Politics & Policy

Church/State At Dartmouth

The whole business of whether public schools can permit “intelligent design” to be acknowledged as an alternative to Darwinian evolution in explanation of human life will begin democratic exercises in a courtroom in Pennsylvania this week. There are regular flashpoints on this matter of the separation of church and state. Some of them test out constitutional questions, others merely modi vivendi. A week ago Noah Riner, the president of the Dartmouth Student Assembly, ran into the wrath of orthodox hardliners.

What happened was a convocation welcoming the freshman class to Dartmouth College. The student president traditionally speaks at these convocations, and this time it was the young man from Louisville, Kentucky, who uttered what turned out to be an inflammatory couple of sentences. He told the freshmen that the mere imparting of knowledge is less than what a college education should seek to do for students. The development of character is the higher goal. “Character has a lot to do with sacrifice, laying our personal interests down for something bigger. The best example of this is Jesus. . . . He knew the right thing to do. He knew the cost would be agonizing torture and death. He did it anyway. That’s character.”

That violation of secularist decorum brought on great indignation. A petition drive against the young student body president is contemplated. A vice president of the Student Assembly wrote to him, “I consider your choice of topic for the Convocation speech reprehensible and an abuse of power. You embarrass the organization, you embarrass yourself.” A sophisticated defense was tendered by a Jewish student who wrote, “Many of us in the Dartmouth community proudly disagree with that and other aspects of Riner’s religious beliefs, but our disagreements do not give us the right to limit his speech.”

Riner himself gave a shrewd appraisal of the nature of the taboo. “The problem is not that Dartmouth has a formalized speech code. That would be easy to deal with, and easy for students to break. The problem is that Dartmouth has a speech culture, where some topics are off limits and some perspectives shouldn’t be uttered. [Such] speech restriction is much more difficult to break–as I have recently discovered.”

A few years ago the president of Dartmouth, dedicating the Jewish culture center, said that Dartmouth had a history of anti-Semitism, for which the college sought to shrive itself. Such prejudice was widespread before the Second World War, and the effort to expunge it engaged attention in the university world so high as to court the danger of drifting into a de facto prejudice against Christian expressiveness, as young Mr. Riner discovered. An effort was made (I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times and gave a lecture at Dartmouth) to make the sensible distinction: to eliminate anti-Semitic discrimination should not require the rejection of Christian traditions. The opposite could be held, inasmuch as a Christian who practices discrimination violates not only federal law, but also Christian law.

But as with the quarrel over the mere mention of intelligent design, the distinction struggles for air. The planted axiom being encouraged by the secular community is that an acknowledgment of biological evolution not only acquiesces in scientific certitudes, it cannot coexist with any thought of intelligent design. And this is true no matter how many metaphors are introduced (“we don’t mean Noah actually got all living creatures into an ark . . .”) to concede the morganatic difference between intelligent design and Darwinian evolution. Those at Dartmouth who objected to Mr. Riner’s obeisance to Jesus acted as though he were bent on repealing the First Amendment. It wasn’t as if he had been appealing to restore Dartmouth’s original charter–which called for Christianizing the Indians.

Well, his experience helps him, and others, to develop the character, courage, and faith he sought to celebrate.

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