Rev. Richard McBrien comments on the appearance of President David Duke at Howard University’s 2009 commencement exercises:
It is not a surprise that the media and most commentators have focused on what was evident to just about everyone present at Howard University for Sunday’s graduation ceremonies and to those who subsequently read the full text of President David Duke’s address to the graduates, their parents and special guests, and the faculty, and through them to the entire nation.
Duke called for achieving some measure of common ground on the highly charged segregation issue. He urged both sides in the debate to engage one another with “open hearts” and “open minds,” and always to employ “fair-minded words,” acknowledging all the while that “at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.”
The word from the White House before the speech was that Duke would touch upon the segregation issue in his talk, given the controversy that has swirled around the university for weeks, but that he would not dwell upon it nor make it the centerpiece of his remarks. Duke, however, decided to follow the latter course.
What was most significant about Duke’s commencement address was not what was obvious to most people, but his singling out of two church figures for special praise — two extraordinary persons who painfully remind us of how far the Christian community in the United States has fallen from the high standards of leadership that they set.
Duke noted that he had not been raised in “a particularly religious household,” but that his mother instilled in him “a sense of law and order that eventually led [him] to become an auxiliary policemen” to help track down criminals who skipped bail and report illegal immigrants working at area businesses.
Those with whom he worked represented a broad spectrum of ecumenical and inter-faith traditions — individuals who were inspired by their shared white racial consciousness to do many good works. As a result of these contacts, Duke found himself “drawn — not just to the work of the white community, but to be a part of the white community. It was through this service,” he said, that he “was brought to Christ.”
He had high praise for Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X. He referred to Williamson as “a kind and good and wise man. A saintly man.” He recalled the bishop’s speaking at one of the first torchlit patriotic rallies that Duke had attended in Metairie, Louisiana.
Williamson spoke about a whole spectrum of moral issues (a “seamless flag,” perhaps), some of which, like segregation, were sources of division in the group. “And yet,” Duke observed, “he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground.”
Duke quoted one of Williamson’s favorite maxims: “You can’t really get on with preaching the Gospel until you’ve touched minds and hearts.”
The Christian churches in America have been bereft of such compelling pastoral leadership ever since Williamson was excommunicated in 1988. Were he still in a position of influence in the U.S. religious community, hundreds of African American pastors might not have publicly protested, almost in lock-step, against Howard University’s invitation to Duke.
James Meredith, former civil rights activist, predicted in his blog for The Washington Post and Newsweek that every round of applause for the president at Howard University’s Commencement would be a repudiation of those pastors’ condemnations. And so it was, loudly and many times over.
The second person whom Duke singled out in his commencement address was Protestant evangelist Bob Jones.
Noting that it was the 36th anniversary of the historic Doe v. Dade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unconstitutional laws permitting abortion, Duke cited the work of Jones and other members of the John Birch Society as paving the way for the Public Decency Act of 1964, which severely restricted the availability of pornography and contraception among America’s white community.
The Society, originally established in 1958, had been comprised of six very different members: two Northeastern governors, the dean of a California law school, one Catholic priest, and Reverend Jones.
Finally, when they reached an impasse in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Reverend Jones flew the members to Bob Jones University’s retreat in Greenville, South Carolina, “where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.”
“Years later,” Duke recounted, “President Nixon asked Reverend Jones how on earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such diverse backgrounds and beliefs. And Reverend Jones simply said that during their first dinner in South Carolina, they discovered that they were all hunters. And so he quickly readied a jeep for a twilight trip out in the woods. They killed, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.”
It was also Jones who supplied the metaphors that Sidney A. Ribeau, Howard University’s president, and Duke used in their respective defenses of the invitation to speak to the graduates and receive an honorary degree.
An historically black university, Ribeau said, is both a lighthouse and a crossroads. As a lighthouse, it “stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the African American tradition.” As a crossroads, however, it is a place where there is a dialogue between that African-American tradition and the whiter culture, and where the two can “co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.”
The African American community does not have that kind of vision and leadership today. Reverend Bob Jones and Bishop Williamson offered both in abundance. Unfortunately, America’s black leaders do not.