A valedictorian in a Texas high school had his microphone cut off after mentioning God, and the constitutional right of students to speak about their faith.

In april, I wrote about the subtle indoctrination of secular education, through which children are tacitly trained to think of faith as a private matter that should not be discussed in a public forum. The complete absence of references to God or biblical themes suggests that these are not mainstream ideas, and that the default view of an educated person is an atheistic one. Indeed, as the Anti-Defamation League says on its website, “public schools may not teach religion, although religion in a secular context is permitted… in a neutral, objective, balanced and factual manner”—as if these words are incongruent with faith.

As an instrument of government, the public education system has fallen to the mistaken—though widely assumed—belief that it must be strictly separated from religion, which in America is synonymous with Christianity. Thus, time after time after time, stories surface of teachers and administrators purging their classrooms of anything that can be labelled a “Christian” point of view. At universities it’s far worse.

So again, we have a student at the top of his class, who decides he wants to thank God in his commencement address—something not especially uncommon. While schools generally discourage students around the nation from such content, there are probably many more occasions in which school officials let it slide than we ever hear about. Nevertheless, this one was born for headlines.

Apparently, school officials reviewed and disapproved of valedictorian Remington Reimer’s original draft, featuring religious remarks. He turned in a second clean version to their satisfaction and received warning that his microphone would be cut if he deviated, so when he decided to include this threat in his actual speech that is precisely what happened.

The school district maintains that they followed policy, but the details of their statement show just how well discrimination can be disguised within the patchwork of policy:

The District has reviewed the rules and policy regarding graduation speech, and it has been determined that policy was followed at the Joshua High School 2013 Graduation Ceremony. The valedictorian, salutatorian, and class historian speeches were reviewed in advance by the campus staff, prior to the graduation ceremony. Student speakers were told that if their speeches deviated from the prior-reviewed material, the microphone would be turned off, regardless of content. When one student’s speech deviated from the prior-reviewed speech, the microphone was turned off, pursuant to District policy and procedure.

We are supposed to acknowledge the fair treatment of all speakers and walk away from this story thinking that someone just took it too personally—another overly offended family with a lot of facebook friends.

But the term “prior-reviewed” hides the fact that the speech also had to be prior-approved. By not approving the original speech, then relying on a policy that gives them permission to cut off a microphone if a student deviates, the district set up a game in which they could not lose. Effectively, they gave the student an ultimatum: say what we want you to say, or you’ll be silenced and held against school policy.

The student handbook may not say there is a policy against discussing faith, but by placing complete power over expression in the hands of people who believe faith should not be discussed, the outcome is the same.

Likewise, it may not be a policy of our government to discriminate against Christians, but its persistent squeezing out of “religious” dialogue from the public square has the same result.

Jefferson Bethke’s “Jesus hates religion” video has gained enormous popularity among the Facebook walls and Twitter feeds of America’s young evangelicals. This slick production features Bethke reciting a poem about Jesus and his teachings being the antithesis of “religion,” (to which he applies a peculiar definition). More to the point, it is a critique of hypocrisy, though his message is distorted by extraneous and frequently inaccurate attacks on Christianity and America.


The politically charged opening lines set the tone—perhaps the inspiration—for the rest of Bethke’s prose. It is clearly his view that many Republicans are fake Christians who are judgmental and heartless, yet have claimed moral superiority and hijacked the church. He continues on, recklessly blasting the church for starting wars, not feeding the poor, excommunicating divorcees and generally not representing the gospel. Thus, he concludes, the church—and, of course, Republicans—are following “religion,” but true Christians follow Jesus.

Unfortunately, while there is an important message to be shared here, the video is littered with theological inaccuracies, erroneous assumptions and, yes, its very own glaring hypocrisies (jump to the bottom to see what others have said). Bethke has been thoroughly critiqued, and has taken it with respect and humility, but what I really want to ask is this: How is it that a video with so many wrongheaded statements is so widely praised among my peers? I can think of at least three reasons.

1. The popularization of church

Most Christians do not study theology. That is understandable just as much as the fact that most people do not read philosophy literature. But we should expect pastors and preachers to uphold a high level of intellectual discipline. Furthermore, it is their responsibility to find ways to bring all people to a greater understanding of the history and theology of their faith. In too many churches, substance in teaching has been replaced with opinions, based on the whims of passion, with a supporting act by jumbotrons and coffee shops.

More and more people are rejecting traditions and congregations in favor of independent study and transient attendance at flavor-of-the-month churches. This disconnection from the larger Church body, and its theological and historical context, has left younger Christians with a blank slate and unsteady foundation.

2. Politically and historically biased education

Our public education system has a markedly left-wing bias. It is not uncommon to characterize our Founding Fathers as power-hungry racists, our foreign policy as imperialist, and our economic system as an instrument of oppression and destruction. American successes are counted as steps toward a progressive vision of equality and opportunity, led by protests and presidents, against conservative power structures.

Thus, many young people have been trained to see themselves as part of this ongoing political movement. Their enemies are tradition and wealth, and the party that protects them. Christianity is ordinarily a part of the tradition to be rejected, but Christians themselves call instead for a revolution in the church. Left-wing Christian populism emerged in opposition to the “American Dream,” wrongly interpreted as the acquisition of material success and status.

3. The MTV generation’s reaction to TBN

We live in a media-driven world. Television—especially cable—brought with it new values and ways of communicating. Appearance and production became extremely important for attracting an audience. In the late 1980s, Music Television did to a whole generation what Elvis did in the 1950s: it energized America’s youth and changed the industry. Indeed, the “reality tv” phenomenon first began with MTV’s “real world.” Amidst news anchors and soap operas, MTV made television cool.

Trinity Broadcasting Network
Image via Wikipedia

In an attempt to utilize television as a ministry tool, along came Trinity Broadcasting Network, featuring gaudy furniture, big hair, fanciful clothing and very uncool entertainment. To my peers, the face of Christian America was outdated and kitschy, while the secular entertainment industry was electrifying. Then came the scandals with Jim Bakker, the angry rhetoric of Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the controversial statements of Pat Robertson and his “Christian Coalition.”  The Church, it seemed, was becoming a voice of division.

All of this left young Christians without public role models. In a battle of words, people like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton could compete. But in a battle of popular entertainment, Christianity failed to supply a counterweight. Despite trying to keep up with changing trends, Christianity seemed out of touch, out of date, and seriously in danger of collapse. Enter the emergent church, which is on a tacit mission to inject cool back into Christianity and make Jesus “relevant” to modern culture. One outcome is an explosion of new churches that have effectively exiled the over-40 crowd.

Without roots, Christianity is a slave to the winds.

I wrote a blog post last July called Postmodernism and the Great Protestant Exodus, in which I argued that postmodern philosophy had caused Christians to distance themselves from traditions and denominations. In their place is an idea that each individual is on a personal search for God and truth—relationship, not religion. But while the essence of the idea is true, according to Protestant claim, they swing the pendulum too far. By failing to recognize the role of liturgy, order, accountability, tradition and historical context, they are stepping out of the ship and into a life raft, then cutting the tether in the middle of a vast ocean.

In America, we grow up admiring revolutionaries, but we must also learn when to be loyalists. Of course we are each called to seek Christ on a personal level. But to interpret this as a call to do away with “religion” is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

OTHER RESPONSES TO THE VIDEO:

Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really, by Kevin DeYoung

– Video: Jesus=Religion, by Worldview Everlasting

During lunch with a friend and former pastor a couple of days ago, our conversation steered into a question for which we each offered a different answer. At issue was the cause behind the phenomenon of young protestants who have disengaged from the idea of membership to a church congregation or denomination. Running parallel to this is the observation of non-denominational churches springing up suddenly in the last few decades.

His answer: the American spirit of rugged individualism. My answer: postmodernism. In truth, it’s probably a mix of the two, and someone better educated in the history of religion than I might point out additional factors.

“Rugged individualism” refers to the pioneering drive that has always characterized Americans, beginning with the first settlers. But if there is anything “in our genes” to this effect it most likely originated from immigrants who came from all over the world and risked everything to start anew in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In its positive forms, individualism places a premium on taking personal responsibility for one’s choices and not mooching off of other people. The negative side of individualism emerges when it is wrongly interpreted to mean that we don’t have any responsibilities toward, nor do we need, one another. That misunderstanding just turns people into inconsiderate and lonely jerks.

Postmodernism is a philosophy that rejects tradition in favor of… well, nothing in particular. Just not tradition. It began in the arts and moved into a more broad cultural idea—primarily through higher education—as we moved toward the latter part of the 20th century. The overriding concept is that what we have been told from history is a constructed lie, and that we must unleash freedom of thought and action by casting away those outdated ideas. It is not a matter of finding “truth,” because there is no “truth” to find—it is up to each person to decide.

“The overriding concept is that what we have been told from history is a constructed lie,…”

Recent generations have been somewhat indoctrinated with this philosophy, if not at home then through the school system and Hollywood. Mixed in with a touch of the individualist spirit, I believe this view has caused today’s Christians to have decreased confidence in traditional answers and methods, and increased dependence on their own ability to sort out 2,000 years of history and theology.

I myself claim no denominational label, for several reasons, but I do expect to gravitate towards a general body of tradition in due time. I have come to appreciate time-tested practices and ideas in religion, just as I do in the legal system. Of course there is corruption here and there, and different people have had it completely wrong when they were sure they had it right. But that’s human nature, and it’s everywhere.

An independent mind in the search for truth is essential, and we should not set our reason aside when we walk through church doors. At the same time, as Aristotle claimed and Christianity supports, man is a social animal—we are designed for relationship and dependency. By downplaying the role of a local congregation and denominational ties, we are entering a wilderness alone and without a map or compass.

“By downplaying the role of a local congregation and denominational ties, we are entering a wilderness alone and without a map or compass.”

I do not mean to imply that a person cannot discover things on their own, nor am I shying away from the fact that we can be misled by false doctrines and group think. The point is to connect and engage with people and ideas that will help you to deepen and refine your understanding of God and Man, while building meaningful relationships with others who can laugh, love and struggle along with you. When you know you’re in the wrong stream, step out and move to another. Don’t use it as an excuse to stay out altogether, or you may end up dry and wilted.