"Our Greatest Inheritance"
2018 Commencement Address
The following is adapted from a speech delivered on May 12, 2018, at Hillsdale College’s 166th Commencement Ceremony. It is reprinted here in part by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.
. . .[T]hank you for the honor of addressing this 166th Commencement ceremony at this beacon of liberty and American ideals that is Hillsdale College. . . .
I’ve always marveled at Hillsdale College’s long, and often lonely, stand for freedom in America. This College was founded at a time of great consequence in the life of our nation—a time when Americans were deeply divided over the meaning and purpose of our country, and over the question of whether, as the Declaration of Independence says, we are, all of us, “created equal.”
For the founders of Hillsdale College, the principles of the American Founding were universally true—true for all people and true at all times. So upon its founding in 1844, this College became the first to prohibit, in its charter, any discrimination based on race, sex, or national origin. In the words of its Articles of Association, Hillsdale was established to provide “sound learning” of the kind needed to preserve the “inestimable blessings” of “civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety”—and so Hillsdale has done in every era since.
Inscribed in a Bible placed in the cornerstone of Central Hall are the words: “May earth be better and heaven be richer because of the life and labor of Hillsdale College.” . . .
Although it seems, at times, that we live in an age of grim relativism, this class has seen the power of unchanging truth to change lives. You’ve learned the vital importance of character, that it is essential for self-government, and that right conduct is its own reward.
It also seems, at times, that we live in an age when too many disregard the wisdom of the past. But here at Hillsdale you’ve been grounded in the teachings and traditions that are our greatest inheritance as Americans—the same teachings and traditions that are the surest foundation of a boundless American future. . . .
. . . . Despite the fact that we live in a time when traditional values and religious convictions are increasingly marginalized by a secular popular culture—a time when it has become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign religious belief—I believe with all my heart that Americans’ faith in God is growing.
. . . [W]hile, in some areas of society, deeply held religious belief is growing rare, leading to claims that America’s rich faith tradition will soon be a relic—it just isn’t so. Faith is rising across America: in communities large and small, in good times and in times of great hardship, the faith of the American people shines forth.
I see this as I travel across this great land, as countless Americans take the time to tell us, often with great emotion, the sweetest of words: “I’m praying for you.” And I see it right now, right here, at Hillsdale College—an institution founded by those who proclaimed themselves “grateful to God for [His] inestimable blessings.”
Even as many continue to forecast the decline of religion in American life, the truth is . . . this is a nation of faith—and faith continues to exert an extraordinary hold on the hearts and minds of our people.
The percentage of Americans who live out their religion on a weekly basis—praying, going to church, reading the Bible—has remained remarkably consistent over the decades, even as the population of the United States has grown by leaps and bounds. And for my part, I’ve long believed that nothing is more important to our nation’s future.
Faith has . . . been the foundation of our freedom. Our Founders recognized religious faith as essential to maintaining our republic. In the words of our nation’s first Vice President, John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
. . . [A]s you prepare to leave this special place, I encourage you to take your convictions into every facet of your lives. Add your voices and your convictions to this great American experiment. . . .
. . . I pray that you’ll leave this place with faith in God. As Winston Churchill reflected in his speech to Congress in 1941, “Some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be faithful servants.”
Trust that He who brought you this far will never leave you, nor forsake you, because He never will. If you hold fast to Him, if you live according to all that you have learned and the examples that you have seen in this special place, if you rededicate yourselves to the noble mission that has always animated the graduates of this College, I know that once we get done making this nation great again, your generation will make America greater than ever before.
. . . God bless you. God bless Hillsdale College. And God bless the United States of America.