5 inspiring commencement speeches that focused on faith

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NEW YORK — It’s a time of year highlighted by graduation ceremonies, caps and gowns and weepy parents. May is the month where American colleges and universities bestow diplomas on its graduates. It’s also a time for speeches – from students and distinguished speakers alike – and talk of the future and changing the world.

There can’t be talk of the future without God and faith. Depending on the speaker (or the college/university), God is often the focal point of a commencement address. This year’s commencement ceremonies did feature its share of motivational talk, but it was also highlighted by a few notable speeches featuring God. Vice President Mike Pence’s address at Liberty University is one that got lots of media attention. However, these addresses can often be divisive. Pence’s invite to also address graduates this month at Taylor University, a Christian college, highlighted the political evangelical divide.

Another speech that received plenty of attention took place on April 26 when class valedictorian Matt Easton, at Brigham Young University’s commencement ceremony, announced that he was “proud to be a gay son of God.” BYU, a Mormon school, was caught in the middle of an ongoing debate among Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints members with how to reconcile gay members of the faith.

In 2015, actor Denzel Washington, speaking at Dillard University’s commencement in New Orleans, famously said: “Number one: Put God first. Put God first in everything you do. Everything that you think you see in me. Everything that I’ve accomplished, everything that you think I have — and I have a few things. Everything that I have is by the grace of God. Understand that. It’s a gift.”

Below is a roundup of notable commencement addresses to the Class of 2019 featuring faith:

Vice President Mike Pence (Liberty University)

Pence told the graduating class of Liberty University on May 11 that they need to be ready for attacks on their Christian faith once to go out into the world.

“Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian,” he told the crowd. “It didn't occur to people you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible. But things are different now.”   

Pence also called out secular culture for being open-minded on so many subjects, but having “little tolerance” for orthodox Christianity. Pence’s wife came under fire earlier this year when she took a job at a Christian school that did not support gay marriage. He used the address to again defend his wife.

“Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs,” he said. “So as you go about your daily life, just be ready. Because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith, you’re going to be asked to them. You're going to be asked to bow down to the idols of popular culture.”

Senator Josh Hawley (The King’s College)

Closer to home for Religion Unplugged (which is housed at King’s in New York City), commencement exercises, also held on May 11, included a keynote from Hawley of Missouri. Labeled the “Senate’s new culture warrior” by The Washington Post, Hawley called on the graduates to reject a Pelagian worldview.

“Our Pelagian public philosophy says liberty is all about choosing your own ends,” he said. “That turns out to be a philosophy for the privileged and for the few. For everybody else, for those who cannot build an identity around what they buy, for those whose life is anchored in family, and home, and nation, for those who actually want to participate in our democracy, today’s Pelagianism robs them of the liberty that is rightfully theirs. And we cannot afford to let it to happen any longer. The age of Pelagius must end.”

Deemed a heretic, Pelagius, a British-born theologian who lived 1,700 years ago, advocated free will and was accused by Saint Augustine of denying the need for divine aid in performing good works.

“For decades now, our politics and our culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation, unrestricted and unfettered free choice,” he added. “It is a philosophy that has defined our age, though it’s far from new.”

Curtis Martin (Franciscan University)

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

That was the message from Curtis Martin to the graduating class at Franciscan University of Steubenville on May 10. Martin, president and founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, was quoting St. Catherine of Siena. FOCUS is a collegiate outreach group.

Martin, an alum of the school, warned students to put their trust in Christ on whatever path they embark on.

“What Christ asks of you is not always going to make sense,” he added.  

Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson (Biola University)

The In-N-Out Burger owner surprised graduates with 840 gift cards — but also provided them with some wisdom that reflected her Evangelical Christian faith.

“You have gained a lot of knowledge here over the last few years,” she told graduates in May 10 during a rare public-speaking engagement. “Do not deny the leading of the Holy Spirit, in your life, as He reveals radical truth to you in your journey. So go out into all the world, live a life worthy of the calling of Christ, a life that is making an impact for the Lord Jesus Christ in our world.”

Snyder-Ellingson, who is also known for her philanthropy, is the only grandchild of Harry and Esther Snyder, who founded the popular California-based burger chain in 1948.

“I’m here to tell you that if you think you are too good for any sin out there — beware,” she said, adding, “Every one of us is capable of just about anything if we’ve been through the right things, put in the right conditions, hurt in the right way.”

Peggy Noonan (Notre Dame)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan received an honorary degree on Sunday and addressed the graduates at Notre Dame, a Catholic university. While she spoke of the challenges the country currently faces and extolled the virtues of political conservatism, Noonan said the United States is currently in a bad place.

“I believe America needs help right now and America knows it,” she said during a largely political speech. “The reasons are so obvious we’ve almost stopped saying them … living an ongoing cultural catastrophe. You know all the words I will say now: illegitimacy, the decline of faith, low family formation, child abuse and neglect, poor education. But all of that all exists alongside of — and made worse by — an entertainment culture from which the poor and neglected are unprotected and which is devoted to violence and nihilism.”

Noonan offered some solutions, including programs that would help families, those with mental health and immigrants. She also warned that threats to religious freedom are going to escalate.

“They are real and will get realer — you know this,” she said of those threats. “You know, the polls are interesting. They say Americans are not always breaking down the doors to go to church, but they respect religious life… I feel like I’ve known America a long time. Deep down, it actually respects you when the dogma lives loudly inside you.”