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“Let Your Speech Be Always with Grace” Commencement Address

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Westminster College
1840 South 1300 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84105
United States

May 29, 2010

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

From its inception 135 years ago as the frontier moved from the fertile plains of the Midwest to the rugged peaks and beckoning valleys of Utah, Westminster has stood out as an innovative, student-centric academic institution.

What is impressive about this extraordinary liberal arts college is its value-based, nondenominational approach to education.

The most meaningful discovery in a liberal arts education is that everything is related to everything else, although we may not know it at the time. Maturation is the tying together of threads of learning. The challenge is to discover and then correlate discoveries, the most important of which relate to perspective: values rather than facts.

Values can be taught but never fully understood as abstract concoctions. Their meaning takes on a deeper character with the study of peoples, leaders, and events and, closer up, by watching how parents, siblings, teachers, friends and occasional foes make decisions that affect other people’s lives. It is this combination of theoretical learning and life observations that prepares us for making value-based judgments for ourselves, our immediate community, and our relationship with the world.

The challenge we all face in our individual and national odysseys is to express the demands of faith, which are ultimately absolutist, in terms of our social interrelationships, which inevitably have relativist dimensions.

Such an effort requires tolerance and humility: tolerance, from an appreciation of the pluralistic nature of community; humility, from an awareness of personal fallibility.

All of us have witnessed, and polls confirm, that America has entered a period of intensifying polarization. Citizens have lost confidence in many institutions of society, particularly government.

To put perspective on the decline in public trust it is pertinent to reflect on how the poles of human experience were accommodated by the men and women who founded our Republic.

The founders were moral philosophers as well as political activists. They turned a wary eye both to the European and to the American colonial experience. They understood that it was religious persecution in Europe that drew many of the early settlers to our shores, but that upon arriving in the New World some groups like the Puritans, invoked an exclusionary discipline of their own, which included witchcraft trials and stocks and pillories to coerce alleged nonbelievers.

The Puritans were joined by Anglicans in Virginia, Dutch Reformed in New York, Catholics in Maryland, and Swedish Lutherans in Delaware in a desire to establish their own conformity within communities in which they settled.

As the Pilgrims passed laws against “heretics” and gave the right to vote only to those certified “orthodox in the fundamentals of religion,” the King instructed Virginia to preach the Christian faith in a single manner: “according to the doctrine, rights, and religion … professed and established within our realme of England.” Individuals were hung for being Quakers in Massachusetts, while in early Virginia the unorthodox were threatened with fines, whippings, and according to a 1612 law, the possibility of “a bodkin thrust through his tongue.”

Given the religious particularism that characterized much of Europe and had taken hold in various parts of the New World, the founders understood that the colonies couldn’t unite or hold together unless diversity of faith could be respected and protected.

Revolution against British authority was premised on self-evident, Creator-endowed rights and legitimized by a higher law of conscience that preceded the more mundane civil laws of society. But as implicitly spiritual in their natural rights affirmations as our founders were, no state church or singular creed was established in the new republic and freedom of religion was enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

Just as Robert Frost in his signature poem, “Mending Wall,” noted that before he’d build a wall “I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out,” our founders asked fundamental questions about human nature. Assuming human frailty, they concluded that their task was to wall out to the greatest extent possible intolerance and wall in respect for individual conscience.

“Who does not see,” Madison warned, that “the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects?”

What was most important for Jefferson, a Deist who was an insightful student of comparative religion, was not where the great faith systems of the world differed but where basic principles conjoined. Citizens were to derive their values from religion but at the same time, he advised in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, there should be “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

The decision not to establish a state church, however, was never intended to precipitate a moral vacuum in public life. While no sect or faith was established as the only American creed, concern for basic values was intended to be the American way, with these values reflected in governmental actions, private collective efforts, and individual behavior.

Because duty to the Creator, in Madison’s terms, precedes the claims of civil society, the state could not require a public official to conform to a particular religious creed. In turn, public officials were obligated not to impose particularist views on private citizens. Citizens were expected to practice their faith by example rather than coercion; to be moral without moralizing; to be respectful of the convictions as well as rights of others.

Today the country faces daunting challenges, from increasing internal polarization to an unstable international order where religion-manipulated terrorism and beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies “hallmark” the times.

In a change-oriented world where the only constant appears to be human nature, survival as well as freedom and prosperity will depend on whether people across the globe come to respect and give value to all families and all faiths in all places.

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 or one political party. Public decision-making, particularly in a Constitutional democracy, does not lend itself to certitude.

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 character trait, and why civility is such an important part of a civilized society.

Absent a sense of doubt, there is little incentive to learn, and absent the plumbing of new knowledge, neither the individual nor society can grow.

Tolerance is the issue of our times, if not all ages. There are, of course, certain things such as hate and intolerance, untruth and hypocrisy, violence and aggression that are intolerable. Nevertheless, the case for bending over backwards to understand how others think and why they act as they do is a never-ending social imperative.

Unfortunately—perhaps because of weaknesses in the economy; perhaps because of social and religious ruptures; perhaps because of discombobulating aspects of globalism; perhaps because of the loss of social capital and the ironic loneliness that seems to accompany the all-enveloping nature of modern communication technology and the single-perspective nature of popular communication techniques; perhaps because so many have lost confidence in money-conflicted politics and their individual capacity to influence its direction—citizens are becoming less open-minded and more disrespectful of their leaders, other faith systems, and each other.

Rancorous, socially divisive assertions are being made across the land. Public officials are being labeled “fascist” or “communist,” sometimes at the same time. And more bizarrely, a hint of history-blind radicalism—the notion of “secession”—is creeping into the public dialogue.

One might ask what problem is there with a bit of hyperbole. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s observation about the media, the logic is the message.

Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas. Other frameworks describe enemies.

Accordingly, the case for taking stock and listening respectfully to those with whom we differ is compelling.

From a Christian perspective, little could be more relevant in a world rent with religious conflict than Paul’s humbling warning to the faithful that we all see through a glass darkly. Seventeen centuries later, John Wesley gave analogous advice. “Be not so positive,” he cautioned. “Think and let think.”

Scripture tells us: “Let us reason together, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 1:18) “Be quick to listen, slow to speak.” (James 1:19) And when speaking, Paul advises: “Let your speech be always with grace,” (Colossians 4:6) and “Let your gentleness be known to e veryone.” (Philippians 4:5)

Wisely, we are encouraged to speak with temperance, with understanding, even gentleness.

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

In like spirit, the Buddha advises contemplative self-restraint and John Wesley asks: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”

Faith-based values coupled with respectful civility are the key to protecting and embellishing the “city on a hill” that the Puritans referenced so reverently and the founders and succeeding generations worked so assiduously to enlighten with tolerance.

It is not crucial that you, the Class of 2010, have values precisely like those of your parents and grandparents. Times change. Choices widen. 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 speech be always with grace.”

America is in need of an uplift, an emphasis not only on the civil but the cheerful, a renewal of spirit as well as spirituality.

So respect your heritage and go forth in faith, with spirited assurance that you can make a difference, never losing sight of the goal we share with all humanity—the creation of many cities on many hills inspired by many points of light.

Thank you.