I would say I met Jeremy Jerschina by chance on the campus of Calvin College, except that nothing ever happens by chance on the very Reformed sidewalks, hallways, and parking lots of Calvin College. So I’ll say I met him by Providence.
Jeremy was visiting from New Jersey as a prospective Calvin student, to study Philosophy or Theology or something in the humanities. He struck me as being extremely well-read, genuine, and sensitive to the call of God on his life. When I heard just a few weeks ago that he was graduating as valedictorian of his high school class, it didn’t surprise me in the least.
What did surprise me was the fact that officials at Jeremy’s high school rejected his speech because of its religious content. Jeremy wanted to pray at the end of his address to acknowledge God as the reason for his academic success, but the principal of Bayonne High School and its board of education told him he could only give the speech if he left out the prayer. So Jeremy chose not to speak at all.
Within the week, Fox News had heard about the incident and invited Jeremy on-air to read for a huge cable TV audience the prayer he could not deliver to the comparative handful of people at his graduation ceremony.
Hearing about Jeremy was a reminder to me that the increasing secularization of schools and other state-run organizations has real consequences for Christians. Most frightening is that religious expression is coming to be viewed as second-class speech. Think about it. Valedictorians across America this year were able to give self-exalting, arrogant speeches praising their own intelligence and hard work without anyone worrying they’d “offend” someone in the crowd. (We’ve all suffered through such speeches and know how distasteful they can be.) But to thank God and publicly attribute success to “a religious figure”? That was considered somehow lesser and therefore forbidden. Amazing.
It also made me think about how Christians react when Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, etc. want to exercise their freedom of expression — we are (often rightly) accused of taking offense too easily at non-Christian demonstrations of religious sentiment. Perhaps it’s time for the Christian community to develop a tougher skin in this area. The minute we view others’ religious speech as second class, we give philosophical ground to those who would relegate our religious speech to sub-societal realms. Unless we’re prepared to retreat into the catacombs, we need to affirm the 1st Amendment’s guarantee to Americans of every creed.
And for my part, I’d be more “offended” to hear a narcissistic valedictorian praising himself than to hear a Muslim valedictorian praising Allah any day of the week.