Manuscript of the keynote address delivered at Baylor University’s Honors Convocation on April 14, 2023.
Dean Henry, thank you for that abundantly gracious introduction.
Provost Brickhouse, Dean Henry, all the esteemed deans from all our respective schools, distinguished faculty members, esteemed guests, and — of course — our outstanding students:
It is a privilege and a joy to join you this afternoon to honor your outstanding accomplishments throughout this past year. Congratulations!
The title of my talk this afternoon is “What does Washington have to do with Waco?” I am borrowing from the church father Tertullian, who asked “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Of course, all of you already knew that, given we are at Baylor University after all.
I know not all of you — not most of you, perhaps not any of you — are studying political science, have any intention of working in government, or even have the faintest interest in politics. Yet, none of us — regardless of our political literacy and involvement — can escape the reach of government. As James Madison reminds us in Federalist 39, the foundation of our republic rests in the reality that its leaders are chosen by its people. In such a representative democracy, its politics represents its society. Thus, politics serves as a unique tool in understanding the character of the society you will step into upon your graduation from Baylor.
So, this afternoon, I would like to illuminate three brief reflections about the world you are about to enter and then offer one challenge about how we might engage that world and how your Baylor education has positioned you to do that well.
1. You Are Entering a Post-Truth World
You are stepping into a world defined by the slogan, “What’s true for you may not be true for me.” This is the mantra of the postmodern world we find beyond these walls. A world that insists that all truth is relative — perhaps the most self-defeating statement in history.
This is, of course, a response to the failures of modernity — an era that not merely believed truth to be absolute, but arrogantly believed human reason to be absolute as well. The Holocaust bitterly proved their folly. So the staunch pushback from postmodernism is understandable and, perhaps, even expected.
Yet, postmodernism revolted against the wrong part of modernity — pushing against truth and adopting human arrogance, rather than understanding that truth is indeed absolute but that our reason is not. The result is that truth today is defined by the whims of humanity, both collectively and individually.
We are told, thus, to “speak your truth” and to listen to everyone, for no one truly has the answers. Yet, this is patently absurd. If no one has the answers, why would we listen to anybody, let alone everybody?
Consider the state of our public discourse today. Much of our debate centers around questions of information — the #FakeNews debate. In the journey from information to knowledge to understanding and to wisdom, we are stuck on step one. And that is only when we are not stuck debating civility, which doesn’t even register on this journey from information to wisdom — it is a prerequisite that we too often cannot pass.
When I was in graduate school here at Baylor, my advisor, Frank Beckwith, once bemoaned that “ten years ago, we had robust debates on ideas, but today, we are having debates about whether ideas exist.” Today, some ten years after that, we are having debates about how to be nice to each other. Yes, today, scholars and politicians alike are lecturing and debating on what Thumper taught all of us in Bambi when we were five years old.
Your education here at Baylor has moved you from information to knowledge, from knowledge to understanding, and from understanding to wisdom. That is a lifelong journey that should — that must — continue well beyond your time here at Baylor. So find those with whom you disagree. Sit with them. Listen to them. Debate with them. Not because no one has the answers or because truth is relative to each individual, but precisely because truth is absolute, but we are not. And, thus, we pursue truth fiercely and, yet, with a humility that recognizes that we can always learn from those who disagree with us.
2. You are entering a world that pursues power over of virtue.
This is the logical result of the post-truth world into which you will step. As Flannery O’Connor so articulately stated, “Those who have no absolute values cannot let the relative remain merely relative; they are always raising it to the level of the absolute.” When truth is no longer seen as absolute, that void is filled by power.
This is evident in our discourse today. A popular political commentator recently quipped, “Winning is a virtue and I’m not going to be baited and neither should you.” This echoed advice that was given to me early in my political career: “Win and all sins are forgiven.”
We are conditioned to believe that the greatest good and highest virtue for which we strive — not just in politics, but in business, in the sciences, in the arts, in education, even in Christian ministry — is winning. Where we once held great debates over questions of virtue, today they have been replaced with quests for power. Where we once paused to ask whether we should, today we only ask whether we can. Where we once advocated speaking truth to power, today we define truth by power.
Perhaps we would be wise to heed the words of Albert Einstein: “Try not to become a man of success. Rather, become a man [or woman] of value.”
3. You are entering a world that defines you by your doing.
Several years ago, I was speaking at another university and began my talk with a short exercise. I asked everyone to find someone they didn’t know and introduce themselves. But there was a catch: they were prohibited from mentioning who they knew (who they studied under, worked for, mutual friends, etc.) or what they do (job, major, student organization, etc.). After a few quick “hellos,” the room grew awkwardly quiet.
Your entire life, you have been defined by two things: who you know and what you do. After all, in a world that dismisses truth and virtue and embraces power, how else would you be defined? We have traded learning and growth for advancement and relationship for networking. The result is a shallow and selfish society that leaves broken families and toxic work environments in its wake. Consider our nation’s capital: A city that thrives on advancement and networking is consistently ranked among the loneliest cities in America. No, the family you have experienced at Baylor is not universal beyond these walls. But it is desperately needed.
So here is my charge to all of you: reject it. Reject the post-truth, power-obsessed propaganda this world offers. Reject it in word, in deed, and in how you live. But it is not enough merely to reject this; this world needs an example of truth and virtue well lived. And your education has prepared you for this moment. Because the culmination of these years is not a job or a spouse, but your development and formation as a person. And that formation is not a destination at which you’ve arrived, but, as aforementioned, a journey that continues beyond the walls of the classroom.
Because here’s the reality: who you know and what you do will never make you who you are. But who you are — your identity — determines the significance of every relationship you have and the success of everything you do. So before you ask “what’s next?” ask “who am I?” and “who do I want to be?” Invest in that.
If you find that identity in Jesus, as I do, it is no coincidence that Jesus says he is the truth, he is the way, and he is the life. So pursue truth, practice the way of virtue, and live this. For God, for you, and for the world into which you will step.
Perhaps the question, then, is not “what does Washington have to do with Waco?” but, rather, “what does Waco have to do with Washington?” That is, of course, a question only you can answer.
So I leave you with one question as you take up this charge. Paraphrasing the great philosopher Trevor Noah: When you see the protests in China (citizens risking their lives to demand an end to the oppressive regime that is committing the worst genocide we’ve seen since the Holocaust) or consider the journalists in Russia (who are risking their lives to report on what their own government is doing) or observe the protests in Iran (where their national soccer team risked their and their families’ lives by protesting on a national stage against the government’s killing of a young woman whose crime was that her hijab was not tight enough) — if these individuals had a fraction of the freedom that you and I have — to ask any question, to write any words, to pursue truth and to live life — would they use it in the same way you are? Ask yourself that every day.
Thank you, congratulations, may God bless you, may God bless Baylor University, and Sic ’em Bears.
SAMUEL CHEN is an award-winning political scientist, analyst, and strategist. He is the founder and principal director of The Liddell Group and a former aide in both houses of Congress. He additionally directs the political science program at Northampton Community College (PA) and is the host and anchor of the news journal “Face the Issues.”
Chen is the author of two books, including Thirteen Minutes: Winning, Losing, and Living as Taught by the 2016 Election. You can follow him on all social media at @SamuelChenTV.