In November, I wrote an article at Running titled “Jon Meacham’s Cancellation”. Here is a taste of this piece:
… I thought of Meacham’s visit to Messiah, a Christian college with close ties to American evangelicalism, when I learned that Samford University, a Southern Baptist school in Birmingham, Alabama, had withdrawn its invitation to speak at the inauguration of its new president.
President Beck Taylor asked Meacham to speak about the themes covered in his recent book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. In this book, Meacham reminds us that America has gone through dark and conflicted times before, and suggests how heroic figures in the past have led this country through struggles to restore the nation’s soul.
This all seems quite fitting for a presidential inauguration. If Samford is like most American colleges and universities, it probably needs a healthy dose of optimism and hope amid ongoing campus debates about politics, race and COVID-19 protocols.
But when some students and alumni learned that Meacham had spoken in October 2021 at a Planned Parenthood of South Texas meeting, they signed a petition, posted by junior Samford student Emily Kerby, to stop the historian to speak at Beck’s inauguration.
The petition reads in part: “Meacham is involved in fundraising to support an organization that does not value life in the same way as the Christian faith. As Samford is Alabama’s first Christian university, Mr. Meacham’s invitation to speak is not only disappointing, but alarming for Samford’s future.
To be clear, abortion was not the central theme of Meacham’s conference on family planning. His speech to the organization focused on many of the same themes he would no doubt have presented at Samford. Additionally, Samford does not appear to have an abortion policy that faculty, students, or administrators must adhere to. I know that Samford has at least one pro-choice student on campus, and I imagine it has many pro-choice faculty who would support Planned Parenthood’s work in women’s health.
In response to the petition, which now has over 1,000 signatories, Taylor decided not to invite Meacham over. His letter to the campus community announcing the decision expresses disappointment in those who have equated Meacham’s visit with an endorsement of abortion, promises to invite the historian to return to campus “at a more appropriate time for a event that is not closely related to the symbolism of the inauguration,” and affirms Samford’s commitment to “free speech and civil discourse.”
Going forward, it will be important that Taylor, the administration, and the faculty continue to teach students that Samford, although a church-related institution, is also a university. A Christian college may require administrators and faculty to adopt certain theological and moral commitments (and all Christian colleges will draw those lines in different places), but it should also be a place where students and faculty engage with ideas. of those who may not share their beliefs. For example, the petition is unclear whether its author and signatories believe that a supporter of Planned Parenthood should be barred from speaking at inaugurations or at any event in Samford. Will the next petition be about banning pro-choice writers from the curriculum? In the future, some conservative students might push for something like a “biblically consistent curriculum.”
When an administration routinely gives in to student complaints and fails to uphold some level of academic freedom, it no longer deserves to be called a university..
On the other hand, this petition put Beck Taylor in a difficult position. While it is clear from his letter that he wants Samford to be a place of intellectual hospitality and civil discourse, he is right when he describes presidential inaugurations as celebratory events that bring the campus together in unity. And while I suspect many faculty members would rather unite around a common commitment to the free exchange of ideas than a particular view of abortion, inaugurations, especially in Christian colleges , are sacred events in the life of an institution. Unfortunately, Meacham’s invitation and disinvitation will now distract from any unit the Samford community may muster for this event.
In the end, Beck Taylor did the right thing by postponing Meacham’s visit. Now Samford faculty, and those of us who watch the world of Christian college higher education, will be watching closely how quickly he delivers on his promise to bring the Pulitzer Prize winner to campus for a future conference.
Well, I’m happy to report that Meacham is returning to Samford for a week of civil discourse. On Tuesday, March 22, he will deliver a lecture titled “America’s Soul: The Battle for Our Best Angels.” As part of the event, the university is recommending readings by Tim Keller, John Inazu, Richard Mouw, Amy Black, Ben Mitchell, and Miroslav Volf.
Nice job, Samford!