Saturday, May 21, 2005

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — President Bush yesterday delivered a commencement address at the Christian-focused Calvin College, telling more than 800 graduating seniors that faith-based community activists have been “at the front of every great movement in American history.”

“All these organizations promote the spirit of community and help us acquire the ‘habits of heart’ that are so vital to a free society,” the president said. “Our faith-based and community groups provide the armies of compassion that help people who wonder if the American Dream is meant for them. These armies of compassion are the great engines of social change.”

Mr. Bush, wearing a blue robe with black bands on the arms, urged the young graduates of the Calvinist college to get involved.

“We’ll do our part, but, ultimately, service is up to you,” he said. “It is your choice to make. As your generation takes its place in the world, all of you must make this decision: Will you be a spectator or a citizen? To make a difference in this world, you must be involved. By serving a higher calling here or abroad, you’ll make your lives richer and build a more hopeful future for our world.”

The president’s visit to the liberal arts college became controversial when a third of the college’s faculty signed a letter published yesterday in the Grand Rapids Press that said: “As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers and to initiate war only as a last resort. We believe your administration has launched an unjust and unjustified war in Iraq.”

Another letter signed by about 800 students, faculty and alumni ran Friday. It said: “In our view, the policies and actions of your administration, both domestically and internationally over the past four years, violate many deeply held principles of Calvin College.”

Only a handful of students showed up to protest the president’s address at the 4,000-student school. The students had also planned to wear armbands — yellow for peace, green for the environment and pink for tolerance — but, in a survey of the 875 graduates as they accepted their diplomas, just a few sported the bands.

The president delivered a 15-minute address urging students to perform public service and continue to work within the framework of faith. He was not heckled during his brief speech but instead drew sustained applause when he took the stage.

The few protesters who stood on a road before the president arrived — one holding a sign that said: “No One Died When Clinton Lied” — left minutes after Mr. Bush’s motorcade passed by, but about one in five of the graduating students wore large buttons that said: “God Is Not a Democrat or a Republican.”

That sentiment dovetailed with Mr. Bush’s comment that it is a “great responsibility to serve and love others, a responsibility that goes back to the greatest commandment.”

“This isn’t a Democratic idea. This isn’t a Republican idea. This is an American idea,” he said to applause.

Mr. Bush poked fun at himself about his verbal gaffes.

“Some day you will appreciate the grammar and verbal skills you learned here,” he said to laughter. “If any of you wonder how far a mastery of the English language can take you, just look what it did for me.”

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