By Charles Hermesmann, News Editor
On Wednesday, Nov.14, guest speaker Ryan Bomberger spoke about abortion and racial justice in an event called “Black Lives Matter, In and Out of the Womb,” organized by the Wheaton College Republicans.
Following the talk, Bomberger was criticized by some students, especially minorities who found his race-related comments offensive.
In response, Student Government (SG) sent out a campus-wide email. Since the event, dialogue surrounding Bomberger’s comments and SG’s response has continued with students posting responses on the forum wall and to social media. Bomberger and his wife, Bethany, are the founders of the Radiance Foundation, an anti-abortion non-profit which aims to “creatively affirm that all human life has purpose,” according to their website.
Wheaton is not the first institution to face controversy regarding Bomberger and his foundation. In 2016 he spoke at Harvard Law School and was condemned for controversial statements on abortion, race and Planned Parenthood.
Last May he spoke at Vicksburg High School in Vicksburg, Mich., which prompted an apology email from school administrators similar to the one Wheaton undergraduates received.
Bomberger’s Wheaton lecture consisted of a presentation followed by a question and answer session. Bomberger stayed afterwards to informally continue discussion with students whose questions were not included in the moderated session. One question that raised concerns and caused discontent among minorities in particular dealt with the white supremacist hate group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Senior Stephen Watts asked Bomberger, a black man, why he voted for President Donald Trump when he was endorsed by the KKK’s former Grand Wizard David Duke. Some students claimed that his response, which was not documented, did not accurately reflect the KKK and its relations with the black community.
Lauren Rowley, Wheaton’s student body president, who played a key role in drafting the school-wide email, said Bomberger “passed a line of political disagreement into a place of a racially aggressive thing to say that left students crying and feeling really unheard … their question wasn’t really addressed in a respectful manner.” Bomberger affirmed that students were upset, but denied that anyone had cried.
In an interview with the Record, Bomberger restated his views on the KKK: “The KKK is irrelevant today, largely irrelevant.” he said. “They are nothing like the KKK of the past. I said they are a clown-outfit organization that’s not [as] centralized [as] it used to be, it’s not the terrorist organization it used to be, [and] it does not have the power that it used to have. I said there are bigger threats to the black community today than the KKK.”
Watts said he researched Bomberger and told Wheaton’s administration about his concerns before the presentation, but no action was taken. He was skeptical of the presentation’s early promotional flyers and “thought it was very dishonest [and] inappropriate to pretend you were going to have a Black Lives Matter talk when it was really just a pro-life talk.” According to Watts, his fears were realized: “It was a talk on race where the speaker claimed that racism doesn’t exist,” he said.
While students like Watts were offended by the lecture’s title, Bomberger said he found it appropriate to allude to his disagreement with Black Lives Matter and point out their alleged faults as they pertain to the abortion industry. In an interview with the Record, Bomberger said, “… for someone to be offended, I would think they would be more offended by a social movement that has to have a disqualifier … that only some black lives matter.”
Student body president Lauren Rowley, vice president Tyler Waaler and executive vice president of community diversity Sammie Shields sent all undergraduate students an email in response to the event claiming that “[Bomberger’s] comments surrounding the topic of race made many students, staff and faculty of color feel unheard, underrepresented and unsafe on campus.” According to Rowley, the goals of the email were to “acknowledge that there was hurt on our campus, to remind the campus community of our commitment to ethnic diversity and to inform the student body that we’d be moving forward with future conversations.”
SG intended the email to address Bomberger’s comments on race and not abortion. They referenced the College’s commitment to “affirm the worth of all human beings as unique image bearers of God” and intentionally left out the name “College Republicans” so the conservative organization was not seen as being at fault for the controversy. The College Republicans did not help write or endorse the email.
Junior Pedro Panelo is the president of the Wheaton College Republicans. A minority himself, Panelo helped initiate Bomberger’s presentation. He felt the campus email from SG was inappropriate and specifically called out his organization even without mentioning them by name: “Referencing the fact that students feel unsafe on campus or that this group violated the Community Covenant by bringing in this speaker … that’s directly putting us in what we thought was a bad light,” he said.
Panelo feels the email targeted not only the College Republicans, but also conservative students in general. In his view, this group of students is underrepresented on Wheaton’s campus. “The general frustration with a lot of [conservative] students on campus is that their voice is not being heard,” he said. By publishing an email that described students’ feelings towards the event as “unsafe,” Panelo believes SG twisted Bomberger’s words in favor of an inaccurate representation of the event itself. “We need to, as a campus grow up, step back from our emotional reactions, think about it logically and wait to see what the facts say.”
The Wheaton College Community Covenant states that Christians will “pursue unity and embrace ethnic diversity as part of God’s design for humanity and practice racial reconciliation as one of his redemptive purposes in Christ.”
But students like Watts believe that regardless of this statement, the Covenant restricts free speech and “explicitly prohibits [us] from having conversations just because we want to.” In regards to freedom of speech, the document claims that “…freedom of expression is not unlimited, but is constrained by the two Great Commandments of love for God and love for neighbor.”
Rowley hopes SG will continue a respectful discussion on race in relation to and apart from Bomberger’s lecture, taking the controversy as “an opportunity for growth both in the areas of how we talk about race and also how we respect other viewpoints that might differ from our own.”
Bomberger intercepted the SG email and is aware of the controversy on Wheaton’s campus. He was left unsatisfied with the administrative response.
“I’m really disappointed in the school that has not yet … taken a Matthew-sort of conflict resolution approach to all this,” he said. “I reached out to administration and leadership, and no one responded.”
According to Rowley, SG is in discussion with advisors and administration about further action. Aside from his difference of opinion with Wheaton’s administration, Bombergerquestions the claim that Wheaton students feel “unheard, underrepresented and unsafe” – “How are you unheard when someone stays for at least an hour and a half or longer to entertain questions from anybody?” he said. “How are you underrepresentedjust because my view as a person of color does not match your view?
There was nothing said that should make anyone on campus feel unsafe.” On the other hand, some students of color like Watts were grateful for the schoolwide email because “a lot of white students came away from that talk not knowing that a lot of minority students were upset and bothered by this.” However, he was unhappy with the connotation of the word “unsafe”: “They distorted it to mean that minorities felt physically unsafe, as if [Bomberger] was threatening people with violence when it’s more the idea that they don’t feel … wanted or as valued members of the campus … they don’t feel like [Wheaton] is home.”
Senior Philip Ziesemer is a part of the College Republicans organization and helped found the club last year. He echoed many of Panelo’s feelings towards the event and the SG response. Ziesemer feels that the response to Bomberger’s presentation was a “missed opportunity”: “Overall, the issue of abortion is something that, as a Christian university, people should be able to come together and talk about.” According to him, the College Republicans organization exists to create dialogue through their speakers. “We might come at this from a different angle, but we can still talk about this in a civil way and find common ground,” he said.
Bomberger, Rowley and Panelo encouraged students to contact them and their organization for clarification or continued discussion about the controversy. Each of the parties involved spoke of a need for reconciliation. “We want to be a campus where there is room for political dialogue from both ends of the spectrum,” Rowley said.
*This article was edited on 12/3/18 at 11:32 a.m. The original post incorrectly said that, “Some students claimed that his response, which was not documented, did not the KKK and its relations with the black community.” Instead, the sentence should have said and now reads, “Some students claimed that his response, which was not documented, did not accurately reflect the KKK and its relations with the black community.”