24 June 2006

Brittany McComb: A Question of Scale

Well, I had another blog topic for tonight, but after reading about Brittany McComb on Ben's blog, I guess I'll put off that post till tomorrow. It'll make a good Sunday post anyway.

So here's the short and fast story of Brittany McComb. Brittany becomes valedictorian. She writes a valediction about how Christ and God have changed her life. The administration, fearing legal ramifications, edits out of her speech all references to Christ and scripture. Girl tries to give original speech anyway, but the microphone is cut by the administration. Legal ramifications and talk shows ensue (see link above).

Now, keep reading, because I don't think I'm going to take the side you expect. In keeping with my Circle of Knowledge theory, I can see that each side in this debate has some truth behind it, and the conclusion I've come to seems to be somewhere in the middle. Keep in mind, I am not really interested in the legal aspects behind this, but the moral ones. After all, we can only have just laws if we truly understand the morals they should be upholding.

But the relationship between law and morality is another topic for another time. Back to the subject at hand.

Two opposing experiences keep coming back to me as I think about this issue of eliminating Christ from public. First, I remember sitting in my Theory of Knowledge class in high school listening to a girl explain how her belief in chakra energies and related religious concepts had healed her life, and were really much better than western medicine. Being from Utah, my high school did have quite a large percentage of LDS students (probably 50%), but since it was part of the IB program, it had a little more of an international flavor than most. This particular class I knew contained quite a few agnostics/atheists, several Jews, and at least one Hindu and one Muslim. But despite our apparent diversity and tolerance at other times, the feeling in the classroom was extremely uneasy, and the students in the class were clearly not comfortable with what she was saying to us. But none of us were willing to say anything about it.

I still wonder why we were uncomfortable. Was it the mere action of advocating a religious view in a classroom that made us uncomfortable, or was it that the philosophy being advocated? Had it been a Christian (or more particularly LDS) student speaking about Christ and the atonement, would we--by which I mostly mean I--have felt the same way? I know I have sometimes felt uncomfortable at the way other Christian religions proselyte. But if it were my own religion being preached to a crowd of essentially captive unbelievers, who hadn't asked to hear about it, would I feel the same way? Essentially, I think the delimma boils down to this: can we, or should we, separate the act of proselyting from the beliefs being proselyted? To this, I would hope I could say yes, that I could look at the act of proselyting from an objective point of view, even if it was my own religion. But this is something you may have to convince yourself of.

Once we admit this separation, and that proselyting can cause discomfort in an audience, we can see how there is some valid point for concern over public religious expression. It boils down to the same debate of the ages: individual rights versus public security. I mean, we have laws against verbal harassment for the same sort of reason: even though it does no physical harm, it can cause discomfort in other ways. In the same way, I hate being harassed by the protestors at General Conference or at the Manti Pagent. It is extremely disconcerting, even heartbreaking, to be forced to listen to your religion be thrashed and trashed, even indirectly by those who are simply preaching other views, in a place where it is not wanted.

Which leads me to the other experience I keep thinking about. This one I didn't experience personally, but did hear from a first-hand source. A German-language teacher at my school used to occasionally have a free reading period in class as a reward after quizzes or tests. However, when some students began to read their scriptures during that time, the teacher ordered them not to do so because it violated her freedom of religion. (In the end, she was not allowed to ban specific religious texts from the period, and instead decided to do away with it all together.)

I would hope that anyone reading that story would realize that what the teacher did was completely irrational. Having someone else read a certain book in your classroom is nearly impossible to rationally construe as a violation of your rights. Clearly there is a matter of degrees here. What Brittany McComb did is not on par with what the garment-waving protestors do at General Conference. A general scale of the relationship between religious practice and the public goes something like this, from most-easily acceptable to totally unacceptable:

  • private religious practice
  • public religious practice
  • expression of beliefs in public
  • proselytising and advocating a belief system
  • denigrating/descriminating against someone else's belief system
What the Brittany McComb incident represents is a confusion of this scale. Much of the civil rights movement worked hard to prevent the descrimination aspect of this scale, which I hope every rational person could agree is the right thing to do. And the Bill of Rights clearly protects the first two, the right to religious freedom. But what to do with these middle two is the problem.

I firmly believe that we do not live in a society that wants to eliminate expression of beliefs and proselytising all together. There may be some extremists who actually do believe that, but being an eternal optimist, I must believe that the majority are fairly reasonable people such as myself. The thing is that these reasonable people have noticed, as I have, that religious speech is a delicate issue, that at some times it is appropriate to voice belief and at others it is not. Even Christ said, "neither cast ye your pearls before swine" (Matt. 7:6), which I take to mean that we don't need to proselyte in every conversation (which bothers me to no end about some evangelicals), but we should instead reserve our expression to appropriate moments and audiences.

So in the end, after reading the full text of Brittany McComb's speech, I must agree with the school's decision to edit her speech. I disagree with the idea that there is no place for Christ in a graduation speech, but I think that the way she did so was not appropriate. Her speech focuses on her conversion to Christianity rather than her school experience. Her talk might actually fit in at an LDS testimony meeting, but not a graduation. Had she done as she claimed to have done and simply cited her religion as one of the influential factors in her life, in a quiet statement of belief rather than proselytizing, then the school board might have been in the wrong (morally, though perhaps not legally).

(However, after that, I must add that I do agree that this suppression of religion movement is targeted towards Christians. Notice in my two experiences that although there was discomfort in both, action was only taken in the situation involving a Christian religion. I however do not believe this to be due to a particular hatred of Christianity. Rather, it is due to two factors. First, other religions still fall under the protection of our fear of being accused of discrimination. We fear that our actions to preserve our own comfort will be miscontrued as racism or beliefism. Witness how the media deals with Islamic extremism--overly careful to make sure that the audience knows they are not against the religion, but merely some of its expressions. The second factor is simply the nature of Christianity. We are a missionary religion, and therefore we feel the need to speak about our beliefs more, which in turn gives us more opportunities to speak out in the wrong times and wrong places. Again, there may be some who do discriminate against Christianity, but not a majority, by far.)


wheatdogg said...

I've been blogging about McComb, too, and came across your blog while checking into her on Technorati.

I agree with on most points, but not about the singling out of Christians/Christianity for religious suppression. It's more a matter of the squeaky wheel getting the oil. Born-again Christians tend to be very vocal and more than willing to witness to non-believers. Judaism, meanwhile, is not a proselytizing religion. Islam (with the exception of Black Muslims maybe) also does not proselytize. So, it's not likely that either a Jew or a Muslim (or Buddhist or Hundu) would make specifically religious references in a graduation speech.

Christians get "suppressed" because they tend to stick their necks out more than other faith groups. There is no "war on Christianity."

Liz Muir said...

That's the point I was trying to get across: the "targetting" is not because of any particular hatred towards Christianity, but because it is a majority religion and also very vocal. Thanks for the clarification.

Kurt A Ehrsam said...

I accept your premise. that it can be uncomfortable to be proselytized, but I still respectfully disagree.Freedom of speech is more important than that.

I find most advertising offensuve un one manner or another, but there isn't a whole lot I can do about it.

The problems in Brittany's case are 1) She obviously is being pushed by someone else with an agenda; 2) She is a major media whore. So what? She still has the right to speak her mind.

The school was wrong in the first place to try to exercise prior restraint. There is no expectation that they controlled her speech, so there was no government imprimitur to her remarks, even though the school was renting the mic.

Suppose she had decided to go off about some other disturbing topic that was not religious (and not indecent or profane)? Say five minutes about the Trilateral Commission? Or the wit and wisdom of Lyndon LaRouche? You give someone a mic, that's the risk you take.

It's not about your comfort. It's about the free exchange of ideas in an open society. That means I have to listen to a lot of things I disagree with, too.

Liz Muir said...

First of all, I mentioned that I am not really interested in legal issues, so we'll leave whether this is legal or not out of it.

Yes, it is a risk giving someone else the mic, but the school is still in [morally] in charge of and sponsoring the event. I disagree with the idea that the school would not have been held responsible for what she said. Anyone who speaks at a school assembly, and most especially at graduation, is a reflection of the school.

Had she been merely speaking in the hallway of school or in front of the school, I would agree with her right to say whatever she wants. But when you are asked to speak at a specific occasion, there are certain expectations made on how you will use that time. For instance, a Model United Nations conference I volunteer at invited Senator Hatch to come speak in the closing ceremonies. Unfortunately, his remarks were offensive and inappropriate to the situation. Who does this reflect poorly on? Certainly his, but it also shoots back to the host conference and we faced many angry letters from parents.