- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Many conservative Christian colleges have announced their 2024 commencement speakers, and they don’t include any Republican politicians or former Trump administration officials as November’s elections loom.

In the past, right-leaning Christian campuses have invited Republican leaders such as former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Mike Pence to address graduating seniors, bucking a trend of secular schools snubbing them. They also have featured conservative strategists and thinkers linked to those politicians.

This year, a survey of conservative Christian schools by The Washington Times reveals they have invited nonpolitical celebrities, pastors, technology entrepreneurs and campus administrators to speak. That could make this year the first in recent memory in which no top conservative campus will have a Republican politician or analyst address graduates.

Oral Roberts University, which featured Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt last year, will host evangelical megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren on May 4.

“Rick’s inspirational leadership is an expression of his heart to bring the Gospel to the whole world,” said university President William M. Wilson. “His words and wisdom will launch this year’s graduates on their journey as leaders, world-changers and innovators.”

Lawyer Leonard Leo, a co-chairman of the conservative Federalist Society and former judicial adviser to President Trump, spoke last year at Benedictine College in Kansas. This year, the Catholic liberal arts school will host Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker, the top scorer in Super Bowl LVIII, as its speaker on May 11.

Tom Hoopes, vice president of college relations at Benedictine, said the school hasn’t chosen a politician as commencement speaker since 2013.

“We had [then-Rep.] Paul Ryan that year and it was great, but it did cause lots of unrest and mild protest,” Mr. Hoopes told The Times. “So we’ve avoided politicians since then.”

Republican and Democratic analysts say conservative colleges hope to avoid offending donors before a polarizing election rematch between President Biden and Mr. Trump.

“Nobody wants to hear from a politician right now,” said former Secretary of Education William Bennett, a onetime associate dean of liberal arts at Boston University who holds a doctorate in political philosophy. “Look at the polls telling us the country would much prefer that neither Trump nor Biden was a candidate. It’s part of the general dismay that’s going on and the loss of faith in politics and politicians.”

“I think this is about not wanting to rock the boat more than anything else,” said James Carville, a Democratic Party strategist and former adviser to President Clinton. “Trump is not the safe thing, and even if you get Pence, someone is going to ask about Trump. You won’t get into as much trouble talking about the evils of secular progressivism.”

Some sitting Republican governors will deliver commencement addresses at small public campuses. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is scheduled to speak May 11 at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

“We appreciate Gov. Youngkin’s commitment to growing Virginia’s workforce and its connection with higher education,” said VCU President Michael Rao.

In one exception on private Christian campuses, Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares is set to speak at Regent University on May 4.

Although some colleges are welcoming Republican lawmakers this spring, sentiments have run the other way on most private conservative campuses.

Hillsdale College, a Christian school in Michigan that hosted Mr. Pence in 2018, lets students choose their graduation speakers. Last year, they selected Bishop Robert Barron, a Catholic social media influencer. This year, they chose retiring “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak, chairman of Hillsdale’s board of trustees.

“Pat Sajak is much beloved at Hillsdale for his service to the college as chairman of the board,” Hillsdale history professor Wilfred McClay told The Times.

Other commencement speakers at Christian campuses next month will emphasize themes of entertainment, religion and financial success.

• Ave Maria University, a small Catholic school in Florida that hosted former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in 2018, will feature a May 4 commencement address by the Rev. Mike Schmitz, a priest and podcast host.

• The Catholic University of America, which featured Harvard economist and former conservative think tank head Arthur Brooks last year, will host actor Jonathan Roumie, star of the streaming series “The Chosen,” on May 11.

• Southern Methodist University, which hosted Mr. Bush in 2015, will feature social media power couple Megha and Nirav Tolia on May 11.

“Megha and Nirav Tolia flourished in their respective careers by supporting one another and embracing the unknown with optimism,” SMU spokesperson Greg Ramirez told The Times. “The story of their collective success … is notable and worthy for our graduates to hear about on this special occasion.”

Other campuses will feature religious leaders, students or administrators.

• The University of Notre Dame, the Catholic-run school in Indiana that hosted former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan in 2019, will have its president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, deliver the undergraduate commencement address on May 19.

• The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, will speak at Colorado Christian University on May 10.

• Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic liberal arts campus in California, will host Cardinal Raymond Burke, a critic of Pope Francis who has a strong following among conservatives. He previously spoke there in 2010.

• Biola University will feature social media mogul Zach King, a 2012 graduate of the evangelical campus in California.

• Harding University, a Church of Christ campus in Arkansas marking its centennial, will feature its president, Mike Williams, instead of an outside speaker this year.

• Pepperdine University, a Christian campus in California, has chosen Vice President for Student Affairs Connie Burrows Horton as its speaker.

Among other notable campuses, Liberty University, the nation’s largest evangelical college in Virginia that featured interim president Rev. Franklin Graham last year, has not announced this year’s speaker.

Bob Jones University, an evangelical campus in South Carolina that was deeply involved in politics for decades, said it will not award an honorary degree nor host a commencement speaker this year.

Peter Wood, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, said right-leaning colleges have no good choices for political speakers in this election cycle.

“To invite someone connected to Donald Trump is to risk the ire of anti-Trump conservatives,” said Mr. Wood, a former associate provost at Boston University. “To invite conservatives who are critics of Trump is to risk the ire of Trump supporters. So the safest route is to avoid political actors altogether.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Zach King.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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