EDITOR’S NOTE: Former U.N. Ambassador and Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes delivered this commencement address to the Grove City College graduating Class of 2000. His remarks challenged the graduates to oppose America’s moral decline and embrace the principles of Scripture and of the Founders that made our nation great.
As graduates in the year 2000, you are faced with a world in which, to put it mildly, there is a lack of respect for truth. Many speakers at commencement exercises this year will tell the graduates to commit themselves wholeheartedly to whatever it is that they define as success. If they believe in themselves, they can go anywhere and do anything. While many regard the process of education as preparing people to succeed, I guess today I have to be a little ornery. Knowing what I do of Grove City College, I am very certain that you have been fully prepared to succeed. But what I respect more about the principles of this institution is that you have also been prepared to fail in seeking success as the world defines it. According to the world, advancement comes in terms of honors and material wealth and all the other baubles that our culture considers true success. In this regard, Grove City College has also prepared you to fail. It has prepared you to fail to win the applause of those who have respect for nothing but the lie. It has prepared you to fail to win the applause of those who will not honor people who have the integrity to believe in and stand for truth. It has prepared you to fail to win the regard of those who no longer respect anyone who will stand forthrightly for the name and for the will of Almighty God.
The Focus of Success
I am happy today to stand on the platform of an institution that believes, as I do, that the real definition of success is not what the majority of commencement addresses will say it is. They will encourage the graduates to believe in themselves if they want to achieve success. Rather, I am pleased to be addressing graduates who have been taught by this institution that stands for a different belief. Here you were taught that true success is achieved only when and if you are prepared to act consistently and without equivocation on your faith and belief in the goodness, the authority and the will of God. I am pleased to speak to graduates who believe in that Power which lies beyond your power, who believe in that truth which is defined by a Will that goes beyond your will. As you leave this place, attach yourself to an ideal that will, in that spark of divinity that is in you, survive through all eternity, unlike your body, which will perish and turn to dust.
I shall never forget what I was told when I first arrived at the United Nations. I was working then for a woman for whom I have much respect, Jean Kirk-patrick. We were serving Ronald Reagan, a president who will always remain for me “the president.” When I started my job as Ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, I was young for the job, one of the youngest who had ever been promoted into such a position. As I was beginning, I sat down to talk with Jean, and she gave me some advice that I will never forget. She said that it was not only how well I handled the job, but how well I handled myself in performing the job, that would be important. That advice bears consideration in terms of life itself as you apply the knowledge and technical skills you have acquired in your education. Whatever vocation you choose, whatever path you walk, it is far more important for you to focus on what kind of person you are becoming as you live this life. For all of us are building the work, not only of our own hands, but also of the hope and grace of Almighty God. He has in mind for you a magnificent destiny. At every stage, with each step, it is far more important to consider how much of that destiny you are achieving, than to contemplate whether or not the world approves as you walk the walk He requires of you.
The Path of Success
I think that this consideration is going to be particularly important these days, because there are so many ways in which the prevailing winds of our time blow in a direction that is contrary to truth and to faith and to justice and to dignity. The gnawing temptation will be to fall away from a path of conviction. Now that may be hard for some of you to hear. Generally speaking, it is the prerogative of youth to believe that things will go well, that all one has to do is the right thing and everything will turn out fine.
As God measures things, that is true. We know how the story turns out. Because Christ lives, the story ends well for His followers. But as the world measures things, it is not true. As you walk the walk, you have to remember that many times in the course of this human saga those who were willing to stand with integrity for the things that God required of them were thrown on the ash heap of human history. They were passed up by those who were building the great edifices of empire and material success. They had to risk everything – honor and life and reputation and dignity- and hold on only to this: What they valued in the end was not the world’s opinion of their work, but rather, God’s opinion.
So, I can’t stand here and promise that if you take that path, everything is going to be wonderful. Instead, it might be very difficult, because I think we’ve come to a time different than some other eras in human history. People don’t even pretend to care about what is right. Whatever one feels like doing today is set up as the current “god” to worship. If you look around, you can see that, little by little, it’s a path leading to our destruction. That’s particularly true if we care about the heritage and legacy of freedom into which all of us were born.
I am afraid, however, that this legacy is facing an uncertain future. We are surely in the generation that will decide the fate of this American Republic, and of the ideas of self-government and liberty upon which it was founded. I think this nation now stands, as it were, on the precarious edge of its destruction. We are turning our backs on fundamental truths and principles.
This nation was not founded on the belief that if one just cares about himself enough, makes money and builds knowledge in a scientific sense, everything will be fine. It was founded on an idea of justice which acknowledged that the source of human dignity and human rights and human hope was not the decision and will of human beings, but the power and will of Almighty God, the Creator. That’s what was said in the beginning. And everything we hope for, everything we’re supposed to represent in terms of the world’s hope for a decent life and freedom, all depends on that premise. We are all created equal, all endowed, not by human will and self-esteem, but by God’s will. In spite of all our human frailties and temptations, there remains the prospect that some semblance of justice can be achieved for us in the light of God’s grace and will. I don’t know in this generation if we shall, as a people, have the wisdom and the courage and the integrity to reclaim our allegiance to that great principle. I don’t know if we will have the courage to restore it to its rightful place as the foundation of our policies, our laws, our habits and our character.
The Challenges and Responsibilities of Success
But there is a special word I want to bring to you graduates here today. I hope it’s not a word that will burden you too much. I have felt compelled to challenge you with the difficulties of this path. You have come through an institution that is still dedicated to the importance of these fundamental principles of which I speak. This college seeks to shape in the hearts and minds of those who pass through its portals, an allegiance and respect for those principles. To go out now and remain true to that education places a special burden and responsibility on you. Not every graduating class this year will bear this responsibility. There are some who are in the darkness of confusion, who have been denied the light of that exposure to an authoritative moral tradition that has made our nation, in the truest sense, possible. As the Scriptures tell us, of those to whom much has been given, much will be required. Those stumbling around in ignorance of this principle don’t have to feel a special responsibility to be its champion. But I think you do.
In God’s sovereignty, He has singled you out in your path. You could have walked into another institution that was filled with confusion, and you would have left four years later perfectly at ease with everything that goes on in our culture. But through the love and grace of God, and of your parents and of your own decent inclinations and character, you have marked out a different road. It is a road that calls on you to lead this nation in a direction that it does not want to follow, to be unto the world a light that it does not wish to see. You must have the courage to stand for those convictions that will earn you contempt today from all the powers that be. Still they are the truths which alone shall win the smile we long for from the face of God.
With this special challenge and call upon your lives, you will scatter your talents and abilities into all those walks and areas of life where people can have an influence. And I don’t mean just from the big platforms and podiums of our society. Some of you will certainly be called to walk in those arenas. But what I really mean is to be an influence, as well, in all those ways that we don’t think of often enough, but which are really the ways in which the world is shaped. You will need courage to stand with conviction and integrity for the faithful love you ought to bear for your spouses and the unyielding commitment that your marriage ought to demonstrate in spite of the sickness of our time.
You will need courage to stand with integrity as you parent your children while the world tempts them at every crossroad. In spite of how it may tear at your heart and how it may momentarily affect your friendship with them, you must stand with integrity for those things that you know God requires in your children’s lives. That’s a special kind of courage, one that will be written of in no history books, that will not go down in any great annals. You will not be sung about, nor will you be remembered by any except those whose lives you shaped for the better and whose hopes you kept alive for their salvation. You will not be praised by the world, and, in its eyes, you may very well die in a kind of obscurity.
But this special virtue and this special faith, I believe, offers the greatest hope that we have. Somewhere in this nation’s life, it will be the leaven that will allow our hopes for liberty to rise again. You are that yeast. You are the seeds of that better future. And whatever it takes, I pray for you today that, by the grace of God, you will have the courage, conviction and integrity to walk the walk that Providence has set out for you. Stick with those things that have eternal value, not the love of yourself, or the love of the world, but the love of God and what is right. There is much reason in our world today to believe that we have wonderful prospects and potential, with all the scientific knowledge we are accumulating. But what worries me is that the more knowledge we gain, the more power we gain over nature and over biology and over genetics, the more God-like we become in our own eyes. As this occurs, the future that awaits us becomes more dangerous and precarious.
We are, as it were, at a great moment of choosing. Many nourish strong hopes for this new century, but because of our overwhelming pride and our abandonment of faith in God, we also face prospects of horror and human degradation. It may, in the end, make the 20th century, for all its tragedies, look like a dress rehearsal.
And why is that possible? Because great knowledge and great power in the hands of people with no conscience and no respect for truth can only lead to humankind’s destruction. We are in a world in which so many are simply giving in to that temptation to believe in themselves to the exclusion of that Power beyond themselves. You still have that true faith, but you move in a time when that faith must be tested. If it stands the test, then you will represent a light of hope to discipline this human knowledge and power that, by the grace of God, our reason opens up to us. Through the eyes of faith, you will not only understand how to better use this knowledge, but you will also recognize its limits in the light of His will. This is, in many ways, a task that goes beyond any that has been faced thus far by previous human generations.
I want to leave with you this thought about your special vocation. Every generation has a calling. Every generation faces special challenges and difficulties. This will be true, I think, especially for your generation. The challenge will be to remain faithful to truth in those small things that make life wonderful and in the large things that make it whole. It’s a wonderful challenge. It will also be a difficult burden. But you must remember, as all generations have had to remember, that in meeting this challenge of your humanity, you are not alone. If you draw upon that instrument of faith and lift your hearts in humble prayer, I believe, as God has remained faithful in the past, so He will not desert you in the future. And I believe that parents and others sitting here today, as they look upon your shining faces, can nourish the hope that what shines there is the promise and fruit of that faith which alone will be the salvation of our world. God bless you.