TAKE NOTE: 2023 Commencement – May 6, 2023
“The Power of One”
2015 Presidential Convocation Address
Huntingdon College, Montgomery, Alabama
September 9, 2015
Welcome, everyone, to Huntingdon’s 162nd year! We’ve been around a long time, but there’s been no better time at Huntingdon than right now!
Can I get a ‘Hawk ‘Em”? Can I get another “Hawk ‘Em”?
Welcome, especially, those of you who are first year students: Our entering class. We honor you today, each and every one of you, in this longstanding tradition called the Presidential Convocation. The word, “convocation,” means, “a coming together.” We have come together today, as we do at the beginning of every fall semester, to remind ourselves of what college is all about.
So, first year students, entering class: This one’s for you. This speech is for you. Everyone else is here to listen in while I talk with you. First, please join me in prayer: “Make us strong to do Your work, [O Lord], willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.’ For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Teach us—in our classrooms and study groups; on our athletic teams; on our residence hall floors; in our clubs and organizations; in our sororities and fraternities; in our friendships—teach us that kind of power.”
Teach us the power of serving people. Amen.
Power. The next 14 months in our national life are about power in its most public manifestation. Who among the 20 plus men and women seeking to be elected President of the United States will come to hold, as a result of our votes, the most powerful political office in the world? How will the person we elect use that power? Make no mistake about it. All the talk, all the debate, all the noise in this election season on FOX News, on MSNBC, on CNN; on CBS, NBC, and ABC is about power.
If you think power is not important, then think about how President Obama has used his power in the last seven years: To restructure the nation’s health care system; to make colleges and universities address intentionally the problem of sexual violence, especially sexual violence against women; to make environmental regulations more stringent; to raise the issue of how African-American citizens perceive the Confederate battle flag; to rename the country’s tallest mountain so as to recognize the native heritage of the state in which the mountain stands. To negotiate a nuclear arms treaty with Iran. To appoint Supreme Court justices who voted with the majority in upholding the Affordable Care Art and in broadening the definition of who may marry each other legally. Etc., etc., etc.
I cite this exercise of Presidential power neither to endorse nor to condemn President Obama or any part of his program … but simply to remind you that power is a reality in life and that the way we use power has real, everyday consequences. People respond to Donald Trump so strongly, I believe, because he makes it very clear how he will use power and what the country—our lives—will look like when he uses that power.
People who like Mr. Trump’s politics respond strongly; people who do not like Mr. Trump’s politics respond strongly. The same with Hillary Clinton. After all, the authoritative biography of Mrs. Clinton is entitled, A Woman in Charge. She has made it clear how she will use power and what the country—our lives—will look like when she uses that power, when she is in charge. Some of us respond strongly in approval of Mrs. Clinton’s politics; some of us respond strongly in disapproval.
Now what does all of this talk about national politics, the power of the American presidency, have to do with your life as a first year student at Huntingdon College? After all, you may be thinking: “I am just 18 years old. I haven’t even declared my major yet. My main concern right now is my social life. I hope I passed that first pop quiz. Why do we run out of hot water so often in the showers?” (Answer: The person before you used it all.) “Here is J. Cam standing in front of us, talking to us about national power, and I haven’t even had lunch!”
So … what does power have to do with your life as a student? Well, we are actually going to be talking a lot about power for the next 14 months on our campus – its meaning, its use, its consequences. The College Republicans, the College Democrats, public policy forums, honors program meetings, major lectures by prominent outside speakers: All of these venues will be a part of the educational menus you can sample in your life here.
But more than that, and very practically, think back on the prayer at the beginning of this address. I started with the prayer given by the 41st President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, as his first act in office:
Make us strong to do Your work, [O Lord], willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.’ For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name.
There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people.
And then, after those words of President Bush, I connected President Bush’s prayer about power with the way I hope you will use your power very practically in your daily life at this college. I finished President Bush’s prayer with my prayer for you:
Teach us—in our classrooms and study groups; on our athletic teams; on our residence hall floors; in our clubs and organizations; in our sororities and fraternities; in our friendships—teach us to use that kind of power. Teach us the power of serving people. Amen.
When all is said and done, my young friends, life is about power—the way we define it, the way we use it, the results we want to see when we exercise it. Power is a recurring theme in the Biblical story. What distinguished Jesus was the way he defined and used power … not to mention the consequences that flowed from his power. To quote the Apostle Paul: Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
At its most basic, power is—to borrow the title of a book and movie—”The Power of One.” Power begins with one person—with YOU!—and how you want the world you live in to look and act. That world might be as small as a suite in your residence hall, as small as the study group you have formed to make sense of the reading assignments in your hardest class, or as small as your soccer or volleyball team. Or the offensive line on your football team. The Power of One, your power, has an impact on everything and everyone around you in whatever world, whatever worlds, you are living.
Which brings me to the conclusion of my address … and to this picture. Yes, this indeed is George Washington. The original of this portrait hangs in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. It depicts George Washington at the end of his second term in office and just three years before he died. You may recognize the portrait as the likeness of Washington that appears on the American one dollar bill.
This portrait is my favorite work of art in the Montgomery Museum. It captures not only the essence of George Washington’s power but also the essence of all authentic, all genuine power. Unlike the Washington of other portraits, he is not standing majestically in a boat while crossing the icy Delaware; he is not presiding over the surrender of humiliated Hessians at Trenton or the disgraced Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown; he is not confessing to chopping down the cherry tree, thereby preserving his adolescent gentlemanly honor; he is not ascending directly into heaven surrounded by Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs and a grateful citizenry of the new American nation. This portrait is not one of might, not one of grandiosity, not one of impossible to achieve sainthood.
Instead, this portrait — with its focus on everyday dress and the strength of resolute, assured eyes at the end of a life well-lived — this portrait shows the kind power embodied by a common citizen who has put his all into building up the world he was called to live in…which in Washington’s case was the new American nation. As President Bush prayed in his inaugural 200 years after Washington took office, so did Washington live not only as president but first and foremost as a citizen like you and me—using power not to make a great show but to serve the interests of those around him.
Look deeply into the way this man presents himself, my young friends. Look deeply into the eyes of a citizen who saw power as a force to be used in the service of others. And resolve today to employ these precious years on the Huntingdon campus as a time for discovering and using your power—the Power of One—as a power to build up all around you.
Thank you for listening to me. God bless you as you begin your life at this fair College, the Home We Love So Well.