The Sweet and Shrewd Courage of a High School Graduation Speech
Written by Rhett Burns on June 20, 2017
Graduating senior Moriah Bridges was chosen by her class president to provide the closing exercise at Beaver High School’s June 2nd graduation ceremony in Beaver, Pennsylvania. Bridges, a Christian, included a prayer in her remarks, but the Beaver School District forced her to edit her speech due to religious language such as “Heavenly Father” and “Lord.” The school superintendent added that she “most certainly may not recite a prayer that excludes other religions.” From this point, Bridges’ actions were a model of shrewdness and courage.
First, she showed compliance without actually complying. Bridges submitted a revised draft of her speech, which the district subsequently approved. The edited remarks still included stealth religious language that was generic enough to avoid being censored, yet potent enough to still be Christian. Here are a few examples:
“Let’s remember to be thankful for our immeasurable blessings…. Let’s seek not only knowledge, but the spirit of wisdom and revelation… that we would know the hope to which we’ve been called… Let our hearts be soft to show true love and compassion, to show mercy and grace to others the way mercy and grace were shown to us, even to the ultimate sacrifice… Let us be righteous.”
In two different ways—one subtle, one blatant—Bridges turned her speech into a cloaked prayer. First, she harnessed the power of English grammar, making use of the first and third person imperative forms to pray without making a formal address (e.g. “let us” or “let our hearts”). She also asked and hoped for things, which is language that assumes someone to hear the petition. But her closing lines lacked such subtlety, and this is where she showed deft courage by going off script without permission.
“I’ve always been a rule follower. When they said not to chew gum, I didn’t chew gum. When they said not to use your cellphone, I didn’t use my cellphone. But today, in the spirit of defying expectations, and for perhaps the last time at this podium, I say, ‘in the righteous name of Jesus Christ, Amen.'”
This moment was beautiful. Like a good poker player she had kept a straight face all along. She had played the part of the compliant Christian who dutifully obeys the Speech Codes of the Great Secular Order, who thinks niceness is a fruit of the Spirit, and who is not a threat. Then, with all the innocent cuteness of a schoolgirl too scrupulous to even chew gum she showed her cards and defied the gods of the age. She locked eyes with principalities and powers, and smiled—“In the righteous name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
This young lady exhibited great courage we would do well to emulate. She flouted the ungodly edicts of school administrators and refused to be intimidated by their abuse of authority. She simply said, No! Hers was a sweet courage, too. She did not yell, she was not crass, and she did not whine. Knowing she was free and in the right, Bridges plainly invoked the name of Jesus and then sat down, full of joy and of the Holy Spirit.
At this point some well-meaning Christians—perhaps catechized by the public school system— might play the Romans 13 card. Are we not bound to obey the government and forbidden to resist it? Well, yes and no, and like a lot of things in life, it depends. According to Romans 13 government is God’s deacon to punish the evildoer.  But what if the government becomes the evildoer? What if it forbids speaking the name of Jesus? I’ll see your Romans 13 and raise you an Acts 4.
“But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’”—Acts 4:19-20
However, it is worth noting that Bridges not only had the angels on her side, but the law as well. U.S. Department of Education policy, in concert with Supreme Court precedent, expressly forbids schools from restricting religious language in graduation speeches and declares that such speech is not attributable to the school. The district superintendent misconstrued a 2000 Supreme Court case to say the opposite. Had Bridges complied with the school’s edict she would have unwittingly made herself a mark for the district’s lawless aggression.
Our society could also use a dose of Bridges’ brand of courage at the corporate level. We are a threatened people. Speech codes, slander, protests, and the heavy hand of bureaucratic law are all wielded against Christians. But the sad reality is that we have allowed this situation to arise. We have let small movements boasting only fragments of our population become cultural Leviathans because we have refused to say, No! We have complied with their rules, adopted their dictionary, and sworn allegiance to their idea of neutral public square—which really means neutered Christians in the public square. So we must learn the arts of shrewd courage, principled disobedience, and authorized defiance. By authorized defiance I mean to remind us that, when we stand up for righteousness against the wicked actions of the state, we are not the disobedient ones. We are authorized by God and His Word to defy unrighteousness. For one such practical example of how to apply this I refer you to Toby Sumpter’s proposal on ending abortion at the state level.
We must learn not to fold. They are sitting across the table with an ultimately unwinnable hand, mismatched and off-suit. They have “closing exercises,” but we have prayers to the living God. They have things to be thankful for, but we actually have Someone to thank. They have coercion, but we have the Spirit of the Lord—and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. We are holding a royal flush, for Jesus walked out of the grave and ascended to the sovereign throne at the right hand of the Father in heaven. It’s time to call their bluff, it’s time to play our cards, it’s time for shrewd courage.
Header Photo Credit: First Liberty Institute