On Eric Metaxas’ Convocation speech

by Ben Mckenzie

Contributing Writer

Let me begin by saying that Sewanee is my home. It is perhaps my favourite place on Earth, and I love this school more dearly than I can express. However, there are moments when I am forced to wonder how I can still love Sewanee so much. The most recent of these was at Convocation last Friday, which I attended in support of a friend who was receiving her gown. I arrived at All Saints’ full of Sewanee spirit and left incensed and disappointed after having been forced to listen to one of the most offensive and disgusting speeches I have ever witnessed. Eric Metaxas, the man who received the doctorate in “Humane Letters,” gave an address which left the assembly in shock. The only thing that kept my spirits up was the dismay with which the audience greeted Metaxas’ speech. Metaxas began on a reasonable note, pointing out the importance of open-mindedness and free speech in civil debate. He talked about the fragility of freedom and free speech and spoke out against the demonization of people who hold opposing views.

At this point Metaxas’ speech seemed like a call for open-mindedness and personal liberty, so it was surprising when Mr. Metaxas began to argue AGAINST personal liberty. All of Metaxas’ examples were instances in which the people whose liberties he felt were being curtailed were trying to restrict the freedom of others. For instance, Metaxas had the bad taste to use the Anti-Apartheid movement as an example of political peer pressure. He told the story of his undergraduate graduation, where all the students wore ribbons to support divestment from the apartheid South African government. Metaxas said that he felt a “vague coercion to wear these ribbons, as if not wearing them meant one was somehow in favour of apartheid and therefore racist. Not to wear them was not an option if you wanted the respect and admiration of your classmates.” I agree that it is inappropriate to pressure others to share your views. Open civil discourse is crucial to the maintenance of a democratic society. However, for Metaxas to imply that his freedom of speech was being restricted by the social climate of his school seems positively juvenile. If one supports, through willful inaction, a government responsible for the overt oppression, imprisonment, and even murder of its own people based on the colour of their skin, one cannot expect increase in the “respect and admiration of one’s peers.” Perhaps even worse than this distasteful anecdote was Metaxas’ following rant on the integral interconnectedness of faith and morality. Beneath a thin veneer of reason and civil discourse, Metaxas continued to push his evangelical agenda.

Metaxas argued that “public” faith was necessary for the maintenance of a “virtuous” and “moral” society, saying that “Our founders understood this and they were explicit about this,” and that “Our republic was made only for a virtuous and moral people,” implying along the way that traditional Christianity was the guiding hand of a free society. Metaxas did make some good points. Freedom of speech and diversity of opinion are invaluable to a democratic society. We can’t wish away all those who hold different beliefs. It is important for us to hear the opinions of others and to take them to heart and to question our own beliefs and opinions. That is why I’m almost glad that Metaxas was brought Sewanee to speak. It allowed me to re-examine my convictions and to ask myself whether I am open to receiving the views of others. The answer is that I believe I am. As strongly as I may disagree with someone I hope I am willing to listen to them and to be respectful. However, if they show the same lack of taste and offensiveness as Mr. Metaxas, they cannot expect me to respect them more because of it.

22 thoughts

  1. I just read that speech. If you consider that one of the most “disgusting and offensive” speeches you have ever heard, your world is a very limited, tiny place.

  2. I agree with Geoffrey. What’s more, your vitriol belies what you really believe, i.e. you don’t really believe in free speech and open dialogue between people who disagree. Your crowd can’t go two seconds without bashing anyone that dares stand up to the leftist agenda. Leftist hypocrisy knows no limits.

    1. If this is what you think is “vitriol,” you should invest in a dictionary. Mr. McKenzie concludes that he is glad that Mr. Metaxas spoke, and that he respects his right to speak; however, he does not respect him more because of his opinions, which he finds offensive, and he argues against those opinions in a way consistent with intellectual debate. If finding anything offensive is wrong, you can take no umbrage even if this were “vitriol,” for you would be finding it offensive. If your problem is specifically with the example, the rhetorical power of something like wearing ribbons (the purpose of which was to make others conscious of their perhaps silent or unknowing involvement or investment in Apartheid), then you must be opposed to the art of persuasion in general, which works (in part) by acting upon the ethos, one’s sense of social respect. In that case, your problem is with Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintillian as well as with the author of this opinion.

  3. Mason, I’m new to Metaxas’ stuff. Can you please give some examples of his usual offensiveness? While I still believe your friend Ben has had little exposure to ideas other than his own if he finds the recent speech so devastating, I’m willing to hear arguments on the overall subject.

    1. He’s offensive because, as Ben points out, he’s using Christianity and this opportunity to speak to push a judgemental political agenda.

      1. Hmmm. Thanks for the response. So you’re offended by his religion and politics, if I understand you. If the problem is that he pushes a judgmental political agenda, would you have similarly complained if someone gave a speech that contained religious and political ideas identical to yours?

      2. On the contrary, it seems to me that the one pushing a “judgmental political agenda” is Mr. Mckenzie, not Mr. Metaxas.

      3. Well done, Geoffrey. Apparently Mason did not read Metaxas’ speech… and if he did, he seems to have missed the point. His comments are great examples of the “intolerant preaching tolerance.”

  4. Ben,
    I write this from China.
    If you actually believe that any of the content of this speech is “offensive” or “disgusting”, then I would strongly urge you to get out, see the world, maybe read a little and get some perspective!

  5. Dear Mr. Metaxas,

    I would like to apologize for the rash tantrum of an article found in the newspaper. I, along with many other Sewanee graduates, current students, and community members, found your speech both refreshing and strikingly relevant. In times where groupthink and conformity are expected, I was glad to hear Sewanee was honoring someone such as yourself. Ideological and political debate are both wanted and necessary in nurturing a free society and creating a meaningful liberal arts education.

    Your comments regarding our Christian mores in this country could not of rung truer. “The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive one without the other.” Tocqueville observed that it is our deep Christian faith that explains our desire and respect for freedom and democracy, and this foundation in faith has guided us for centuries. We often forget that our respect for freedom, as you illustrated, lies in our notions of morality and faith in Christ. The founders knew this, and we must work diligently to preserve it.

    Again, I grant my most sincere apologies. I wish many thanks for preparing and delivering a speech we should all work to act upon and heed. Thank you for your continued stand for Christ. “Not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act.”

    Thank you,

    Atticus Frank, Sewanee: The University of the South, Class of 2014

  6. Having to hear Mr. Metaxas caused the author to say he, “left incensed and disappointed after having been forced to listen to one of the most offensive and disgusting speeches I have ever witnessed.” Really? Talk about a overdramatized tantrum.

    After the multi-word rant against Metaxas, Ben wraps up with, “That is why I’m almost glad that Metaxas was brought Sewanee to speak. It allowed me to re-examine my convictions and to ask myself whether I am open to receiving the views of others. The answer is that I believe I am.”

    LOL! You really can’t make this stuff up!

    I may not have graduated from Sewanee, but I did attend for two years. My son recently graduated from this wonderful institution. On behalf of my own Sewanee connection, allow me to say how sorry I am for such a rude display in the “Sewanee Purple.” Your speech was and is beautiful, and Sewanee should be honored to have a man of your distinction stir thoughts on campus.

  7. As a graduate of Sewanee “many moons” ago, I was quite surprised to hear that Eric Metaxas was asked to speak. Surprised because I have watched with sadness Sewanee go the way of many supposedly “liberal” institutions and their “groupthink” mentality. I have read his biography of Bonhoeffer and just recently his delightful book on Miracles. I find him both intellectually and spiritually stimulating, something of a rare combination. HIs point about the connection between the founding of our country, the great experiment in democracy and free speech, and her Christian moorings is a point that needs to be underscored again and again. I am afraid it has been forgotten in many of our educational institutions.

  8. Eric: your offensivieness stems from his claim to objective victimhood. In your twisted worldview, the faithful are marginalized and mistreated, laughed at or, perhaps worse, hunted for their beliefs. Newsflash: if you are a Christian in America, you’re not a hunted minority – you are the majority. If you are straight, you have not been marginalized. If you are white, you cannot know true oppression. As an individual, you may have experienced some measure of discrimination – I daresay we all have. That’s the human experience. But your experience is nothing compared to the truly marginalized in our society. Claiming victimhood is incredibly bigoted and selfish.
    A word on faith: we do not need faith. This country was not founded on faith. That myth has been disproven time and again. The French and the Japanese and countless other secular societies are getting along just fine without faith. Put a sock in it.
    “Our republic was made only for a virtuous and moral people.” What you mean is, it was made for people like you, people who think that restricting gay marriage and outlawing abortion constitutes your “religious liberty.” True freedom is freedom from people like you. It’s freedom from the kind of domineeering, quasi-fascist values espoused by conservative Christians.
    A note on slavery – Christianity didn’t bring it down. Liberals brought it down. Christianity was the BEDROCK of slavery! How many countless slaves must have heard this quote: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)” Let’s not even discuss Exodus 21:20-21, Exodus 21:7-11, and Leviticus 25:44-46, among other passages. Good Christian folk thought Jesus wanted them to have slaves. And we’re just scratching the surface here – the Bible has been used to justify countless massacres, lynchings, intra-marital rapes, tortures, pillagings, and good ole witchhunts for thousands of years.
    “Do not marginalize voices of faith. Do not say we have moved on.” But we have. We’re over it. We’re tired to bring told who we can and can’t marry, what we can and can’t do with our bodies, what does and does not constitute moral behavior. Your get your beliefs from an ancient book, and we don’t buy it. If that’s our worst crime, so be it.
    I’m not trying to marginalize you. I want to engage your silly ideas one by one and throw my head back and laugh. I want everyone to know what ridiculous beliefs you hold. So please, keep on speaking. Keep on claiming the mantle of victimhood. Keep wondering why people snicker and raise their eyebrows. Perhaps one day it will click. Perhaps not. But at least someone will have told you: we have moved on.

  9. Well, native South African, you certainly provided the most humorous entry here. Like some of the others, you apparently did not even read the speech, which was primarily an appeal for a classicly liberal tolerance of dissent. And a Geico commercial came to mind: “Did you know that some slaveholders used the Bible to justify slavery?” “Native South African, everybody knows that.” But it appears that they don’t teach U.S. history in South Africa, because it’s indisputable that Christians led the opposition to slavery, with the occasional Thoreau thrown in. Finally, thank you for providing us all with the image of you “throwing back your head and laughing and laughing” like some kind of historically ignorant Dr. Evil or Blofeld confidently unfolding some scheme just as it’s about to fail. It has made me smile all day.

  10. I attended Sewanee from 1969 to 1971. One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was to leave for “an affair of the heart.” It was a mistake because at the time, Sewanee offered the opportunity for a young, middle-class “son of the south,” and child of a coach-high school teacher and an elementary librarian, the chance to have the whole world of the mind opened to him. Sewanee took a chance on me, and even though I didn’t graduate, that gamble has made all the difference to me and to my family, and perhaps, just a little, to my home state of Tennessee.
    I learned from professors like Dr. Stephen Puckett and Dr. Gilbert Gilchrist and Mr. Andrew Lytle that free, open-inquiry, with no holds barred was how free women and men found “The Truth.” And they taught me that “The Truth” is there to be found-by anyone who believes in the Transcendent Truth.
    For decades I and people like me who love Sewanee have mourned her descent into the “pit of post-modernism” and now, into seemingly mindless “ressentiment” of those on the left.
    Eric Metaxas and Bishop N.T. Wright seem to be a sudden burst of the old light. May God bless this beloved Mountain and offer to the children who come here to learn about Western man’s ascent from the mire of barbarism following the demise of Rome “The Truth” once again. Bravo Dr. McCardle and Regents!

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