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2016 Tuesday Reflection: Election Reflections

Steven C. Bahls, President of Augustana College

Thanks for coming to this Tuesday Reflection, exactly two weeks after the long-awaited national election of 2016. Of course the presidential election did not go as many had predicted. And people feel strongly about what happened. Let’s take a few minutes to reflect in a context of faith about what happened and what’s in store.

The upcoming presidential transition will be the 30th presidential transition in Augustana’s 156-year history. It will be the eleventh during my lifetime. But this transition, for me, feels different than any of others that I have experienced.

Given the rhetoric of this campaign, many members of the Augustana community have expressed a level of fear that I have not seen before. The fear they feel is real – fear of not being respected, fear of discrimination or even harassment due to our race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identification or religion, fear of not being welcomed in our country or even of being deported from it. Or fear of being relegated to some basket of deplorables because of how they voted. The fear is not irrational given the rhetoric in the campaign. Many members of the Augustana community are in need of reassurance.

In today’s scripture reading [1 John 3:17], John the Evangelist calls on those of us who are blessed by privilege not to turn a blind eye to those in need. Those blessed by privilege were there for my family when we were in need. Now, my middle name is Carl in honor of my great, great grandfather. In the late 1800s Karl was abandoned as a baby on the door step of a Lutheran pastor’s home in Germany. That family took him in and reared him until, as a young man, he emigrated to America. They were there during his time of need, bringing him up in a household of faith and giving him the grit to pursue his American Dream as a farmer. But grit alone was not enough for him to succeed in America – he and other immigrants where blessed with inexpensive land or even free land through homesteading. America was then, as it is now, a land of immigrants. Augustana College, itself, was founded for recent immigrants, to provide the education they needed to take the next step on the economic and social ladder.

So how can I, as the descendant of immigrants and one of the leaders at a college founded to serve immigrants, extend the same type of love, welcome and nurturing to our community members, including those in pain, so they can claim the confidence and determination necessary to realize their dreams?

Together with our faculty and staff, we can ensure that the values of Augustana do not change — even when politics and expediency might try to push us to change. Our shared commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity is steadfast as ever. When external forces challenge theses values, our resolve will only be strengthened.

We will do everything in our power to ensure respect for all students and to protect students in vulnerable communities. We will do everything in our power to protect and cherish all students of the college, including those who fear discrimination, harassment or even deportation. We will do the same for our faculty and staff. Likewise, we will cherish free speech and the right to dissent, while at the same time urging responsible speech, so as to avoid creating unnecessary wedges between groups on campus.

At Augustana, providing nurturing homes for our students and welcoming places to learn and work is not something to be derided as “Political Correctness.” It is a core value. I join our faculty and staff in not shirking from these commitments to our students.

While I will continue to cherish our nation’s traditions of peaceful transitions of power, I will publicly urge policy makers to enact or refuse to overturn policies that reaffirm the most important values of our democratic nation: human decency, equal rights, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination.

But it’s about more than freedom from discrimination. It’s also about ensuring our students the opportunity to thrive. I believe we thrive by reclaiming higher education’s historic role as a center for public discourse. This means we need to talk with each other and not at each other. When we do so, we just might see the Divine in others.

Oxford Professor Daniel Robinson keenly observed:  “It is a higher education that pulls us up out of the distractions of the moment and allows us to see further, to see more clearly where we’ve been, what we’ve done, who we are, and who we might be.”  May this be a time, at Augustana, when we ask these questions: who are we as an Augustana community, who might we be, and how can we build the determination within us all to get there? How can those of us with privilege help our students be powerful agents in their own success and thriving?

Finally, I lift up the words of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Following the election, Bishop Eaton said, “Remember that all human beings are created in the image of God, even those who did not vote for your candidate.”   Let‘s remember this. All members of the Augustana College community are valued whatever their political beliefs and opinions. This includes Democrats, Republicans and Independents. People vote as they do for many reasons. Try not to jump to conclusions about people, as you would not want them to jump to conclusions about you. Listen to each other and reply thoughtfully.

Notwithstanding my weariness from this election season, I am optimistic about our future. As president, I have seen the leaders that Augustana produces, not only within our workforce, but our student leaders and graduates who lead in their community. Members of the Augustana community have taken the responsibility and engaged in the hard work of learning the perspectives and leadership skills it takes to make a difference in this changing world. So please join me in being present for those in need and being active in making a difference for the good of our college, our nation and our world.

Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.