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10 Quick Thoughts on Harrison Butker's Commencement Address at Benedictine College

10 Quick Thoughts on Harrison Butker's Commencement Address at Benedictine College
Posted by Keith Simon

Do you think Harrison Butker knew what he was getting into when he accepted the invitation to deliver the commencement address to the graduates of Benedictine College? The private Catholic college is near Kansas City. Butker is the kicker and a three-time Super Bowl champion for the Kansas City Chiefs.

I usually don't pay much attention to professional athletes' hot takes on culture and politics. But marriage and family have been all over the news lately, and we are posting a conversation I had with Rachel Cohen about her article on why so many millennial women dread motherhood. So I got sucked in. And I'm not the only one. Both Cohen's article and Butker's speech got lots of national attention. "Motherhood and apple pie" used to refer to things all Americans believed were good and important. Now, at least one of them can start an online riot.

Here are ten quick thoughts on what Harrison Butker's commencement address says about the culture's view of religion and motherhood.

  1. Every story is now a national story. Benedictine is a small liberal arts college with a little over 2,000 students located on the Missouri River in Atchison, KS, with a population of 10,000. Until this year, no one has paid attention to the commencement speaker at Benedictine. Most Kansans probably hadn't even heard of the school until Butker's speech. Now everyone has. Every major media outlet rushed to do a story or share their opinion on what an NFL kicker said in one of tens of thousands of commencement speeches that occurred across the country this month.

    The "nationalizing" of local stories makes us all more anxious. Will I tweet the wrong thing and become the next Justine Sacco?

  2. Breaking News: The Pope is Catholic. If you listened to the whole speech (which is only 20 minutes long), you know that, in some ways, it was very Catholic and, in other ways, not Catholic enough.

    People seemed surprised that a Catholic holding to the historical teachings of the church disagrees with the culture's view of abortion and sexual ethics. I'm not sure why that's controversial. But I guess "Catholic man gives speech about Catholic theology to Catholic students at a Catholic school" doesn't get a lot of likes, retweets, or views.

Now, I'm not Catholic, so I found a lot to disagree with in this speech. Catholics and Evangelicals share doctrinal commitments while also having sharp disagreements on a wide range of important topics. For example, I think he's wrong when he says that he and his wife hope "through our marriage that, Lord willing, we will both attain salvation." I'm pretty sure that's not the way it works.

But, on the other hand, I don't think it was Catholic enough. The Sisters of Mount Scholastica, whose website says they are one of the institutions that founded the school, released their own statement and took issue with his "assertion that being a homemaker is the highest calling for a woman." You can see why that might bother the sisters since they have foresworn marriage and family to dedicate their lives to serving the church. But to be fair to Butker, he didn't say what they said he said. He said his wife embraced "one of the most important titles of all: homemaker." Now, I wouldn't have used the word homemaker because it sounds like it came straight out of a 1950s sitcom. Still, there's a huge difference between saying it's "one of the most important titles" and saying it's the "highest calling."

But even if they misquoted him, the sisters still have a point. Jesus redefines the family and says, "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." There's something special about the church being the family of God that we lose when we idolize our human family and fail to make room for our spiritual family. There's more than one way to be a mother.

  1. Benedictine College knew what they were getting when they invited Butker to speak. In 2023, he gave the commencement speech at his alma mater—Georgia Institute of Technology. In that speech, after talking about his accomplishments with the Chiefs, Butker told the graduates at one of the best STEM schools in the nation that "the truth is none of these accomplishments mean anything compared to the happiness I have found in my marriage and in starting a family." Later, he asked the students, "How much greater of a legacy can anyone leave than that?"

Benedictine College asked Harrison Butker to give the commencement address not in spite of his beliefs but because of them.

  1. The NFL should be no one's moral arbiter. The NFL issued a statement distancing itself from Butker's speech, saying that he was speaking in his personal capacity. "His views are not those of the NFL as an organization. The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger."

So much to say. Did anyone think Butker was speaking on behalf of the NFL at this Catholic college? Of course not. Was he wearing a Chiefs uniform? Did he give the speech inside the locker room at Arrowhead? No, and no.

Did the NFL feel compelled to issue a statement distancing itself from Colin Kaepernick, who protested in uniform, on the field, in pre-game ceremonies? Not that I'm aware of.

Last December, the Baltimore Ravens honored Ray Rice during their game against the Miami Dolphins. Ten years ago, Rice was caught on an elevator video punching his fiancé, Janay Palmer, in the face and then dragging her out by her hair. Roger Goodell initially suspended him for 2 games before lengthening the suspension after a public outcry. Aggravated assault and domestic violence get a 2 game suspension. But when a Catholic man gives a speech on Catholic theology to Catholic students at a Catholic college, the NFL hurries out a statement. We live in a weird world.

  1. Butker's most controversial comments were to the women graduates. The reports act as if he told these women that their lives would be wasted unless they got married and had kids. But that's not what he said. If you read or listened to the entire speech, you know the truth. After congratulating both men and women on their achievements and saying that some female graduates will have successful careers, Butker said, "I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world." Without talking to Benedictine's female graduates, it's hard to know if he's right or not.

Also getting a lot of attention is that he said his wife "would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother." He didn't say all women need to have that perspective. He just said that's how his wife, Isabelle, thinks about her life. For the record, that's not something I would've said. A woman's life doesn't truly start when she becomes a wife and mother. Women (and men) are created in the image of God, and their primary vocation is to serve God. Marriage and kids don't give a woman (or man!) value. That comes from God.

I think that Butker is onto something when he pushes back on our culture's idolization of professional success over family and community. "Workism" is making everyone miserable and leaving them feeling empty. Derek Thompson defines "workism" as the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production but also the centerpiece of one's identity and life's purpose." Even if he said it a bit clumsily, I think it is wise to warn (male and female) graduates that they are made for more than work.

  1. He honored his wife. Through tears, Butker praised his wife and credited her for his personal and professional success. Lots of people would cherish a spouse who publicly praised their role in shaping them.

  2. The speech was very well received by those in attendance. Butker was interrupted by applause, and the speech received a standing ovation. Now, it won't surprise you to discover that the reaction was mixed on social media. Some comments revealed that the person making them hadn't watched the whole speech but only snippets. A fair number called him misogynistic. My favorite tweets were posted by women who have experienced a lot of professional success but said raising their children surpassed all of it. These tweets usually included a picture of mom and kids together.

    Did you know that following the speech, Butker's jersey became the best-selling Chiefs jersey (over Mahomes and Kelce) and one of the highest-selling in the entire NFL? Oh, one more thing. The NFL sold out of his jersey in women's sizes.

    I'm not saying that this means all women supported him. Far from it. Some women were quite angry. I guess my point is that this isn't an issue where you find men on one side and women on the other. There is something more going on here than gender wars.

  3. The Church of Nice isn't going to cut it. In my opinion, one of the most interesting lines in the speech hasn't gotten enough attention, especially from Christians. "If we are going to be men and women for this time in history, we need to stop pretending that the 'Church of Nice' is a winning proposition. We must always speak and act in charity, but never mistake charity for cowardice."

I think he's right. We must always speak the truth in love, but sometimes the culture won't like it. Jesus always said the right thing at the right time in the right tone, and they crucified him. Now, we aren't Jesus, so we must be super careful to watch our tone, timing, and words. I think Butker would've been wise to be more humble, and less cutting in his tone, especially at the beginning of his address.

But love isn't the same as nice. If you're nice but you don't speak the truth, you are an unloving coward.

  1. Keep your faith to yourself. Back in 2015, when the Supreme Court was considering Obergefell v Hodges (gay marriage), Frank Bruni, then a columnist for the NYT, wrote: "And I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes, and hearts."

The people upset with Harrison Butker's speech aren't upset at what he believes. They're upset because he dared to apply his faith to work and family publicly. They want him to keep his faith in his pew, home, and heart. All the manufactured outrage is designed to intimidate you. They're telling you to keep your faith private because they may come after you just like they did him if you don't.

  1. Harrison Butker can boldly speak because he's protected by his success. If he plays to the end of his contract with the Chiefs, he will have made $5,000,000, which doesn't include endorsements and the like. Plus, he's one of the best kickers in the NFL, and the Chiefs hope to be back in the Super Bowl. I haven't heard one of his teammates or coaches criticize him. That's either because they don't think it's a big deal or they agree with him. The bottom line is that Harrison Butker can say things that most of us are scared to say.

There's a dramatic contrast between Harrison Butker's speech at Benedictine and Rachel Cohen's article in Vox. Butker's wife, Isabelle, says her life didn't truly start until she became a mom. At the same time, Cohen processes the dread millennial women feel about having their own kids. Which perspective gains cultural momentum will tremendously impact what kind of country we become.

You can check out my conversation with Rachel Cohen below. 


Posted by Keith Simon

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