Pushing the envelope: Mainstream valedictorian defies secular extremism
Last week, the valedictorian of a high school in South Carolina made national news by “defiantly” tearing up his state-approved speech and instead delivering remarks that more truly reflect what he wanted to say to his classmates and to the community at large. Those remarks included a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which is recorded in Matthew 6.
The response to the address by Roy Costner of Liberty High School has been enormous, much of it positive. The 18-year-old has, of course, faced criticism for his public stance, as one might expect.
The student’s bold act, respectfully if somewhat nervously delivered, gained a national hearing. It was featured on the Drudge Report and by several other media outlets. A surprised Costner was interviewed by CNN’s Brooke Baldwin and Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.
As I write, a YouTube video of the entire address has been viewed more than 230,000 times. A shorter video of the valedictorian reciting the Lord’s Prayer has garnered more than 748,000 views.
Particularly upset about all of this is an atheist organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), based in Madison, Wisconsin.
After Costner’s speech, the FFRF thundered: “The valedictorian who so insensitively inflicted Christian prayer on a captive audience at a secular graduation ceremony is a product of a school district which itself has set an unconstitutional example by hosting school board prayer.”
This atheistic angst is unconvincing — and extremist, I might add. If one consults the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, for example, it is patently clear that reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a public school stands entirely within the founding and defining American mainstream.
That mainstream locates the center of gravity of human freedom in the Creator, who is respected as the transcendent source of unalienable human rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” states the Declaration.
In addition, the First Amendment places a limit on what Congress can do, not on what local schools (or students, parents, officials, etc.) in the diversity of states can do. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” says the First Amendment.
The First Amendment is intended to prevent the federal government from establishing a national state ecclesiastical structure — something that England had when the Constitution was drafted. There is to be no national Catholic, Baptist, or Presbyterian state church.
The individual states, however, remain free to pursue policies they desire in this area. In addition, the people of the individual states and of the nation are in no way to be discouraged from acknowledging — and publicly acting upon that acknowledgement — the very Creator who is rather publicly affirmed in the Declaration as the source of unalienable human rights in the first place.
Another line of criticism against Costner relies on a challenge to the practice of public prayer. Critics will quote Jesus, who states in the Sermon on the Mount: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matt 6:5).
What Jesus is critiquing here, however, is hypocritical prayer, not public prayer. In fact, the Jesus of history emphasizes the application of his teaching across the whole of life, including public life.
After all, his own program was very much a public effort not “done in a corner” (Acts 26:26), occurring in space and time before crowds big and small. His life and his message impacted political issues (Caesar, Herod, tax collectors), social concerns (the structure of marriage, the dignity of women), and ethical challenges (loving God, resisting evil, practicing truth).
None of this does Jesus advocate “religiously,” as the term is often understood today — that is, as a matter of blind “faith” or of an inward commitment to a “belief system.” Rather, what the carpenter from Nazareth affirms is content and facts rooted in real-world information. He embraces critical thinking and critical praxis conducted in space and time, before the eyes and ears and minds and agendas of both friend and foe. From birth to death to post-death empirical evidence for a bodily resurrection, this Jesus and his work are open to rational analysis and to the possibility of sense-data verification or falsification.
Secularists prefer a dumbed-down, domesticated form of Christianity that functions like an enfeebling crutch for the weak. But that kind of vain philosophy, as well as the superstitions of atheism, is alien to the robust Christianity of Jesus, which stood intellectually, ethically, and freely against the power of an inhumane state, the hatreds of closed-down religion, and the hostility of crowds and cultures swayed by false information delivered by the gatekeepers of their day.
“We must obey God rather than man” is the liberating principle (reported in Acts 5) that strikes the fear of freedom into the hearts of oppressors, atheist or otherwise. This call to a proper defiance reaches back to the relativistic, authoritarian days of Caesar Augustus of Rome and forward to the relativistic, authoritarian impositions of secular Caesars in the decaying Rome that America is becoming today.
Roy Costner was supposed to follow a script pre-approved by imperious functionaries of a secular state. But their extremism is at odds not only with the American mainstream but also with the transgenerational mainstream of free thought and of free humanity created in the image of God and not in the image of the state, the particles of an impersonal cosmos, or the results of agenda-driven polls.
Costner chose instead a humane resistance of love and truth on behalf of God and man. This “defiance” may confuse some observers today, but it should be of little surprise to those who affirm the content of the Lord’s Prayer. For included in that communication is publicly actionable information regarding an enduring and liberating mandate of human existence: the challenge to do God’s will “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
That liberation can mean feeding the poor, rescuing 12-year-old girls from sex-trafficking, creating magnificent art, inaugurating the scientific enterprise, or sharing the Good News about a resistance movement launched from heaven. It might even mean bright young men and women rocking secular boats at public events in South Carolina and elsewhere — maybe even “unto the end of the earth,” as the Ringleader puts it (Acts 1). He and his people do have a knack for pushing the envelope.
J. Richard Pearcey is scholar for worldview studies and associate director of the Francis Schaeffer Center for Worldview and Culture at Houston Baptist University. He is also editor and publisher of The Pearcey Report as well as formerly managing editor of Human Events and associate editor of the “Evans-Novak Political Report.”