Graduation and a 'naked public square' - Word&Way

Graduation and a ‘naked public square’

Two years ago, we moved from west Tennessee to Atlanta for me to begin work at Mercer University. One of the many changes that this move brought to my family was a shift in schooling for my high-school-age children. They went from a mid-size suburban Christian school to a large, urban public school. My son David graduated from that high school last week.

I think that my children have benefited in many ways from the shift to a new kind of school for the latter years of their education. In two decades of parenting we had tried various Christian schools, as well as a magnet public school and even one semester of home schooling before ending up in Atlanta and in this amazingly diverse public high school.

That diversity was much on display at graduation last week. The school official reading the names faced an extraordinary challenge in working through names from across the world’s continents and several dozen nations. Yet she managed to race through all 350 or so names in no time. In fact, the whole graduation experience took less than an hour, which was about how long it took to drive through Atlanta traffic to get there.

The reason the service took less than an hour was that, well, no adult had anything to say at the event other than to read the names. A student valedictorian gave one of those forgettable 8-minute addresses; the principal — in one sentence — celebrated a 93% college placement rate, and then the names were read. It wasn’t long before we made it to Olive Garden.

Now I, for one, was glad to make it to the restaurant. But I was struck by the absolute lack of any effort to interpret the significance of the event occurring that day. I had been even more struck earlier in the week, when the “pre-commencement exercise” for these graduates was completed in barely 30 minutes, with a similar paucity of meaning or interpretation. It was a baccalaureate service (kind of), but no clergy of any religion spoke at the event.

Twenty-five years ago the late Richard John Neuhaus wrote of our “naked public square.” He wrote to note and protest the exclusion “of religion and religiously grounded values from the conduct of public business,” based on the “doctrine…that America is a secular society.” He argued that a naked public square was dangerous to American democracy.

In a Christian public square, public business (like, for example, the education of children) is explicitly grounded, authorized, and celebrated in Christian terms. The last 40 years have witnessed the gradual sloughing off of vestiges of a Christian public square in both our nation's law and practice. Now, to find such a space, one has to cross over to the private- and home-school arenas.

The alternative to a Christian public square does not necessarily have to be a naked public square. It would be possible to imagine either a richly textured American public square or a devout-but-religiously-pluralist public square.

Again, thinking of the events I witnessed last week, one could imagine adults grounding, authorizing and celebrating a high-school education either in terms of a rich discussion of its significance for graduates and for the well-being and future of the beloved United States that we share, or in language drawn from the many faith traditions represented in the graduating class.

Neither of these things occurred at the graduation events I witnessed, and I gather that my experience was not unique. Unable to speak in Christian language, and apparently unwilling to authorize pluralist language or even civic/patriotic American language, those adult leaders rushing their way through these graduation events literally had nothing to say about the meaning of what was occurring. They read names. They also warned everyone not to misbehave too badly, under penalty of law.

So here is what I have seen in two decades of dealing with my children’s education. On the one hand there are the conservative Christian schools — fired with zealous purpose, articulate and clear about their Christian educational mission, but with a tendency toward a religious/political/racial narrowness that in that respect poorly prepares their graduates for the diverse and pluralistic society in which they will live.

On the other hand there are the public schools — every day somewhat miraculously embodying the reality of a peaceably diverse and pluralistic America, but entirely mute when it comes to any expression of the meaning or purpose of what they are doing.

David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and columnist for the Associated Baptist Press.