Friday, September 23, 2005

God and man at Dartmouth

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?

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

And these same whiners are often the ones to complain about liberals and their "culture of victimization."

Cathy Young said...

But of course. The culture of victimization cuts across the political divide.

Anonymous said...

Typical. They seem to think that the right to religious freedom means that they have the right to harrass people in school, in the workplace, the marketplace, the street, etc. Whenever they are told to lay off, they whine about how oppressed they are. It boggles the mind. I have literally had a coworker follow me around preaching, while I was just trying to do my job. It took a managers intervention to get her to go back to work.

Anonymous said...

After reading the speech and seeing how well-written it was (despite the lack of understanding that rape is not a crime of lust, but instead one of power) I can't believe the use of the third person plural when addressing/lecturing the audience was anything BUT proselytizing:

"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*.

Bold emphasis (if it works) is mine. Otherwise, asterisks, mine.

Even a small disclaimer that "we" represents Christians and was not meant to include the entire non-Christian student body (which comprises a fair percentage of Dartmouth students) would have been a wise and appropriate use of, oh, 3 seconds and probably would have avoided all this fuss.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Cathy. The media in general needs to provide more of this service.

Too many people are ignorant on many issues because they read or hear comments of pundits and don't do the research that you provide a blackline example of. They end up hearing "facts" that seem to support the biased assertions and it becomes a part of their thinking.

Although I'm not sure yet how I feel about these distortions being published in blogs (it seems the blog community does a fairly good job of raising them - thanks to people like you), they seem to be incredibly damaging (and a bit unethical when not disclaimed as not being news) coming from the current mainstream media. I think we already see signs of harm done to the "educated" voting public.

Anonymous said...

So a student gives a speech at a private college in which he
a) gives his own view about how all of us are corrupt, at heart, and
b) that we need saving and moral guidance, and
c) that Jesus is the core to that salvation

And this is offensive?

My solution for those who do not want to listen -- gather up some courage and walk out. I don't think it is at all comparable to proseltyzing at work. It was a speech. By definition, isn't it supposed to reflect the speaker's views?

I thought the speech was magnificient. It was intellectual and muscular. I hope Dartmouth has more young men like this.

Q said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Q said...

Never mind Jesus, I found the invocation of the insufferably self-important Bono far more offensive in this context, especially after reading Traub's tongue-bath of the would-be Messiah in last week's NYTimes Sunday Mag.

Anonymous said...

*So a student gives a speech at a private college.......
And this is offensive?*


Is there really a huge segment of society out there that does not understand context? Or do you think its just ignored when its convenient to make their points?

Cathy Young said...

Even a small disclaimer that "we" represents Christians and was not meant to include the entire non-Christian student body (which comprises a fair percentage of Dartmouth students) would have been a wise and appropriate use of, oh, 3 seconds and probably would have avoided all this fuss.

Precisely.

My solution for those who do not want to listen -- gather up some courage and walk out. I don't think it is at all comparable to proseltyzing at work. It was a speech. By definition, isn't it supposed to reflect the speaker's views?

This isn't just a campus event. It's a student convocation, a ceremony to greet incoming students. Riner was speaking on behalf of the student body, not just for himself. A freshman student who is just starting life in school should not be put in the position of having to either walk out or listen to speech he or she finds offensive.

I would feel the same way if a student used a convocation as a platform to make a speech advocating for, say, abortion rights (which I support).

Cathy Young said...

Is there really a huge segment of society out there that does not understand context? Or do you think its just ignored when its convenient to make their points?

Good question!

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