Features

Convocation conviction

Education | 'It isn't enough to be special,' says Dartmouth student body president

Issue: "Rita: After the storms," Oct. 8, 2005

Noah Riner's inbox flooded with e-mails following his Sept. 20 convocation speech to Dartmouth freshmen-an exposition on character with Jesus as supreme example. The student body president sifted through the electronic responses meticulously, drawing strength from supporters and extending a hand of friendship to critics.

In the week after his controversial remarks, Mr. Riner, 21, met personally with nearly every detractor incensed enough to click the send button. His intention: "Let me hear your perspective, and allow me to explain myself." Grievances included personal attacks, condemnations of Christianity as intellectual folly, and questions over whether Mr. Riner employed an appropriate venue to express his religious values.

Read the full text of Noah Riner's speeck on the Dartmouth web site.

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Mr. Riner had conventionally opened his address by praising the class of 2009 as "the smartest and most diverse group of freshmen to set foot on the Dartmouth campus. You have more potential than all of the other classes. You really are special." But unlike past Dartmouth convocation speeches, with which Mr. Riner familiarized himself, the unmemorable mush ended there.

Mr. Riner argued that "it isn't enough to be special. It isn't enough to be talented, to be beautiful, to be smart." He spoke of past Dartmouth graduates who had gone on to commit great evil not for lack of knowledge or ability, but lack of character. Then he dropped the bomb: "Jesus' message of redemption is simple. People are imperfect, and there are consequences for our actions. He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn't have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love. The problem is me; the solution is God's love: Jesus on the cross, for us."

Students squirmed in their seats. Attending faculty shifted uncomfortably. A campus-wide firestorm followed. Editorials, guest columns, and letters to the editor filled the pages of the Dartmouth student newspaper. Senior Brian Martin wrote that he was "appalled and disappointed," adding that "Jesus would not have wanted to make new students feel unwelcome." An editorial cartoon depicted Mr. Riner as an overzealous fanatic out to vanquish infidels, with Jesus as a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking hippie advising him to chill out.
Others wrote passionately in Mr. Riner's defense: "He stood up against political correctness, and it is about time," opined senior Stacey Kourlis: "No one has been hurt or denied their rights. If anything, Riner has just created the chance for everyone to argue about a controversial topic." Freshman Brian Chao suggested that "had Riner instead espoused the virtues of Muhammad, Buddha, or any other religious figure, he would be applauded."

That people disagreed with his ideas did not surprise the senior, a history and government double major, but the frequent unwillingness to engage those ideas surprised and disappointed him. "I wish people would wrestle more with the issues raised in my speech rather than with the propriety of the speech," he told WORLD, insisting he had not intended to generate a discussion of free-speech rights. "As a Christian, I can't talk about character without talking about Jesus."

Fallout from his talk has tested Mr. Riner's character. Junior Kaelin Goulet, a fellow member of the student assembly, resigned in protest, calling the convocation address "reprehensible and an abuse of power." Criticism from declared Christians as well has magnified pressure to apologize. "If he had presented (Christianity) as an option of many options, then it would have been entirely appropriate," senior Jesse Moyas said. "He could have been more sensitive, as an elected official, to his audience. He had a responsibility to his post to not try and impose what I'm going to call contextually inappropriate beliefs on others."

Such disparagement weighs heavily on Mr. Riner, a homeschooled son of a Baptist preacher from Kentucky. Nevertheless, the stress-filled aftermath of replacing empty academic ritual with politically incorrect honesty and openness has not disheartened him. "I gave the speech I wanted to give," he said. "I was who I am."

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