A week ago I attended the graduation of my wife’s nephew. Headland High School (Alabama) honored the graduating class of 2014, and it was an excellent ceremony.
There were speeches by the salutatorian and both co-valedictorians. All were filled with hopeful, encouraging words as well as their fair share of Bible verses. It was very refreshing to see all three young men so well rooted in their faith, and not at all embarrassed to proclaim to their classmates their love for Christ. As a Christian, it was inspiring.
The assistant principal of the school also addressed the body of graduates. His address, by comparison, left me scratching my head for a couple of reasons. I’ll start with the secular one.
The AP mentioned to the graduates, “Some of you are leaders and some of you are followers.” He proceeded to spell out the qualities of leaders and followers, and their respective roles in our society. What bothered me about his message is that, in my opinion, it further promoted a problem that is rampant in our nation as a whole. Class-ism.
We live and operate in an environment in which the gap between the haves and the have-nots is ever increasing. The phrase ‘class warfare’ is thrown around flippantly and over used, but there is truth to the concept. You against him. Us versus them. It’s a zero-sum game and you better get yours. That is the sad environment so many of us experience on a daily basis, and it’s not the message we should be communicating to our graduates given they’re the ones best positioned to fix the problem. The reality is we all possess leadership qualities. We all possess the ability – and need – to be followers as well. Times and circumstances dictate when we flex our active muscles versus those when we’re better suited being a bit passive.
What needed to be communicated to the hundred plus young adults receiving their diploma last week is they all have the ability to succeed and excel. They are all capable of reaching their proverbial mountain top. Sometimes it will require them to lead the way. Other times it will mean following someone else’s example. Most importantly, if they approached it from a perspective of collaboration – working together as peers, as a community, as brothers and sisters – instead of a point of view based on competition, the end result could indeed be world changing.
But that’s not what left me wincing in discomfort.
I mentioned earlier how proud I was to hear the young graduates fold a message of faith into their respective speeches. By comparison, I recoiled when I heard the assistant principal reference God in his. He mentioned how the graduates were called to live good Christian lives (I’m paraphrasing), and he threw in a couple of Bible verses himself.
I graduated from a Catholic high school, so seeing faculty reference scripture in an address to students was my norm. But to see a staff member of a public high school, an employee of the county, intertwine his personal religious beliefs into a school function – in a venue called The Civic Center, no less – was appalling.
Now, I understand the address was made in the heart of the Bible belt. I understand why the parents and other relatives in the audience applauded the speech. Personally, I thought the message itself was inspiring. Nevertheless, it was still grossly inappropriate, and here’s why. At the risk of being overly-hyperbolic, I would say torches and pitchforks would have been wielded had the assistant principal of Headland High School began his speech with the words, “As it says in the Qur’an…” Imagine if halfway through his address, he would have exclaimed, “Praise Allah!”
My point is, there’s no room for an individual’s religious beliefs when he or she is acting as an agent or representative of the government. The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment not only provides us all freedom of religion, but it also guarantees us as individuals freedom from religion in the context of government representatives. This point has been argued ad nauseam, most recently in relation to Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney.
I am not sure many Christians, myself included, would be very comfortable if the assistant principle of our kids’ school referenced a deity other than our own. We owe the same courtesy and respect to all audiences of public events.
We all have vastly differing faiths and beliefs, but in the end, we are one society.