Earlier today I delivered these remarks at Regent University’s Commencement.
Dr. Robertson, President Campo, members of the board of trustees, distinguished faculty and staff, graduating students, and the families and friends who supported you to this happy morning: It is an honor to share this moment with you.
A graduation is a time of celebration. To acknowledge your hard work, to recall fond memories, to honor your accomplishments. But it is also a time to consider what comes next. To ask what you are going to do with your Regent University education.
We live in trying times. Horror stories come out of Philadelphia about the abortionist Kermit Gosnell; terrorists strike across the globe, and here at home; unemployment plagues our nation; the Supreme Court may redefine marriage; religious institutions are being coerced into violating their consciences; our entitlement programs put us on the brink of bankruptcy.
Our world, our country, and yes, our churches and our families, are in crisis. And these communities desperately need what Regent University graduates have to offer.
You graduate into a society of widespread individualism and relativism, where man is the measure of all things. You will hear people speak of human rights, but rarely of human nature, or nature’s Author. You will hear people appeal to natural rights, but rarely to natural law, or the Natural Law-Giver.
You will hear some claim a right to do whatever they want, provided it doesn’t harm others, by which they mean others who can complain about it. (Notice where this leaves the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the unborn.) You will hear others claim a right to fulfill their desires without consequence, without judgment, but with subsidies. (Just think of the Life of Julia.)
Many believe that they have no responsibilities to others except those that they chose. But what if you have unchosen obligations? What if you have obligations to others by the sheer fact that you exist—and that you exist alongside neighbors, in the context of community?
What if, in addition to rights, we thought of the other R-word: Responsibilities? What if we spoke of duties and obligations?
Your time at Regent has served you well, but your education must continue. As rational beings made in the image and likeness of God, you have the responsibility to develop your minds—to embrace the best of both Athens and Jerusalem, philosophy and theology.
When faced with modern skepticism, you have the responsibility to show the world the harmony of faith and reason. As C.S. Lewis taught, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” When faced with modern relativism, you have the obligation to propose with the apostle Paul the more excellent way.
We have it on good authority that each of us has a calling in imitation of the Master who gave his life bearing witness to the truth. You will face this challenge everywhere your lives take you: in government service, in the marketplace, within your families, and in service to the church. For some of you, these responsibilities will be very personal. For others, your calling will be to promote the truth publicly. For all of us, we must be prepared to defend truth as never before.
I work at a think-tank. And what I have seen convinces me that our nation’s policy crises have a common root, a crisis in moral truth. Thinking in terms of responsibility might help.
Start with what is most fundamental: The responsibility to know, love, serve, and obey God. If some modern thinkers can’t understand why religion and religious liberty are so important, part of the blame falls on us. We haven’t explained—or fully lived out—the truth taught by the great 19th century Christian thinker John Henry Newman, that conscience has rights because it has duties.
Our Founding Fathers enshrined religious liberty as our first right because while we should render that which is Caesar’s to Caesar, we must render to God that which is God’s. Caesar will never like this, for it implies that Caesar isn’t God—that there are obligations higher than those to the state; that the state is necessarily limited. When we claim to be one nation under God, we’re saying we’re a nation under God’s judgment. Man is not the measure of all things.
As a graduate of Regent University you know that the obligations we have to our neighbors are not dependent on race, or sex, or social class. Neither are those duties dependent on age, or size, or stage of development. Or whether someone is wanted or unwanted, planned or unplanned, healthy or sick, “perfect” or disabled.
This starts with you and me. We need to love our children. Graduating class, if you have a daughter with Down syndrome, love her. If your son is conceived “by accident,” love him. As my late mentor Fr. Richard John Neuhaus explained, we have the responsibility to see to it that every human being is protected in law and cared for in life.
The best care comes from the family. Some of you may have already started your families. Most of you will start one in the next decade. And as you welcome children into this world you will experience firsthand that the best way to ensure that children are cared for in life by the man and the woman who gave them life is to unite that man and woman as husband and wife in marriage.
We are created male and female. And marriage unites a man and a woman permanently and exclusively as husband and wife to take responsibility for their children as father and mother. That’s what marriage is all about. And our marriage policy should respect these truths. So, too, should our churches and our own lives. Graduating class: Live lives of fidelity and service to your spouse and your children.
Your children will be educated in this society. And as mothers and fathers you have the responsibility to care for and educate your children. Government should empower you to fulfill those duties. It shouldn’t interfere or indoctrinate. Nor should it use healthcare laws or anti-bullying programs to promote a sexual ideology at odds with the values that responsible parents try to instill in their children.
Children, too, bear responsibility, especially as parents grow old. Too many of us think it’s the government’s job to care for our aging parents and grandparents. But when scripture speaks of honoring your mother and father, it doesn’t only mean behaving yourself when you’re a kid. It also means caring for your parents as they age. Whenever possible, inviting them into your homes, rather than sending them to a nursing home. Viewing them as your responsibility, not just Social Security’s. The Psalmist implores, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails.” Regent graduates: care for your parents.
Our responsibilities extend beyond our families. One of the best ways to care for our neighbors is by serving them in our professional callings, performing quality work at a fair price. Creating wealth and value for our neighbors. Who among the Class of 2013 will be the next David Green, the founder of Hobby Lobby? Who will be the next Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-a? Who will improve our lives with new technology or medical devices? Who will create new jobs that pay decent wages? This is your responsibility as future business leaders and entrepreneurs.
We know that the market economy—along with families headed by married couples—has done more to lift people out of poverty and into a flourishing life than any other institution. But it only works if people of good character and upright morals are at the helm. Markets are inert apart from the values that actors bring to them—and you have responsibility for your market action.
Look at leaders like David Green and Truett Cathy. They run their businesses in accordance with their Christian beliefs. There’s a simple reason why: They know that they have duties to serve God—and not just on Sundays, but also on the other six days of the week, when they enter the workforce and marketplace. Remember, you can’t check your faith or morals at the door.
People experience hard times, and your obligations to your neighbors won’t stop in the boardroom or at the storefront. Dependency is a fact of human nature. We all enter life entirely dependent on other people, and most of us will exit life in the same condition. We should support those who depend on us—our family, our friends, our church and community. We are our brother’s keepers.
Long before the nation-state existed, Christians were caring for the sick, the widowed and the orphaned. The early church won many of its converts by its charity. Who among the graduating class of Regent University will start a shelter with job-training programs? Who will open a healthcare clinic in our inner cities? Who will combine material and spiritual aid to the downtrodden? Remember these words: “whatever you do for one of the least of these, you do for me.”
Now, perhaps duties, obligations, responsibilities don’t sound like much fun on a day of celebration when you’re breathing a sigh of relief for all the assignments done and the exams completed these last four years. But remember: Responsibilities, duties, obligations, all boil down to one thing: love.
Love isn’t just an emotion. Love is a choice. We know that God is love. And that He invites us to share in His divine nature. We are told to “Love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”And so we have the high calling to love one another as God loves us.
Authentic love is the antidote to modern obsessions with unfettered freedom and spurious rights. Authentic love is a freedom for excellence; a freedom from selfishness, and pride, and vanity, and greed. A freedom for selflessness, and compassion, and generosity, and love.
I majored in music as an undergraduate, and it offers a helpful illustration. A musician could claim a right to choose whatever he wants when he sits down at the piano, clunking out ugly, dissonant, and jarring “music.” Or he could sit down with love for beauty. He would have to take certain responsibilities seriously: practicing scales and arpeggios and chords; learning harmony and voice-leading; rhythm and articulation; phrasing and dynamics. Then he’d have the freedom to sit at the piano and effortlessly play improvised jazz. The rules of music aren’t barriers to our freedom, but the train tracks that make our freedom go places.
Authentic freedom is about fulfilling responsibilities, being free to do good, serving our neighbors in authentic love, and bearing witness to the truth.
In the world you are stepping into, when you strive to live this way, there will be naysayers. People will tell you that you’re deluded, that truth doesn’t exist, that God doesn’t exist—that you are on the wrong side of history. It’s the same thing that they told pro-lifers forty years ago, and that they told the abolitionists before that.
But history isn’t a blind force. We aren’t passive observers. History will be shaped by the actions of people like you and me. And history will judge no one. Don’t get me wrong: we will be judged. But we will be judged by the Author of Truth and Lord of History. The one who disproved the inevitability of Good Friday’s evil when he rose from the grave Easter morning.
The world may not always want to hear the truth, but only the truth will set us free. Only in the truth is authentic freedom to love possible. There is no right side of history apart from the truth.
Regent University Class of 2013: Live in truth. Love your families and your friends. Be a faithful spouse and parent. Take care of your parents as they age. Be a good employee and, one day, a good employer. Serve the poor. Welcome the stranger. Live out the truth of what you have learned at Regent and you will set the world ablaze. Best wishes, and God bless.
Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the Editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s online journal Public Discourse, and a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Notre Dame. With Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George he is co-author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.