To the Editor:
Some contrarian commentary is in order about Colby Dunn’s news and opinion piece (and it was both) in the July 6 issue of The Smoky Mountain News concerning Pastor Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart’s graduation speech at the Nantahala School’s commencement ceremony (“Cowboy preacher delivers maverick graduation speech,” www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/4345.)
First, while I have no problem with a reporter expressing an opinion in print, I would submit that if he or she does so the article needs to explicitly be designated “opinion” or “analysis,” or alternatively that the writer make clear her or his political/ philosophical/religious convictions to enable the reader more easily to evaluate the content. By way of example, I am a fiscally and socially conservative Christian of orthodox Catholic confession who believes that the Constitution (1) both prohibits the state establishment of religion and the suppression of religiously-based speech and (2) that it contains no protection for those human touch-me-nots who can’t deal with being made uncomfortable by what someone else has to say. Such a self-identification may save fiscally and socially liberal people of unorthodox religious persuasion who believe in a “living constitution” from a rise in blood pressure caused by reading what follows, which could result in a premature and unprepared confrontation with ultimate reality.
Second, as noted in the story, Pastor Stewart was chosen by the students themselves to be their graduation speaker. Arguably, this makes him their agent rather than an “outside speaker” imposing his views on them without their consent either on his own behalf or on behalf of another external agency (such as the school administration). If so, the argument against his speech is an argument against the speech of those who engaged him, to the extent that prohibiting him from speaking would be a restraint not only of his right to free speech, but of the graduates’ right as well.
Third, the citation of former Justice O’Connor’s dictum that “we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment” is rather ironic, given that under current jurisprudence that is exactly what we do in determining what constitutes obscenity (another First Amendment issue). It seems that while “community standards” (invariably ascertained by some sort of majority) are determinative in obscenity cases, they are to allowed no weight at all when religious expression on government property (maintained by the tax dollars of all citizens of whatever religion) is concerned. One might be forgiven for thinking that, on this reading, some rights recognized in the First Amendment are more equal than others.
Fourth, the article uses, both by composition and quotation, several “spin words” that go a long way from converting a straight news report into an undesignated opinion piece. For example, Pastor Stewart is represented as having been selected, not “to speak,” but rather “to pontificate.” The speakers at Macon County’s other high school graduations are described as “benign secular appointments,” which both (1) implies – I suspect intentionally – that Pastor Stewart’s was malign and sectarian and (2) associates the concept of benignity with that of secularity without bothering to examine the content of the other speeches to see if, indeed, they were “benign” (which here seems to mean “a decent speech” whose “pleasant advice fades quickly into the background”).
Fifth, it would not be outside the realm of possibility that the uproar in the local journalistic subculture — and, let’s face it, it does seem to be largely confined to that segment of the regional community — is really rooted in an objection to the implications of what Pastor Stewart said and that SMN’s editors thought outrageous enough to highlight on the page: “The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up.” This implies something that the functionally atheistic secularist mind cannot bear even to consider, in spite of all the evidence that supports it: namely, that humanity as a whole and each member of it has a malicious, highly intelligent and personal enemy who from the beginning has been out to destroy it, usually by representing himself as the one who lights the way out what he defines as bondage into what he persuades us is untrammeled freedom and self-actualization — one who invites us to a dinner at which, only after we arrive, we realize that we are not guests but items on the menu — trussed up like a roast shoat with the apple in its teeth.
Samuel L. Edwards