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You couldn't find a better setting for graduation exercises than the University of Texas campus Saturday night. With the speakers' platform framed against the main building, the crowd flowing down the mall toward the Capitol, and fireworks ascending the landmark tower at the ceremony's conclusion, pomp gave way to sheer delight at the circumstance of being in such a place at such a time.

The inclusivity of the ceremony was also pleasant. No tickets required; anyone could come, watch the spectacle, and perhaps even notice the biblical words prominently engraved on the main building, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” But the evening had one sour note: No one publicly thanked God for preserving the 6,300 graduates and giving people in this state the means and vision to build a great university.

That's rude, but we have become used to “the naked public square, ” a refusal to thank God and an attempt to exclude Him. Once, a famous sermon began, “I speak to you as a dying man to dying men, ” but now many of us are in denial. Nurses note that many among the terminally ill spend their last weeks in chit chat, when logically they'd be thinking about life, death and what comes next. The dying know that they soon will be taking a trip, like it or not, but many these days do not want road maps.

It hasn't always been that way in American history. In a column earlier this year, I mentioned that 67-year-old Henry Clay, the 19th century' s Bill Clinton, stopped trying to exclude God from his life only after losing his last campaign for the presidency in 1844. Some readers have wondered how that happened, and what happened to Sen. Clay afterward.

The process may have begun when Clay's running mate, Theodore Frelinghuysen, was impolite enough to mention Christ. After their defeat he wrote to the deeply disappointed Clay, “As sinners, who have rebelled against our Maker, we need a Saviour or we must perish. . . . Let us then repair to Him.” Henry Clay took to heart that admonition, started thinking about his post-politics life, and on June 22, 1847, was baptized.

Approaching 75 and aware of a decline in his health during 1851 and 1852, he seemed to grow stronger spiritually. When Clay spoke to college graduates, he told them they would learn about “the vanity of the world, and its insufficiency to satisfy the soul of man.”

Clay's unfaithfulness to his wife over the years had taken its toll. His last-years change could not repair all the damage done, and although he now wanted Mrs. Clay to join him in Washington, she remained in Lexington, Ky. Clay's Christian faith was still new to him and not as firmly planted as years of dedication would have brought. Nevertheless, he said he had no “apprehension of death. . . . I am ready to go whenever it is the will of God that I should be summoned hence.”

Even Washington cynics, with their knowledge of the long Clay history of adultery and political shenanigans, and their expectation that he would never change, were impressed. Clay spent his last days not in political gossip but in Bible reading and talking with his colleagues about the need to thank God for everything. Shortly before he died on June 29, 1852, Clay spoke of his “abiding trust in the merits and mediation of our Saviour” and “full faith in the great leading doctrines of the Gospel.”

The 6,300 UT graduates, God willing, will not have to think about death for a long time. They do need to think about life. Here's what Henry Clay learned when old, and wished he had learned when younger: “Jesus said, `If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

That's John 8:31,32, and the people in that biblical passage respond much as speakers at our Saturday night graduation orated: We've done it ourselves, we've accomplished much, we “have never been slaves to anyone. How can you say that we will be set free?” But Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

Sin. God. Unpopular three-letter words. But students and the rest of us need to hear them, even on—especially on—evenings devoted to celebration.

Olasky is a UT journalism professor and a senior fellow at the Acton Institute.

Copyright © 1999, The Austin American-Statesman
Marvin Olasky, A great graduation, but . . .., 05-26-1999.