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“First, Let Your Gentleness Be Known” Commencement Address

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

LaGrange College
601 Broad Street
LaGrange, GA 30240
United States

May 15, 2010

President McAlexander, trustees, faculty, and most of all members and families of the Class of 2010:

It is an honor to address the graduates of a college that is committed to the concept of transforming lives through a faith-based liberal arts education. LaGrange, since its founding 179 years ago has emphasized concern for education of the full individual--the mind and the soul.

Amidst all the skills and capacities so essential to a competitive economy, America owes its enduring national character to the primacy of traditional values—honor, dignity, love or, at least, respect for neighbors, near and far. These values have guided LaGrange since its beginnings.

The importance of faith, good works and personal accountability, expounded upon by theologians and spiritual leaders from John Wesley to John Witherspoon, Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton to John Paul II, has enormous resonance for Americans of all religions, generations, and walks of life.

These are trying times, and many have seen their sense of security slip away. But one of the cornerstones of our identity as a nation is a citizenry willing to take charge and responsibility for individual actions. In these times of accelerating change, economic upheaval and job shrinkage, Americans are called upon to adapt to new competitive realities.

In this setting, graduates, each and every one of you, are to be congratulated for academic efforts undertaken, for missions accomplished, for preparing to lead a nation in search of a new generation of leadership.

America faces daunting challenges, from increasing internal polarization to an unstable international order where terrorist threats and beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies “hallmark” the times. But challenges are nothing new.

We have just emerged from the bloodiest century in history, a century in which “isms” of hate —fascism and communism —precipitated unprecedented loss of life and unprecedented financial cost. The hate that enveloped European outposts of advanced culture, lands of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, Kant and Tolstoy, cannot be considered aberrational.

We are still working to understand how Marxist dogma spurred class conflict and the creation of the gulag. At the other end of the totalitarian spectrum, we are still groping to comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust and the moral compass of those who conceived of Auschwitz as well as those so indifferent, afraid, or engulfed in prejudice that they didn’t object to the gas chambers.

For seven years the German theologian Martin Niemoller lived through that dark moment of the human soul in a Nazi concentration camp. On many occasions after the war he would poignantly observe that first the Nazis came after the communists, and because he wasn’t a communist, he didn’t object; then they came after the trade unionists, and because he wasn’t a trade unionist, he didn’t object; then, they came after the Jews, and because he wasn’t a Jew, he didn’t object; then, he would note that they came after “me,” and there was no one left to object.

Propensity to hate appears to be a condition of man magnified in association with the like-minded. In this context, an observation that demands continual reflection originates with Einstein. Splitting the atom, noted the physicist whose insights and political advocacy helped launch the Manhattan Project, “has changed everything save our way of thinking.”

In a fast-paced world where the only constant appears to be human nature, survival as well as freedom and prosperity will depend on whether we come to respect and give value to all families in all places.

This does not mean that we should not maintain pride in the stirring history and special nature of our own society. America has always stood as a beacon of hope and opportunity to the world.

We have every reason to dwell on our history and traditions: the establishment of the first government premised on individual rights, the courageous insistence of initially disenfranchised citizens that our manifest destiny include making the philosophical affirmations of our founders reality for all, and the sacrifices of our armed forces to advance freedom abroad and preserve it at home.

Earlier this week I visited the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and in its expansive exhibition halls followed pictorially the march my father took from a beach called Omaha through Normandy and the hedgerows of Saint-Lô to a battle line called the Bulge to the river Elbe. It is impossible to do anything except shiver in pride for the generation that gave so much to see that freedom’s side prevailed in the most momentous war in history.

The greatness of America was wrought at the beginning. The remarkable wisdom and courage of the men and women who formed our republic cannot be underestimated. Our founders were moral philosophers as well as political activists. To counter kingly despotism and insure democratic accountability, they recognized the frailty of human nature and thus bifurcated and decentralized political power.

Following Montesquieu, they established a checks and balances system in which power was split between Congress, the president, and the courts. This separation of power was then federalized with duplicate checks and balances created at the state, county, and city levels. Power separation with competitive overlaps between and within branches and levels of government established a creative tension designed to protect the public from governmental excesses.

But civic virtue in America was not intended simply to relate to the establishment of institutional constraints on political authority. In the 55th Federalist Paper, Madison noted: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

Hence, the American government was founded on “self-evident” truths, the equality of man and the existence of Creator-endowed unalienable rights. Church and state were separated in the sense that no church or faith would be established as the only American creed. Yet citizens were expected to be guided by basic moral values. Concern for civic virtue was the American way, with this virtue intended to be reflected in governmental actions, private collective efforts, and individual behavior.

There is always a tension in a society such as ours that is based on firmly held ethical and religious values but which protects diversity of thought as a fundamental right. Transforming this tension into positive political energy is the genius of our Constitutional system. Process is our most important product.

This emphasis on process as opposed to outcome has never been more important. This is true in the broader aspects of our culture as well as in government policy.

Seldom is there only one proper path determinable and configurable by only one individual.

To be certain about something, a person generally knows a great deal or very little. The first condition is preferable to the second, but imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition. The best and brightest are not immune from great mistakes. That is why humility is such a valued commodity, and why civility is such an important part of a civilized society.

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the few non-partisan positions in the federal government, I have been visiting campuses and dozens of other venues across this land to discuss the importance of civility. In recent years American society and politics have become increasingly polarized. Unlike prior generations, references to the Statute of Liberty, our melting pot tradition, the motto e pluribus unum seldom enters the political discourse.

Perhaps because of the economy, perhaps because of social and religious ruptures, perhaps because of discombobulating aspects of globalism and the anonymity of new communication technologies, perhaps because citizens have lost confidence in government and their capacity to influence its direction, many Americans are becoming angst-ridden, disrespectful of their leaders and each other.

Accordingly, the case for taking stock and listening to those with whom we disagree would appear compelling. A Biblical proverb suggests: “A wise man will hear, and will increase learning.” (Proverbs 1:5) Scripture also tells us, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak.” (James I: 9) And when speaking Paul said, "Let your speech be always with grace.” (Colossians 4:6)

Wisely, we are encouraged to speak with temperance, in measured fashion, with understanding.

Another teaching, this one from the Koran, reminds us that "...it may be that God will ordain love between you and those whom you hold as enemies." (Chapter 60: 7)

In the Christian tradition, perhaps the greatest advice columns ever written date back to the first surviving writings of the early church, particularly another of the letters of Paul, the one he wrote from prison to the Philippians.

Paul’s message was to embrace the verities of faith, trusting in “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” (Philippians 4:7) and, in addressing others, to “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” (Philippians 4:5) Paul did not say: “Tout your strength, flex your muscles.” He said, “Let your gentleness be known.”

As social change quickens, the need for individuals to slow down and set aside time to reflect on the basics increases. It is not crucial that you, the Class of 2010, have values precisely like those of your parents and grandparents. Times change. But it is important that you develop an appreciation for the transcendent and the disciplining role of conscience.

As your graduation speaker, my charge to you is that of Paul: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Be known for the decency by which you approach your family and careers, the “who” of what you are, not the “what” of the job or position you hold. And remember, you are part of a community of love in which this college is an academic and spiritual anchor.

Go forth in faith, with the trust of this community, and confidence that you can make a difference.

Thank you.