show our gratitude to the parents of the Class of 2015.
“I might add that if you have earned a Liberty degree while on active duty in the United States military, that is a special distinction. You’re a credit to this university and to your country, and we thank you.
“Whether you’re in this stadium or an online student receiving a degree, as of today, Liberty University is in your past. But this school, and the values that it stands for, will always be part of who you are.
“And if there is any useful role I can perform here, maybe it’s just to offer one last word of encouragement in the vocation you have freely taken up. It’s the same one, of course, whatever degree you have earned, whatever work you will do, however life unfolds. It is the greatest of all callings – to know, love, and serve the Lord – and it’s yours by choice.
“You know how to choose a path and stay on it. That’s useful knowledge when life can present more choices than we sometimes know what to do with. Especially if you’re young and trying to live out the message of the Gospels, the world will never run short of competing offers. You’ve heard them all, you’re not impressed, and that wisdom alone will carry you a long way.
“The faith that you brought here, the faith that matured here, doesn’t give every answer to every question. Nor, of course, does it promise anyone a life spared from doubt or difficulty. But in the way of life’s advantages, each one of you already has the best there is – an awakened conscience. When you’ve got that going for you, there’s no end to the good you can do, or the wrongs you can help overcome, or the hope you can bring into the lives of others. This doesn’t always come as a welcome reminder in some quarters, but it is true all the same: Whatever the need, the affliction, or the injustice, there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action.
“How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force. Outside these seven thousand acres of shared conviction, it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated. We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.
“These are the days,” as Chesterton remarked, ‘in which Christians are expected to praise every faith but their own.’ He never accepted that limitation, and neither should we, least of all in reply to criticism. One of the great things about this faith of ours is its daring, untamed quality, which is underrated.
“As moral wisdom goes, for example, loving our neighbors seems kind of an easy call – especially if we already like them. But how about loving our enemies, too, as a bold challenge to leave our comfort zone and lift our sights to larger purposes?
“As for the suggestion that Christianity is a static faith, that sure isn’t how it reads in the original. Offhand, I cannot think of any more subversive moral idea ever loosed on the world than “the last shall be first, and the first last.
“Likewise, is it really just some time-worn, pre-modern idea that God’s favor is upon the gentle, the kind, and the poor in spirit? An awful lot of people in our time, including a few who command armies, still haven’t gotten the news. Violence, fear, and domination are their rules to live by, as many persecuted Christians in our time can attest. And no matter what faith is professed by cruel men, if we could imprint just a few lines of truth on their hearts, surely we would start with the words of the carpenter born in Bethlehem: ‘Blessed are the meek … Blessed are the merciful … Blessed are the peacemakers.’
“It’s a voice like no other, whether it is captured on scrolls and paper, or in bits of data; seen in the example of Francis the saint, or of Francis the pope; affirmed by the witness of ancient martyrs, or by the witness of martyrs dying in His name today.
“No place where the message reaches, no heart that it touches, is ever the same again. And across our own civilization, what a radically different story history would tell without it. Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it’s all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence.
“‘No law in the world,’ said Martin Luther King, “could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism.” The Christian faith, as Dr. King proclaimed, ‘adjourns the assemblies of the hopeless, and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.’
“So it is not only untrue, but also a little ungrateful, to dismiss the Christian faith as some obstacle to enlightened thought, some ancient, irrelevant creed wearing out its welcome in the modern world. Whether or not we acknowledge the source, Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament still provide the moral vocabulary we all use in America – and may it always be so.
“Try to separate the ideals from the source, as C.S. Lewis observed, and it’s like ‘a rebellion of the branches against the tree.’ Justice, equality, the worth of every life, the dignity of every person, and rights that no authority can take away – these are founding moral ideals in America, and they didn’t come out of nowhere.
“Every day in the life of this nation, uncounted people are comforting the lonely, aiding the ill and discouraged, serving the weak and innocent, giving hope to the prisoner, and in every way they know, loving mercy and living with integrity. And all of that doesn’t happen by chance either, or because anyone has ordered it, or because there’s a federal program for it. The endless work of Christian charity in America is what free people do when they have good news to share. It’s how free people live when they have a living faith.
“There are no blinders on the Christian conscience, try as the world might to make us look away from needs and wrongs, or make us too comfortable to care. Your generation is bringing the Christian voice to where it is always needed, and sometimes isn’t heard enough.
“This nation’s efforts to fight poverty have sometimes taken on an air of futility, because so much has been tried and the need is still so vast. Left untried, too often, is the direct and personal attention that Christian ministry can bring. In works hardly even noticed by the popular culture, so many young Christians today are showing the way – moved not by pity for what is, but by a vision of what can be. For all who would serve the poor and homeless, you set the standard with your belief that everyone matters, and everyone has the right to rise.
“America’s environmental debates, likewise, can be too coldly economical, too sterile of life, and you remind us what’s really at stake. Christians see in nature and all its creatures designs grander than any of man’s own devising – the endless, glorious work of the Lord of Life. Men and women of your generation are striving to be protectors of creation, instead of just users, good shepherds instead of just hirelings – and that moral vision can make all the difference.
“You also understand that some moral standards are universal. They do not bend under the weight of cultural differences or elite opinion. Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love. Wherever women and girls in other countries are brutally exploited, or treated as possessions without rights and dignity, we Christians see that arrogance for what it is. Wherever Jews are subjected to the oldest bigotry, we reject that sin against our brothers and sisters, and we defend them.
“In all these causes, and others, your generation is fully engaged, acting by the light of conscience. If any spirit is to be gladly welcomed in a free society, you’d think that would be the one. At least, the Founding generation thought so when they wrote the First Amendment. But, of course, others have their own ideas. Fashionable opinion – which these days can be a religion all by itself – has got a problem with Christians and their right of conscience. That makes it our problem, and the proper response is a forthright defense of the first freedom in our Constitution.
“It can be a touchy subject, and I am asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith. Whenever I hear this, I know what they want me to say. The simple and safe reply is, ‘No. Never. Of course not.’ If the game is political correctness, that’s the answer that moves you to the next round. The endpoint is a certain kind of politician we’ve all heard before – the guy whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he refuses even to impose them on himself.
“The mistake is to confuse points of theology with moral principles that are knowable to reason as well as by faith. And this confusion is all part of a false narrative that casts religious Americans as intolerant scolds, running around trying to impose their views on everyone. The stories vary, year after year, but the storyline is getting familiar: The progressive political agenda is ready for its next great leap forward, and religious people or churches are getting in the way. Our friends on the Left like to view themselves as the agents of change and reform, and you and I are supposed to just get with the program.
“There are consequences when you don’t genuflect to the latest secular dogmas. And those dogmas can be hard to keep up with. So we find officials in a major city demanding that pastors turn over copies of their sermons. Or federal judges mistaking themselves for elected legislators, and imposing restrictions and rights that do not exist in the Constitution. Or an agency dictating to a Catholic charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, what has to go in their health plan – and never mind objections of conscience.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m betting that when it comes to doing the right and good thing, the Little Sisters of the Poor know better than the regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services. From the standpoint of religious freedom, you might even say it’s a choice between the Little Sisters and Big Brother – and I’m going with the Sisters.
“That case continues, and as usual the present administration is supporting the use of coercive federal power. What should be easy calls, in favor of religious freedom, have instead become an aggressive stance against it. Somebody here is being small-minded and intolerant, and it sure isn’t the nuns, ministers, and laymen and women who ask only to live and practice their faith. Federal authorities are demanding obedience, in complete disregard of religious conscience – and in a free society, the answer is No.
“It strikes me that most of the criticism directed at believers in our day is drawn from hostile caricature. That’s just the easy way of avoiding honest discussion. It is a posture that only deepens distrust, instead of inviting understanding. So often we hear language that divides us, when what we need is the language of good will.
“There is so much that we share in common, across all the lines of region, religion, and demography that are constantly being talked about. In my experience, at least, you generally find the same good instincts, fair-mindedness, and easygoing spirit among Americans of every type – including, of course, the many who belong to no church at all. That’s a lot to work with, if the aim is to accept differences instead of exploiting them, and get on with life in this free country.
“As for you graduates, getting on with life is the theme of this day. And if your future prospects have anything to do with the sheer number of people wishing you well here this morning, then you couldn’t ask for a better send-off.
“May all the work you have finished here mark just one milestone in a long, purposeful, and happy journey. At each new turn, may you find God’s loving-kindness before your eyes, and may you always be His instrument. And from this place, to wherever you are bound, in the words of Isaiah, may you ‘go out with joy and be led forth with peace.’
“God bless the Class of 2015. Thank you."