My thoughts on Nevada valedictory 2

I’m going to add my comments here, rather than clutter up the previous post.

In reading over McComb’s speech a few times, I can see why the school officials cut her mike when they did. Right there in paragraph 6, McComb’s subject veers sharply from relatively generic “high-school-girl-grows-up” commentary right into Christian theology, by referring to the Crucifixion and quoting John 10:10. Until that point, her text was more generally about God and how accepting Him filled a gaping hole in her soul. Had she left out reference to Christ’s self-sacrifice, the other religious content — even the quote from Jeremiah — probably would have passed muster.

Well, it would have if I had been the one vetting her speech, anyway.

While I have my doubts whether McComb did the right thing by defying school officials after agreeing to their editorial control, in some ways she had a good point. The school officials were being overly sensitive in deleting most of the religious references. On the other hand, they probably exercised some good judgment in preventing McComb from espousing definitively Christian theology.
In my high school on Long Island, where there was (and probably still is) a sizable Jewish population, making specific reference to Christ dying on the cross for our sins would have alienated, and angered, a fair number of the students and their families at graduation. Our community was too pluralistic (Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews) for anyone in our class to even consider making such potentially offensive references in a public speech, anyway.
I can’t be sure, but judging from this site’s data, the populace of Henderson is primarily Christian. Presumably, most of the folks there would share McComb’s beliefs and would find nothing at all offensive in the reference to the Passion of Christ. She herself probably never gave a thought toward respecting other religious believers in the audience.

In Kentucky, and I suppose in Nevada, the smaller towns tend to be pretty close of 95 to 99% Christian. Here, the main division involves Catholics and Protestants, who in some towns still don’t trust one another. Only in the larger cities do we have a more varied assortment of religious beliefs. So, most Kentuckians — unless there is clear evidence to the contrary — assume everyone is Christian and they in particular subscribe to the belief that Christ suffered and died for our sins.

So, here we have an 18-year-old high school student who has been raised in a Christian family, surrounded primarily by Christians with similar beliefs, who perhaps in her naivete found nothing offensive in her valedictory. Given that she will attend a Christian college next fall, it’s likely that McComb’s insularity — that’s a fancy word for “cluelessness” — will never be challenged until she leaves her Christian cocoon.
Let’s suppose for a moment that in her graduating class there were non-Christians. It’s a good assumption, if there are an estimated 75,000 Jews and 1,700 Muslims in Clark County’s population of 500,000. Even among Christians there are some who do not believe in the Christ-died-for-our-sins orthodoxy. Our girl here is telling everyone how she realized there was something bigger and more important than her own petty adolescent wants and desires.

Okay, these folks say, good for you. Judaism and Islam teach the same concepts.

Then, McComb veers into Christian dogma, using God’s sacrifice of His only begotten Son as an example for his infinite love. Then she compounds the problem by saying that Christ’s died so that we might have life, quoting John 10:10. [The actual reference is The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (NIV) I am not sure I agree with McComb’s interpretation of the passage, since it refers to Jesus while he was still alive.]

Now, if you are one of these hypothetical Jews, Muslims or non-dogmatic Christians in the assembly, you would be offended, even you are familiar with Christian theology and accustomed to hearing it around you. This gathering, after all, is at a public school, not a church or a revival meeting. Hearing a speaker preach one of her faith’s core beliefs in the midst of a graduation speech would have to be a jarring experience.

So, as I have said before, if this case goes to court, the judge will want to know McComb’s intentions when he or she decides whether her speech transgressed the boundary between church and state. If she intended merely to share her experience with members of her own faith, while being innocently oblivous to the presence of other faiths in the audience, the judge might find that she did nothing inherently illegal and advise her to be more circumspect in the future.

If, however, McComb deliberately chose her words to preach to the non-believers, to show them how accepting Christ’s sacrifice leads one to a better life, then the judge might (as I would) conclude she was using the opportunity to proselytize. Effectively, she was using a government-provided platform (her graduation) as a pulpit from which to preach one specific religion. There, her right to free speech would run right into the Constitutional prohibition of the state (her school) espousing one particular faith over all others.

Her supporters, and they are legion, just do not see the conflict here.
Since McComb repeated exactly what they believe, they do not understand that such espousals should not be in the context of a tax-supported forum. Non-Christians also support Foothill High School financially. They do not want to support with their taxes yet another source of Christian theology.

I’m sorry, Brittany and Co., there’s a time for everything. You picked the wrong time.

[Note: McComb has written a gracious, sincere letter thanking the people supporting her. I don’t agree with all of her points, but it’s worth reading. The Rebelution has the text, which is also on her MySpace page.]

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2 thoughts on “My thoughts on Nevada valedictory

  1. Reply kurt ehrsam Jun 28,2006 2:37 pm

    I certainly don’t disagree with your main argument, that the speech was inappropriate to the setting. And in one sense you are being absolutely too charitable: There is no doubt that if her preaching were not directed to non-Christians, it was most certainly directed to the Christian teens present who have started backing away from their religion (in Western NC where I live, about 50 per cent of teens drop out of church, especially in the years 16-19.

    On the other hand, while the speech was inappropriate, so was the school’s reaction. Just because the school is paying for the mic does not give them the power to censor based upon content. So no one really has clean hands in the debate.

    In the speech she refers to herself as “one of the valedictorians:” Does this mean that if she failed to come up with an acceptable draft, some other person would get the slot? I ask because this has a large bearing on the question of whether she dealt with the school honestly during the vetting process.

    Lots of questions and few answers, except for confirming that the girl is 1) being very well coached, and 2) a born media whore.

  2. Reply wheatdogg Jun 28,2006 2:57 pm

    Some schools have more than one valedictorian if there is more than one student with the required GPA. Her school must be one of them.

    Your comment about her preaching to her peers is likely right on the money. Young born-again Christians can be even more insufferable than their elders, and take every opportunity to witness to (or badger, as the case may be) their peers. As an example, a few of my students have gone on to study music at Belmont College in Nashville. Belmont is a very Baptist school, but my former students (all non-Baptists) said they had no trouble with the faculty or the administration. The Baptist students were pests, and the overly be-one-of-us religious/social atmosphere eventually drove my kids out.

    McComb has been well coached and well groomed for her new media role as martyr for the Christian right. By all appearances, her parents and perhaps her pastor encouraged her to go ahead with her original speech, knowing full well what would likely happen.

    I have e-mailed McComb through her MySpace account in an effort to get some answers to my questions, but have heard nothing back yet. I was not one of her overly gushy fans, so she might have put it in the spam bin!

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