By Tom Krattenmaker
Judging from the way school officials turned off her microphone, it was as though the valedictorian had laced her commencement address with the kind of profanity that gets television networks in trouble with the FCC. What prompted the unceremonious pulling of the plug during Brittany McComb’s speech at the graduation ceremony in Henderson, Nev.? She started talking about the virtues of her Christian faith.
The 2006 case, which McComb’s attorneys are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, is worth considering again this season — not just because of the thousands of high school graduation ceremonies taking place across the country, but also because it shows that we still have a long way to go to resolve what’s in and what’s out when it comes to religious expression in the public square.
Few would argue that a public high school graduation ceremony is an appropriate venue for a “stand up and accept Jesus!” altar call. What we might generally agree on, too, is that it’s complicated to draw the line on matters of religious freedom and fairness. With the stakes high and emotions hot, one can understand how a beleaguered school official might throw up his hands and demand that religion just be kept out of it.
Yet, if an open marketplace of ideas and beliefs is our aim in religiously diverse America — and I believe it ought to be — the installation of no-God-allowed secularism doesn’t pass muster. In reflecting on the journey leading up to commencement and an honored role at the microphone, how can a deep-believing evangelical student not talk about Jesus?
Mathew Staver is dean of the law school at Liberty University and founder of Liberty Counsel, which represents Christian litigants in freedom-of-religion and free-speech cases (although not McComb’s). Staver explained in an interview that the legal lay of the land is complicated in the arena of religious expression at commencements and other public school events — a patchwork of often-conflicting, often-unclear legal rulings and widely varying applications by principals across the land.
The constitutional dos and don’ts are not widely understood, Staver says. “In many cases, well-meaning school administrators conclude that it’s the safe route to just eliminate religious viewpoints when, in fact, that is more likely the unconstitutional route. The best course of action for schools is to remain neutral — neither forcing students to pray, nor censoring them because they chose to pray or express a religious viewpoint.”
Where is the line?
In the Nevada case, the trouble began when the school insisted that McComb and her co-valedictorians vet their speeches before the big event. In remarks highlighting the importance of faith in her life, McComb had included language that, to school officials, went too far. As reported by the Christian Broadcasting Network, McComb was instructed to delete references to Christ dying for humankind’s sins, and her promise to the audience “that if you choose to fill yourself with God’s love rather than the things society tells us will satisfy us, you will find success, you will find your self-worth.”
Not exactly what the less religious people signed up for when they made plans to attend the Foothill High ceremony. Despite being warned to strike the offending references, McComb went ahead with her faith pitch nonetheless, prompting a quick shutdown of the sound system when she launched into the supposedly deleted content. McComb remained at the microphone for another minute and continued the speech without amplification, while some members of the audience jeered the sound system shutdown.
The Nevada valedictorian probably did go too far. But I, for one, would not begrudge her the right at least to reflect on what her faith meant to her through the trials and tribulations of high school.
Where do we draw the line? Probably at the place where a speaker — a speaker in the privileged position of representing her entire class before a captive audience — promotes her particular belief as superior to others, and puts non- and other-believers in the undeserved position of being told their own creeds and philosophies are deficient. (One suspects that Brittany McComb and her supporters would not have appreciated a Muslim valedictorian making the case for Mohammed’s teachings and promising listeners fulfillment if only they’d embrace Islam.)
Conservative religious news media outlets such as the Christian Broadcasting Network grab stories like McComb’s and hold them up as examples of the persecution of Christians. While these foul calls can be as hyperbolic as they are one-sided, some truth can be found beneath the rhetoric. In many quarters in present-day America, we have lurched too far toward behaving as though expressions of religion must be scrubbed from public venues. Cases in point: efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and others to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and to dismantle the Mount Soledad war-memorial cross sitting on government land near San Diego since the 1950s. And more recently: a decision by school officials in Billings, Mont., to have a valedictorian strip from her speech a line about not letting fear “keep me from sharing Christ and his joy with those around me.”
Yes, it can be uncomfortable for some to hear a fellow citizen emphatically voicing what-faith-has-meant-to-me sentiments in a public setting especially when it comes in the doctrine-heavy language used in the Nevadavaledictorian’s speech. (One line in the silenced speech, according to the Christian Broadcasting Network, read, “God’s love is so great that he gave his only son up to an excruciating death on a cross so his blood would cover all our shortcomings and our relationship with him could be restored.)
But what secularists sometimes forget is that, for many believers, experiencing momentous events like graduation without gratitude and witness to God is as distasteful as it is for an atheist to be subjected to hard-edged proselytizing.
There’s something a little strange about our reflexive recoiling from the mere mention of Jesus in settings like high school graduation. Whatever Americans might think of Christians and Christianity — yes, there’s a partly deserved image problem — almost no one has a problem with Jesus. The point comes through vividly in Dan Kimball’s 2007 book They Like Jesus But Not the Church, which explores how young Americans, in particular, tend to have a negative idea about organized Christianity yet express near-universal openness to spirituality and fascination with Jesus.
Like so many things, it boils down to good sense, wise judgment, an eye toward effectiveness, respect for others — traits and practices that Christians call discernment. Believers of whatever stripe ought to put this discernment to prayerful use in navigating the tricky waters of what to say, and what not to say, to captive audiences at events such as public school graduations.
But, please, let’s not pull the plug on Christian valedictorians or anyone else who would have the temerity to use the J-word in public. “Jesus,” after all, is not a dirty word.
Tom Krattenmaker, a writer based in Portland, Ore., specializing in religion in public life, is a member of the TODAY’s board of contributors. His book Onward Christian Athletes is scheduled for release in September.