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Harrison Butker's Commencement Speech Stirs up Controversy on Women's Roles


When Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker delivered the commencement address at Benedictine College—a small Catholic school in Atchison, Kansas—on May 11th, he understood that his speech would be controversial. In fact, he essentially led off by acknowledging, “These are the sorts of things we are told in polite society not to bring up.” However, I doubt even he thought he’d still be making headlines nearly two weeks later.

So what is it about Butker’s speech that has caused such a stir? And is the criticism he’s received warranted, or is it another example of modern society’s penchant toward free speech for me but not for thee?

As you might expect, the answer to both questions is complicated.

Using the Right Lens

Let’s start by looking at what Butker actually said.

The part of his address that has received the greatest amount of attention is when he spoke specifically to the women in the audience:

For the ladies present today, congratulations on an amazing accomplishment. You should be proud of all that you have achieved to this point in your young lives. I want to speak directly to you briefly, because I think it is you—the women—who have had the most diabolical lies told to you. How many of you are sitting here now, about to cross this stage, and are thinking about all the promotions and titles that you are going to get in your career? Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but 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.

While those thoughts would not have been terribly controversial fifty years ago, they understandably caused quite a stir today. The problem, however, is that much of the criticism he’s received has been levied by people who took his words and interpreted them through a lens that did not necessarily fit the context of his speech.

AJ Willingham, for example, claimed “Butker suggested that a woman’s accomplishments in the home are more valuable than any academic or professional goals.” It’s easy to see how Willingham would reach that conclusion, particularly since Butker proceeded to spend the next few minutes of his address thanking his wife for making the choice to stay home with their kids and detailing the joy she feels as a result.

Yet, his statement about women was one example within a larger message encouraging people to find peace and contentment by accepting God’s plans for their lives. If he truly thought that the only path God could have for a woman would be as a wife and mother, he would not have surrounded that statement by congratulating the women graduates for earning their degrees or for the “successful careers in the world” that some of them will surely go on to achieve.

Now, it’s probable that, given the larger worldview he espoused within his speech, he would agree with the idea that the most fulfilling life a woman could lead would be as a mother and wife. And it’s all right to disagree with that assessment.

However, it’s important to note that he did not say—as Sam McDowell surmised—that such a life was “their duty as a husband’s servant.”

Fortunately, there were some—including from some surprising sources—who saw Butker’s comments differently.

“Can’t that just be a choice too?”

On last Friday’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, the host addressed both Butker’s speech and the response it received.

He started by saying, “I can’t express how much this guy is not like me. He’s religious. He loves marriage. He loves kids.” He then went on to state, “I don’t see what the big crime is. I really don’t.” Speaking specifically of Butker’s comments about being a wife and stay-at-home mom, Maher added, “Can’t that just be a choice too?”

And I think that final thought was at the heart of Butker’s address.

Is motherhood and homemaking the only acceptable vocation for women? Absolutely not. Is it God’s calling for some? Yes, and in such cases, it is every bit as valuable and worthy of praise as those who are called to pursue a career outside the home.

You see, what ultimately defines the value of a person’s vocation is that it comes from the Lord. Everything else is secondary, and that is true for men and women alike.

Unfortunately, that part of Butker’s message has been largely lost amidst the controversy over his thoughts on the role of women.

The admonition to find our sense of peace and purpose in God’s call for our lives rather than the expectations of the world—or even ourselves—is something our culture desperately needs to hear.

Learn to Be Content in Your Calling

One of the primary sources of the stress and anxiety permeating every facet of the population today is the result of our lives failing to live up to the expectations we’ve placed on them. And when those expectations come from someone or something other than the Lord, we should not be surprised when they prove unsatisfying.

After all, why would God bless a path that differs from the one he has called you to take?

Ultimately, you don’t have to agree with Butker’s views on women, Catholicism, or any number of the other topics he addressed in his speech to see the wisdom in finding contentment within the vocation God has called you to uniquely pursue.

And while, as the Apostle Paul notes, contentment in the Lord is something we have to learn rather than a state that will come naturally to us, it is by far the best way to go through this life and the only way to experience the peace and strength God longs to give (Philippians 4:11–13).

NOTE: It’s not easy as a parent, grandparent, or leader to navigate the confusing world of modern sexuality. This is why we want to encourage you to request our latest book, Sacred Sexuality: Reclaiming God’s Design. This resource, available until May 31 for a gift of any amount, equips you with Scriptural insight and practical wisdom to address issues like premarital sex and gender identity with grace. Empower those you love to celebrate God’s design for relationships. Request your copy of Sacred Sexuality now and lead with faith, courage, and understanding.

Quote of the Day:

“A great many people are trying to make peace, but that has already been done. God has not left it for us to do; all we have to do is enter into it.”  — D.L. Moody

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Ronald Martinez/Staff
Publish Date: May 23, 2024

Ryan Denison, PhD, is the Senior Editor for Theology at Denison Forum. Ryan writes The Daily Article every Friday and contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions. He holds a PhD in church history from BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. He’s authored The Path to Purpose, What Are My Spiritual Gifts?, How to Bless God by Blessing Others, 7 Deadly Sinsand has contributed writing or research to every Denison Forum book.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

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