Windmillin'

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

Window Dressing

The pictures were not good. A bunch of dark suited clerics — men — talking about contraception and religious freedom. This was the picture from last week’s now infamous hearing by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform led by Rep. Darrell Issa.   It wasn’t that committee member Rep. Justin Amash didn’t try to help. He had brought along Dr. Laura Champion, Medical Director of Health Services at Calvin College, but she spoke in a second panel, roundly ignored by the media.

Of course, it was not mystery why a Republican hearing would welcome testimony from Dr. Champion; she provided relief from the cultural war frame that was developing around the issue. After all with the Republicans being vilified for their male perspective, the prospect of woman testifying, if even at the last minute, could mitigate the perception. She was a doctor who could frame contraception away from church dictates, whose work in student health services provided a convenient change of focus from the employment rights frame, plus she was from one of the leading evangelical colleges in the country, a brand name. What’s not to like?

In her testimony the Committee got what it needed. Dr. Champion first addressed contraception issues distinguishing between ready support of birth control pills and the rejection of the abortifacient nature of post-coital contraception (Plan B and ella) — a distinction that neither pro-life advocates or medical science support. And then she moved on to an assertion of religious liberty and of opposition to the Administration largely mirroring  conventional conservative points.

If Committee got what the window dressing  it wanted, it is less clear what was in it for the Calvin.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: National, , , , , , , , ,

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Community, , , , , , , , ,

Fleeing Michigan

The impact of the collapse of Michigan’s auto-driven economy keeps rolling in.  As Ron French reports in The Detroit News, our state suffered a net loss of 109,000 last year, and many (most) of them were the college-educated we need.  Half of all  graduates from Michigan’s public universities leave the state within a year after graduation.

Obviously, sending away your college educated is sending away your future. But it also changes the chemistry of our public life.  Fewer college graduates means fewer champions for arts or for schools.  The skepticism to education first borne from the auto era when low skilled paid big wages — this skepticism dogs our efforts to find the will to raise money for education.  And of course, as attitudes resistant to the arts, resistant to education take hold, these same values only push more graduates to leave.

This changed chemistry can already be seen in the Governor’s proposal to cut funding for the arts in our State.  This is rather like the absentee homeowner who decides not to rake the leaves or cut the grass.  The action is itself a small testimony of despair, a dullness to the future.

But if the state does not have the resources for culture, who does?

Here, we come back to the Windmill.  The struggle for Michigan’s future will fall on the shoulders of the civic stakeholders — the key foundations, the chambers, the civic leadership — and on the colleges.  These latter are the custodians of our cultural life and increasingly the building blocks for regional prosperity.  The reality is that Dutch and the Christian Reformed in particular have had an ambiguous attitude to this civic leadership role.  The path previously had been to adopt the practice of verzuiling or pillarization — the formation of separate, parallel institutions to those of the general society, most notably in their schools, but to a lesser extent in labor, business, and often in politics (aka the “windmill”).

Some steps forward have already been taken, specifically in the development of the Avenue of the Arts — largely the vision of Dwelling Place Inc., the move downtown of Calvin’s Art Department, and the college’s acquisition of the Ladies Literary Club.  In this same regard, the expanding footprint of Grand Valley downtown also contributes to a growing arts community.  Yet more can, indeed ought to be done.  To date, the Festival of Writing and the Festival of Music have largely taken place to national acclaim within the college; leveraging these events regionally offers other opportunities.  These are some of the steps that can make the region “sticky” for the young professionals it needs to thrive.

As Phil Powers recently wrote,

But at the end of the day, Michigan’s attractiveness to young people will define the number of college grads who stay. This has as much to do with the quality – and affordability – of life here in Michigan. So our woods and waters, our arts and culture, our cities and our universities are all vital in the competition for brains.

Filed under: Community, Economy, , , ,

A Path Ahead

One of the under-appreciated impacts of globalization is the emotional cost that hammers our communities. As Richard Longworth’s Caught in the Middle explains, our region has been ripped apart by the forces of globalization. The tight weave of industry and agriculture is now left rather tattered. With the loss of jobs comes the looming loss of opportunity and hope. So individuals, businesses, communities perhaps even religious communities can find themselves lapsing into a kind of depression. Maybe even despair.

Naturally in this swirl it is easy to practice the politics of denial (the Right’s “tax cut ’til we drop” is a case in point, but the left has their’s). Another outcome is the populism of the Christian right. And a third is the persistent tendency on all sides to a kind of magical thinking, the notion that if just have the right proposal, the right program then things will turn around (cf. Fair Tax, and our old friend Reform Michigan Government Now!). But the most damaging is that failure of vision, in Michelle Obama’s wonderful words last night,

All too often we settle for the world that is.

In globalization our dreams get circumscribed by our fears. At this corner the spiritual and the political jostle one another.

But for the moment we’ll stay with the political. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Michigan, , ,

What’s with Calvin?

NOTE: for those outside the Dutch community of W. Michigan — this post picks up a more inside game. Thanks for understanding.

Any discussion of life in West Michigan inevitably turns to the impact of the Dutch and that little college of theirs out on the Beltline. Calvin has been a home to progressive and liberal types (see the protest surrounding the appearance of Bush at commencement), and a generator of generations of engaged men and women, some in politics, some in the not-for-profit sectors.

And frankly, most of us in town have a somewhat ambivalent reaction to this engagement. A gathering of community activists can seem like a Calvin alumni association — as the recent informational/fundraising gathering of the local Matthew 25 group at David LaGrand’s made clear. On the Right, more than a few Republican campaigns have been like a gathering of Calvin alums as well (Ehlers being only the most prominent).

This role of cultural leadership, and its general presumption of competence is well known. But can this record, this presumption of civic neutrality remain, if the leadership takes an active, partisan role? Is Calvin at risk of moving farther Right?

The question came to sharp focus reading recent financial statements for the Amash campaign (candidate for SH-72). Among the $500 donors was Calvin’s president, Galen Byker. But it was only $500, right? A check of Fundraiser, reveals that the Bykers have contributed over $18,000 to national Republican campaigns — more than 10 percent of all gifts from that zip code. (UPDATE: a more thorough search from Campaign Money, reveals that the Bykers have given over $59,000 according to FEC filings.)  It’s hard to see the donation as social, or an attempt to get close to other big money donors like the DeVos family. (In some defense, Byker comes by his Republican creds honestly; his father, Gary Byker, served as a state senator from Hudsonville for 10 years, 1968-1978).

So we return to the question: Is this public visibility as a Republican supporter a good thing for the College? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Community, , , ,

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