Caveat lector (part 2)

(continued from previous posting)

The main content of the message was a statement read by a high school principal before a football game in 2000. (The full text with background information can be found at http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/mcloud.asp.) The prefatory comments in the forwarded version I received concludes with the statement, “…and if anyone who gets this is offended by it, I’m not at all sorry.” The use of belligerence before presenting an argument is a rhetorical device designed to intimidate the audience, predisposing them to go along with whatever follows lest they be at odds with the one who sent them the message.

The author of the statement, Mr. Jody McCloud, was protesting a Supreme Court ruling that under certain circumstances, prayers read over the PA system of a public school violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This ruling meant that a school tradition of long standing had be changed, and Mr. McCloud was quite exercised about it. Unfortunately, he was so upset about the effect of the ruling on cherished tradition that he missed the point of the ruling, which was that the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to live in a nation whose government institutions do not promote the views of any one religious belief over another. Because a public school is a government institution, this right clearly has precedence over the practices and preferences of any private group of citizens, even if they constitute an overwhelming majority within the community.

Mr. McCloud mistakenly surmised that the ruling was based on the desire to avoid offending anyone. While this may be a helpful approach in many social interactions, it is far too whimsical to form the basis of law. Mr. McCloud’s statement did illustrate this point very effectively, citing six instances in which apparent adherence to the ruling and the law behind it would be manifestly offensive to him.

The examples named in the statement further illustrate the degree to which Mr. McCloud misunderstood the Supreme Court’s ruling, because none of them are issues on which even members of his own religious affiliation agree. A large number of fellow Christians vehemently disagree with his stated positions, and many of them would be offended by the way in which he framed the issues and articulated his views.

The real strength of Mr. McCloud’s statement was the way he ended it, acknowledging that civil society functions through rules intended for the good of all, and that our responsibility as members of society is to follow those rules, even when they do not sit well with us personally. He fairly pointed out that the ruling did not prohibit personal, non-corporate expressions of religious devotion, and he shrewdly got in a prayer of his own, followed by a sharp little barb of sarcasm.

Even though Mr. McCloud failed to grasp the meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision and was clearly unhappy about the ruling, he agreed nevertheless to uphold the law of the land. The first two-thirds of his statement were devoted to voicing his outrage, however, which produced the unfortunate rhetorical effect of overshadowing his own genuinely patriotic decision. The commentary that concludes the e-mail message capitalizes on this effect, inaccurately characterizing Mr. McCloud’s statement of loyal opposition as a defiant gesture against the hidden forces of evil and injustice that are at work in the federal government.

The fact that everyone in the stadium that day prayed did not fly in the face of the establishment clause or the Supreme Court’s ruling on it; all that praying was in fact made possible by the First Amendment and exemplified the very actions it was designed to protect. The e-mail pretends to promulgate Mr. McCloud’s heartfelt expression of religious belief and commitment, but it violates his integrity and that of his message by attending only to his indignation and ignoring the clever solution he devised to satisfy the spiritual needs of those he served without violating the law. Instead of celebrating the resourcefulness of a patriot showing devotion to his faith and the traditions of his community, the e-mail uses his story to further its own ends.

The final line of the e-mail reads, “Praise God that His remnant remains!” This is another implicit rhetorical threat directed at the audience, suggesting that to disagree with the interpretation presented in the e-mail is to identify with those who are not among God’s elect. If that doesn’t prevent feedback and critical response, nothing will!

As evidence of how well the rhetorical devices in this e-mail work, on my first reading I completely missed the paragraph in Mr. McCloud’s statement about following and enforcing rules with which one does not agree. It wasn’t until I began this detailed analysis that I realized that Mr. McCloud had honored both the letter and the spirit of the law in his statement. Set up by the prefatory comments (remember, my version included an explicit willingness to be offensive to recipients) and influenced by Mr. McCloud’s laundry list of oppressive examples, my mind didn’t register the paragraph beginning with “Nevertheless.”

Caveat lector indeed!

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