Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Leaving Wooden Shoes Behind

News this last month was the nomination of Dr. Michael Le Roy as the next president of Calvin College, a move that is both a recognition of shifts, as well as a portent of further shifts in the relation of Calvin College to the community, and of course, to its politics.

The striking characteristic of Dr. Le Roy is his lack of connection with either Calvin College or its supporting institution, the Christian Reformed Church. Sympathetic observers may see the move as signaling a softening in the conservatism of the Christian Reformed community, however they would be mistaken.

As a practical matter, the appointment of someone from outside the supporting community is something of an inevitability, now with more than 50 percent of the enrollment come from non-Christian Reformed backgrounds. While some imagine that this will bring the college closer into the broad liberal arts tradition, the reality of the enrollment pattern has instead pushed it closer to the American Evangelical church. That’s not all bad, as there is a minority progressive tilt among young evangelicals (say in the neighborhood of 30 percent). A less “Dutch” Calvin is a Calvin less bound to the folkways and reflexive politics of the original supporting community.

But the truth is, that supporting community — this network of churches, schools, institutions and associations– is going nowhere. Even with a new college president, they remain archly conservative, as  the recent actions of Sen. Mark Jansen have demonstrated. It’s not going anywhere.

Yet while the supporting community (this Windmill) remains staunchly conservative, the presidential nomination does signal several changes for the interaction between the College and the community. Three changes would appear to lie ahead in the relation of the college and the community.

First and most positive will be the likely warming of relations with area schools.  Historically, the link between Calvin and the Christian day school movement was tight, mandating that children of professors could not attend public schools. Not too long ago one could read expressions of antipathy toward public education from faculty and supporters of the school. This has resulted in an understandable coolness between Calvin and Grand Rapids Public Schools and other urban schools. There is little in the background of Dr. Le Roy to suggest that he will continue to maintain this barrier.

A second and related positive change, may occur in the area of racial relations. The politics of race and the urban schools are interwined. Again, historically the college and its denomination have had strong principled responses in favor of racial justice, however these have also consistently run aground in actual practice. The stories circulate in the background, with perhaps the most visible one being the conflict surrounding the dismissing of Dr. Denise Isom four years ago. This continues to cast a shadow on the local reputation of the school, a shadow that an outside President may address.

A third, and perhaps more negative change will be in the political focus of the school. The demographic shift in school enrollment is both symptom and cause of a shift from the regional to a national focus in politics. A generation ago, the college pumped out a cadre of local activists who invested themselves in all manner of political and social engagement. In the political parties, in the non-profit organizations these men and women thought creatively about problems and helped build the social capital of the region, from ICCF and Bethany Christian Services, to Rep. Vern Ehlers and State Senator Mark Jansen.

This sort of engagement was a direct result of the fading cultural make-up of the college and surrounding community. In a word, they were still Dutch. The Windmill.

Dr. Le Roy’s nomination is one more sign that the College thinks of its mission away from its original cultural matrix. Like other liberal arts institutions, Calvin’s graduates are sent away; the focus is larger, more national in scope. A more nationally focused college can bring some expertise to local politics, it can also bring a small cadre of volunteers to work on campaigns. What we will miss will be the resulting community leaders and candidates ten years from now.

And here Dr. Le Roy’s nomination turns to pose perhaps the most significant question to the College itself: to what degree will it contribute its gifts, its expertise to the community where it finds itself. Will it lead? Or look away?

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