God and Man at Dartmouth:

At his convocation speech welcoming new students to campus a week or so ago, Dartmouth Student Assembly President Noah Riner gave a speech about the need for students to develop character as well as knowledge during their time in college. He quoted Bono, Martin Luther King, Shakespeare, and Jesus as individuals who exemplified good character. Needless to say, he created a subsequent ruckus. And no, its not because he quoted Bono in the same speech as Jesus (although those of us who are Frank Sinatra fans still believe that Bono's duet with Sinatra on "I've Got You Under My Skin" is the first sign of the apocalypse).

For those who are interested, Dartlog, the website of the Dartmout Review, has rounded up links to the speech and much of the fall out here. Dartmouth student Joe Malchow has an especially insightful commentary here (and an update on subsequent commentary here). William F. Buckley has weighed in with a column on the brouhaha, as has Stefan Beck. My fellow Dartmouth Trustee Peter Robinson discusses the issue as well here. Tory Fodder has an interesting commentary on the role of college in developing character.

In my mind, the folks at FIRE get it just about right (as usual)--there is a big difference between criticism for expressing one's views and being punished, censored, or intimidated by college authorities:

So, he said Jesus' name. It didn't hurt the students to hear it. Nor did it hurt Riner to get a dose of criticism. Riner chose to share his views knowing that topics of religion and faith are often difficult to insert into the public realm without offending someone. More importantly, he chose to speak with the intent to generate dialogue and encourage his peers to think about their own ideas about one's character. In another article, he states, "I realize that I have a very specific perspective on the issue of character…[a]nd by adding my perspective, I hope that it'll give other people the opportunity to examine their own perspectives and to add those to the Dartmouth dialogue." In the same vein, students who disagreed shared their perspectives and added to the Dartmouth dialogue.

Is there more to say here? There is always more to say (which is my whole point). For now, all I'll say is: Welcome to college.

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MP (mail) (www):
This is part of the Wall of Separation that bugs me. I know Dartmouth is private, but let's say this occurred at a state school. Why does quoting or discussing the actions of a historical figure become out of bounds simply because that figure has been adopted as the centerpiece of a religion? Don't you get a free pass if you are dealing with the statements and actions of a person that are grounded in history and not faith?
9.28.2005 2:42pm
Guest2 (mail):
As Cathy Young pointed out on her blog, the most religious parts of the speech have not generally been quoted by commenters. E.g.:

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.

This is more than just "quoting" Jesus as an example of good character. This is proselytizing (though far from fire and brimstone).

In any event, I imagine the Dartmouth administration and faculty have used the ruckus for instructional effect. This is the kind of thing that makes college stimulating. (In my day, the ruckus was over whether frats could raise money by showing X-rated films in school buildings. Times were so much simpler back then!)
9.28.2005 2:43pm
Shakespeare? Is he really known for having good character?
9.28.2005 2:44pm
It's so hard to understand the Left. Even if you're an atheist, as I am, and tend to view Jesus as a fictional character, as I do, there's no question that he had a great character. Commenting on this does not further either side of a debate on whether or not Jesus existed/exists or on religion in any greater sense. So what's so controversial? Did Jesus have character flaws that I am unaware of, like beating up women, showing up to work drunk, or pathologically lying? Or is it just that the Left reflexively views traits such as sacrifice, hard work, and forgiveness with disdain while encouraging us to be stoned, profane, and apathetic (as Mr. Heintz, Dartmouth Class of 2006, inspires us to be)? Sure, it's possible that college representatives should butt out of issues like the formation of character and just stick to matters of formal education. But now that character is on the table, I'd much rather see my kids take on the character traits of Jesus, whether I believe in him or not, than those of any of Mr. Riner's critics.
9.28.2005 2:49pm
Anonymous Law Graduate:
I wonder if all the people whining about how convocations are not the time to proselytize would have reacted to, say, Rep. Linda Sanchez's political stump speech at the 2005 UCLA Law graduation.

Or is it only religion that shouldn't be urged on at graduation?
9.28.2005 2:53pm
Bob Flynn (mail):
Riner nailed it. There isn't a speech code, per se, there's a speech culture. Even exposing elitist Ivy Leaguers in a benign manner to Jesus is akin to exposing Superman to Kryptonite -- it freaks 'em out!
9.28.2005 3:11pm
Anonymous Dartmouth '05/current law student:
With all due respect to Zywicki, Flynn, and others on this blog, it is dishonest to blast liberals' reactions to Riner's speech and not cite or quote the offensive section of the speech that we are objecting to. Jesus as an example of character is one thing. Outright prostelytizing and preaching is another: "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"
9.28.2005 3:29pm
Crane (mail):
Something similar happened at a recent Transformers collecters' convention. The organizer said grace before the semi-formal dinner (which people paid to attend - it's not like they were guests in his home or anything). He's apparently much more used to dealing with GI Joe fans, who tend to be older white conservative men. Transformers fans, on the other hand, tend to be college-age or close to it, and more accustomed to the normal campus speech culture, so quite a few of them were weirded out that the organizer just assumed that they'd all be happy to pray to Jesus.
9.28.2005 4:04pm
Simon (391563) (mail) (www):
I think that Riner clearly had the right to say what he did -- and my answer wouldn't change whether he was giving his speech at a public or private school. But that doesn't mean that he was right to do so.

I think there were certain parts that were inappropriate, like the one that Anonymous Dartmouth '05 cited. Riner is representing not just himself but the student government and the student body, and as such has a duty to speak more inclusively than he did. (And yes, I know a little of what I speak, having had to give similar speeches myself.)
9.28.2005 4:25pm

Good eye -- I was going to point that out too. How did the commentators miss that? I wonder if it wasn't in the published copy....

Personally I'd like to see a greater discussion of religious viewpoints in academia. I think liberals are generally mistaken in trying to banish these views from campus, when such a huge majority of the country continues to be devoutly religious. They do the same thing with affirmative action. It's almost as if they think that if nobody dares to mention these things on a college campus, that they really don't exist. I think college is the perfect place to talk about the merits of Christianity, for instance the claims it makes that so many people will be going to Hell.
9.28.2005 4:28pm
paul (mail):
I am a Christian. When I went to college, I regularly encountered professors who vigorously attacked the validity of my Christian beliefs. They clearly intended to "anti-proselytize", that is, to encourage Christians to abandon their faith.
I can honestly say that I was never offended by these professors as long as they presented their viewpoints as an honest critique. I didn't, of course, appreciate professors who used ridicule rather than reason to "bully" Christians.
I always figured that one of the most important purposes of a college education was to be exposed to various worldviews. I used the critiques of professors as an opportunity to think through and test my own faith.
Just as I was not offended by honest discourse from professors who were atheists, I see no good reason any Dartmouth Students should be offended by the comments of another student at convocation concerning his Christian beliefs. I am sure that Dartmouth students will be exposed to many vocal atheists and non-Christians among the students and faculty they encounter. Is it too much to ask, that they also hear a Christian viewpoint?
9.28.2005 4:33pm
Roach (mail) (www):
This kind of culture has been par for the course in public schools and in public culture for at least 50 years in the US, and it is especially pronounced in the Yankee-land of the Northeast. Yet one wonders how one could even begin to understand the west and take its tradition seriously if one does not appraoch Christianity with some serious consideration of its truth claim.

I have never understood the beef with proselytizing. The complaints in this department are made even more absurd after the gratuitous allegations by Rather and other war critics that a climate of fear has come to pass in newsrooms and in the groves of the academe. Puuhhlleeez. The only thing that's breaking down is a monopoly and elite structure that has been throughly discredted by events and its own lies.
9.28.2005 5:37pm
JoeSlater (mail):
Now that we've seen the more proselytizing aspects of the talk, is it fair to ask the folks that are bugged by the fact that some people were bugged by the speech if they would have had the same reaction if the speech did some proselytizing for, say, Islam or other religion?
9.28.2005 5:58pm
TomH (mail):
You know, I just read the 'proselytizing' parts of the speech above, and darn it, I just became a christian. There I was, just as happy as a clam for 37 years, college BS and a JD, atheistic as can be, hated just the mention of religion, then I saw those two paragraphs and BAM! christianized.

Look folks, no matter which side of the line you are on, the 20-30 seconds needed to read those sentences out loud is not going to change a college grads life forever. The thin skinned reactions of those who are so faithful in their abhorrence of such talk is amazing.

Good thing I just read an opposing view a couple seconds ago. BAM! atheized again, phew.
9.28.2005 6:00pm
jasmindad (mail):
1. What does it mean to say, "Riner had a right to say X?" He certainly had the right to say what he did in the sense that the State couldn't prosecute him. But beyond that what does it mean to say he had a right? That is, what would/should be the operational consequences when a student body president says something that he didn't have a right to say?

2. In order to examine the notion of the rights of a student body president to say things, I'll change the context. Suppose a student body president at some other school had said, a la Ward Church, that 9/11 victims had it coming. Would that student have a right to say that? Again, he couldn't be prosecuted, I'm sure, for expressing that opinion. However, if the rules permitted a recall, would we say that he had a right to his opinion so he couldn't be recalled? Unless the recall election rules were written in a specific way, I don't think so. Would we say that he had a right to his opinion so he shouldn't be recalled? Most of us would say that the voters are free to decide whether to recall him, because they are free to decide that they do or don't want to be led/represented by someone with those views. How about the student council passing a resolution of condemnation? Again, I doubt we would say that the council cannot condemn the president for expressing the view that 9/11 victims had it coming. So it seems to me that people can vigorously attack and condemn a student body president for saying something offensive, and that such condemnation does not violate any rights of the president.

2. Coming back to Riner's case, it is clear that he made two related points about Jesus. One was about Jesus' character. The second was about how we are all imperfect and we need to be saved by Jesus. Many non-Christians would agree with the first point. Even Richard Dawkins suggested that he would like to wear a T-shirt with the slogan, "Atheists for Jesus," because the figure of Jesus in the New Testament was an attractive one. The second seems to me quite problematic. I think many people in the country would be rightly offended if, as part of a ceremonial speech as President of the US, Bush had said that we needed to be saved by Jesus.

3. In my view, the situation would be quite different if Riner was not speaking as student body president. A self-confident student body would allow such expressions to flourish, especially if they are expressed as personal testimonies and with sensitivity to other views.
9.28.2005 8:18pm
As one of the founding members of "Atheists for Christ" I don't see anything wrong with Riner's speech. I think religion is a very positive force for good in this world and encourage it whenever I can. I just don't believe in any of that crap myself. As an atheist, I don't get upset over public displays of religion either private, public, or institutional because it doesn't mean anything to me.

But back to Riner, most public speakers weave references to their personal life into speeches of almost any topic. Why would Riner's expression of his personal devotion to Christ and his invitaion to the audience to do the same, be more objectionable than if the next speaker spoke of the life changing nature of his year in the Peace Corps, assent of Everest, or ingestion of Peyote, and suggested the audience follow their example?
9.28.2005 8:25pm
Random '08 (mail):
First, a personal note: "Anonymous Dartmouth '05/current law student" wouldn't happen to be a certain phil major who lived in Hitchcock last year, would it?

Secondly, while there is certainly a "Gosh golly, christians? That's terrible!" aspect to all of this, he did say "our sin" and "on the cross, for us", which is over the line. Not enough to provoke this sort of furor, but campus controversies are always incredibly overblown, so that is nothing new.

Lastly, while my views are significantly out of the campus mainstream, I find this aggrieved conservative schtick incredibly aggravating.

Oh, and an approving link to Joe Malchow doesn't do much for my opinion of you as a trustee.
9.28.2005 8:53pm
Bob Flynn (mail):
Balance, Gentlemen.

I think it's perfectly acceptable to mention Jesus in any form where freedom of speech is granted.

I also remember college and grad school. Lotta personal views pushed on politics (left-wing) and religion (anti) by professors and students.

That was ok, too.
9.28.2005 9:04pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
If one chooses to attend a Puritan school, one can hardly be surprised to meet the odd Christian.

At least Dartmouth is a bit more honest than Berekely which mentions its 50% Puritan origins but ignores the origin of its name.
9.28.2005 10:20pm

I think it's terribly misleading to suggest that -- in addition to Jesus -- Riner cites Bono, Shakespeare, and Martin Luther King as folks who exemplify good character. The Shakespeare reference is a throwaway quote from Julius Caesar ("The fault, Dear Brutus ..."). Bono is quoted purely to shed light on his point about Jesus. Martin Luther King is quoted as another person who believes character is important, not described as someone who himself exemplified good character.

These details are important, because as a blogger at this site you have the power to frame the debate. In my view, it would be a different debate altogether had Riner set up several historical figures as exemplars in his discussion of character. If you read his speech, it is really very different. After outlining the importance of character, he provides only one solution.
9.28.2005 11:18pm
Tom R (mail):
> "... GI Joe fans, who tend to be older white conservative men. Transformers fans, on the other hand, tend to be college-age or close to it..."

That does come from The Onion. doesn't it?! Tell me it does...

From across the Pacific, I find this fuss unbelievable. Tell me with a straight face that a college president who said in similar circumstances (eg) "The Buddha taught us that suffering is caused by desire, and we need to extinguish it" would have been rapped for "proselytising". I used to think Jains, Orthodox Jews and Wahhabi Muslims had the world's most fastidious ritual-purity codes but it seems like America's professional atheists and agnostics make those religions seem downright [S]toic by comparison, in terms of tolerating a risk of defilement from the non-co-religionists around them...
9.29.2005 4:08am
Crane (mail):
>That does come from The Onion. doesn't it?! Tell me it does...

It comes from a webcomic author who was there:

There's a more in-depth explanation about two-thirds of the way down the comments section.
9.29.2005 1:37pm
Crane (mail):
Now why didn't my link work?
9.29.2005 1:38pm
Crane (mail):
And as a clarification, he was talking about the fans who go to toy conventions and spend lots of money collecting the figures. Not fans in general.
9.29.2005 1:39pm
Rich (mail):
The thing I can't understand is that once the students leave school they will be exposed to all types of sheech all the time. If they are "protected" in college how will they deal with the real world? I'm a Christian and, yes, Riner was prosletyzing in the wrong venue, yet, people prosletyze(sp?) all the time for one view or another. I know about seperation of Church and state but part of that, I think, is "free excesize thereof." The point I'm making is that people get pretty wound up when one religion or another is advocated by someone, but, to me this is no different the political discussions or anything else when it is one side vs. another. I'm no lawyer obviously, and we have our fair share of crackpots, but I don't think its quite kosher to treat religious speech different than any other form of speech. Please remember I am talking about speech and not religiously influenced policy.
9.29.2005 5:58pm
Steph (mail):
Maybe I didn't get to read the whole text of the speach, but It seems to me that he mentions Christ for about two or three paragraphs in a page and a half speach. People have to get a grip.
I am an atheist, but it does not ofend me that people bring their religion into the corporate life of a university. On the contrary it is only by meeting these ideas in intelectual debate that we can discover their truth or falsehood.
I want to add it is a positive good that Mr. Riner only mentioned one answer. It is a eror of our degenerate times that their can be 10 right answers to a question. Ether Mr. Riner's answer is right or it is wrong.
The corect way to address Mr. Riner is to disprove his point, not to indulge in a fit of rage for bringing up the question.
It is time to jetison being sensative to the opinions of others and hold all answers to light of reason. Who gives a fig that Mr. Riner's view offends non chrisians. Who should care that evolution offends some christians. The answer to both questions should be the same, no one who claimes to be an intelectual. Our view should always be the Truth is True, get over it.
9.30.2005 10:51am
Aidan Maconachy (mail):
To be frank, I don't think the merits or demerits of using Jesus as a role model is really the point. Obviously Riner was making a political statement with this, and reacting to a speech culture that has morphed into an activist agenda - with conservative opinion as its target.

On the face of it (theological considerations aside), it does seem incredible that in an environment that purportedly promotes academic freedom, the mere mention of Jesus should be enough to unleash this type of fury.

I was on a campus recently and saw flyers calling the Bush administration names that I can't repeat in this post. I also saw posters and flyers advertising various sexual events. Graphic references to genitals and functions featured prominently on one of these. I even saw comments that were clearly abusive and directed at conservative members of the student body. When you consider that all of the above is essentially "overlooked", irrespective of who might be offended, even shocked - and then consider that Kathy Owens of Bucknell saw fit to raise a red flag about the use of the term "hunting terrorists" on a flyer advertising a speech by Major John Krenson, it makes you realize that there are serious problems of disparity that need addressing.

I realize the example I cited and the Bucknell affair are in no way related but I am using them as examples of cultural biases: biases that often hide behind the guise of "speech culture".
9.30.2005 1:24pm