I am honored to have been asked by David Dooley to speak next week at his inauguration as President of the University of Rhode Island. President Dooley is familiar with some of my works and has heard me speak on a number of occasions. He felt my open view of the future along with my strong emphasis on human freedom and responsibility would fit well with the vision he has for URI. As I’ve heard him discuss this vision, I think he’s right, which is why I am excited to accept his invitation.
Well, it turns out that not everyone on campus is excited to have me come. In fact, some faculty may boycott the inauguration because of me. The controversy has led to several interesting interviews from local newspapers as well as an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Expressing the concerns of some on campus, several reporters have asked me how I felt about the objection that having an “evangelical” pastor give an inauguration address on a secular campus blurred the lines between church and state. As I shared with these reporters, the charge is a bit ironic in that the controversy I’m usually associated with revolves around my emphatic insistence on the separation of church and state! At the same time, it seems to me that it enhances the message of diversity and open-mindedness for a secular university like URI to invite contributions from people of faith, so long as they can trust that these people won’t abuse their platform by promoting their particular faith. I assured them that the message I will deliver will be predicated on our shared humanity, not my particular theology.
I was also asked to respond to the concern of some that I might use this platform to speak against homosexuality. “Why on earth would I ever do that?” I emphatically responded to one reporter. The fact that this concern could even arise is a sad commentary on the damage done to the evangelical movement by the self-serving public judgmentalism of certain evangelical spokespeople. It’s one of the reasons I no longer identify myself as an “evangelical” until I know what the word means to a particular audience. Much of what is often associated with this label — including the self-righteous judgmentalism of gays — is stuff I’m adamantly against. As I told this reporter, my conviction is that Jesus calls his followers to consider their own shortcomings to be massive tree trunks sticking out of their eyes compared to the tiny dust particle imperfections they think they see in others (Mt 7:1-3).
“So how would you respond to gays and advocates for gays at the University of Rhode Island who are concerned about you coming?” one reporter asked. “I’d tell them that, however grieved they are by evangelicals who campaign against homosexuals, I am probably more so. And I’d confess, along with the apostle Paul, that I am the worst of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:16-16).
I’m looking forward to my time with the fine folks at URI. It should be interesting.