In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk on the right about secularist intolerance toward Christians, and particularly toward Christian images and speech in public places. I agree that such a problem exists; in fact, I’ve written about it myself. But I also think there has been a lot of specious conservative whining on this issue (as I have previously argued, the complaint of “religious bigotry” is the right-wing version of politically correct victimology).
On National Review Online’s The Corner today, Peter Robinson posts an item titled “‘Tolerance’ at Dartmouth,” which at first glance does smack of secularist intolerance. It has to do with a brouhaha surrounding one Noah Riner, a senior at Dartmouth College and the president of the College’s Student Assembly.
According to Robinson:
This past Tuesday at Convocation, the formal event marking the beginning of the Dartmouth academic year, Riner gave a speech on the importance of character. In the course of this speech Riner mentioned–brace yourself–Jesus. An excerpt:
Character has a lot to do with sacrifice, laying our personal interests down for something bigger. The best example of this is Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” He knew the right thing to do. He knew the cost would be agonizing torture and death. He did it anyway. That’s character.
The result of these remarks? Young Mr. Riner has spent the balance of this week finding himself roundly (and pompously) denounced. A vice president of the Student Assembly resigned, calling Riner’s remarks “reprehensible.” A petition protesting Riner’s remarks was circulated. And The Dartmouth, one of the student newspapers, editorialized against him.
Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?
So I checked out the link supplied by Robinson, to a post on a website called The Dartblog. The author of the post, a conservative and a self-styled “athiest” (sic), says he did not find Riner’s speech offensive and that the hullabaloo about it is ridiculous and intolerant. He quotes the same passage as Robinson, and expresses surprise that Riner’s dectractors characterized this as a “fire and brimstone speech” likely to make freshmen feel unwelcome.
Then I clicked on the link to the actual speech, and read this passage that follows the one quoted above:
Jesus is a good example of character, but He’s also much more than that. He is the solution to flawed people like corrupt Dartmouth alums, looters, and me.
It’s so easy to focus on the defects of others and ignore my own. But I need saving as much as they do.
Jesus’ message of redemption is simple. People are imperfect, and there are consequences for our actions. He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn’t have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love. The problem is me; the solution is God’s love: Jesus on the cross, for us.
In the words of Bono:
[I]f only we could be a bit more like Him, the world would be transformed. …When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s— and everybody else’s. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that’s the question.
Now that’s a bit different, isn’t it? (The reference to corrupt Dartmouth alums has to do with an earlier part of Riner’s speech in which he said that a Dartmouth education in and of itself was not a sufficient condition for being a good person, and cited the examples of three alumni who had committed, respectively, espionage for the Soviet Union, murder, and sexual assault.) Okay, so maybe it’s not “fire and brimstone,” as guest columnist and fellow student Brian Martin editorialized in The Dartmouth. But Martin was certainly correct when he wrote that Riner had chosen to “turn Convocation into a religious pulpit” and an occasion to proselytize, and that this was neither appropriate nor respectful to the freshmen.
Note that Riner did not merely invoke Jesus as his own personal solution. His message was quite clear: Jesus is the only solution for everyone.
Did Riner’s come-to-Jesus speech violate the Establishment clause? No, certainly not, since Dartmouth is a private college. Did officials and students at a multifaith school have a right to consider it inappropriate and offensive? You betcha. (Of course, I think it would have been equally inappropriate for a student body president to use a convocation to proselytize for any other belief system or cause, be it feminism, vegetarianism, opposition to abortion, or righteous outrage against the war in Iraq. And I do wonder if most of the liberal secularists who were appalled by Riner’s sermon would agree with that.)
And by the way, folks, if we’re going to talk about character … isn’t it, well, a tad disingeuous to complain about intolerant liberal secularists who object to a speech that merely mentions Jesus, and quoting only the non-objectionable parts of the speech?