A baccalaureate service is a celebration that honors a graduating senior class from a college or high school. The service is held within a few days of the graduation and/or commencement ceremony, perhaps on the Sunday before, the day preceding, or immediately preceding the graduation. Speakers selected tend to be community leaders, faculty members, students, or local religious leaders, and may be elected by the graduating class. Speeches are often intermixed with musical performances, drama, and worship
It was not always that way. The baccalaureate service seems to have had its birth in a 1432 Oxford University statute, which required each graduating bachelor to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of his academic exercise. I suspect that today’s graduating seniors are relieved to know that this part of this very important event went away with powdered wigs and that they no longer have to listen to a thirty-minute sermon spoken in Latin. This tradition of oration continued to be the crux of baccalaureate services as they became common in American universities. Over time, however, the original focus on religion that marked these speeches diminished or expanded to inter-faith subjects.
There are different interpretations of the etymology of the name “baccalaureate service.” According to some sources, bacca is said to come from “bachelor” and lauri is said to denote “oration.” Another interpretation of the term “baccalaureate” points to the tradition of bestowing laurel plants upon those scholars who earned a bachelor’s degree. In this case, the name is said to come from bacca or “berry,” and laureates, or “crowned with branches of bay laurel leaves.” In either case, there is a connection between speech giving, bestowing laurels, and bachelor’s degrees, and both interpretations may be legitimate.
Because of United States Supreme Court rulings regarding the separation of church and state, baccalaureate services are presently not official, school-sponsored events at American public schools. However, many schools have student-initiated services at private facilities not paid for with government funds, and as such are fully permitted by law. Until recent years, school-sponsored baccalaureate services were common in American public schools, and usually held on school grounds.
It has been over sixty years since I sat in attendance at my baccalaureate service from high school, which was held at a local church. After all these years, I can still remember the message that was given to our class that day. The message was this: We were going through what is known as “the green years” of our lives – times of changing attitudes, changing ideas, and changing ideals – so we should not make any important decisions in our lives until we were at least twenty-two years old. Those were important words for me to hear when I was eighteen. My life was indeed changing as I was deciding what I wanted to do with my life. My ideas of my future life had moved first from being a racing jockey (I outgrew that idea when I sprouted eight or nine inches in one year), to a disc jockey, then to an ad man (I entered college with Marketing as my major and with an eye toward making advertising my life’s work). But by the time I was twenty-two, I was headed in the direction of the ministry and here I am, these many years later, a retired priest in the Episcopal Church. I am so thankful that I did not follow those other paths because I have never regretted my decision to seek Holy Orders in the church. As far as I was concerned, the speaker that day at my baccalaureate service was unquestionably correct.
The reason that I mention all of this is because of an article that I read recently about a very different baccalaureate service from my own.
To wit. Organized by some in the faith-based community, the baccalaureate service was held on a Sunday at the Kings Mountain High School, located in Kings Mountain, a small suburban city within the Charlotte metropolitan area in the Cleveland and Gaston counties of North Carolina.
Announcement of the service appeared in the Kings Mountain Herald as follows: “Finals exercises for 303 Kings Mountain High School seniors will begin on Sunday night at 7 p.m. with baccalaureate services in B. N. Barnes Auditorium and culminate on Saturday, June 6, at 9 a.m. in John Gamble Stadium with presentation of diplomas to the Class of 2015. The worship service Sunday is sponsored by the Kings Mountain Ministerial Association. Rev. Ron Caulder, Ministerial Association President, invites family and friends of graduates to the special service of worship and inspiration. Rev. Scott Carpenter, interim pastor of Temple Baptist Church, will deliver the message, ‘The Completion of the Matter’ based on the text from Ecclesiastes 12: 9-14. Carpenter is a graduate of Kings Mountain High School, Gardner-Webb University and Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Linda, have one daughter, Erica, who is president of the senior class and will give the welcome. The invocation will be given by Johnna Scism and the congregation will join in the singing of Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee. Tico Crocker will lead the Litany and Symphonic Chorale Seniors will sing Sing Me to Heaven. Amontae Perkins, Collin Foster and Sarah Scism will read scripture passages and the congregation will join in singing Be Thou My Vision and Step By Step after the sermon. Shawn Adams will give the benedictional prayer. Pomp and Circumstance will be played by Cathy Holland to usher the seniors into and from the auditorium. Sarah E. Fulton is directing the music for the service.”
Attendance at the baccalaureate service was voluntary and as shown above, the program included participation by several students and a pastor from the area. It all sounds innocent enough, right? But the featured speaker, the Reverend Scott Carpenter, from Temple Baptist Church in Kings Mountain delivered an odious anti-gay rant, leaving both parents and students angry and confused. Carpenter later said that he just could not pass up the opportunity to alert graduating seniors from high school that if they were gay, they were going to hell. However, angry parents and students complained that Pastor Carpenter was way out of line by delivering what they considered a hate filled rant at what was supposed to be a ceremony celebrating graduation from high school. “The speakers usually speak about things like shooting for the stars,” said Greg Shull, director of communications for Cleveland County Schools.
Despite the controversy, Pastor Scott Carpenter says he has no regrets. When confronted by reporters, Carpenter told a local television station: “Do I hate anybody? Absolutely not. I just love them too much not to tell them the truth. Nobody got bashed or anything. All I did was simply speak biblical truth… The number one audience that I have to please is God. Was I trying to be mean spirited? Absolutely not. Was I trying to hurt somebody’s feelings? Absolutely not. I simply had to do what I had to do as a Christian minister.” With his overuse of the term “absolutely not,” the man “doth protest too much, methinks” – to paraphrase the Bard of Avon. Many students and parents disagreed with Pastor Carpenter’s assessment of his own remarks, and many did not appreciate his so-called “biblical truth.”
But what Carpenter calls truth was summed up as something else to Chuck Wilson, a Kings Mountain parent of one of the graduating seniors. Wilson described Carpenter’s anti-gay, hate filled rant as “bullying,” saying: “This is bullying. Bullying doesn’t have to happen from the back hallway of a school or a back parking lot. It can happen from the pulpit; it can happen from the stage. It’s a public school. There are children here. I think there should be some level of responsibility of the speaker coming in to not take advantage of a captive audience.” In a statement, Cleveland County Schools said that they would be more cautious about the selection process of baccalaureate speakers in the future. I would certainly hope so.
The whole incident raises several questions for me. For instance,
- Why was there an optional religious service promoted as part of the graduation exercises of a public school?
- Why were the community’s religious leaders choosing the speaker rather than the education officials of a public school for an event apparently organized by the public school district?
- Why did an individual’s version of “biblical truth” have to be proclaimed at an event associated with graduating seniors of a public school?
What Pastor Carpenter said in that interview with reporters raises even deeper concerns. Let me address to them one-by-one.
- “Do I hate anybody? I just love them too much not to tell them the truth.” I don’t know if he hates anyone. Hate is a very strong word and I would use it very cautiously. But obviously, for Carpenter to say what he did in that baccalaureate service, his idea of truth and mine are very different. I believe that his idea of truth is based on a misreading of the Bible. When people claim that the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin, I know they truly believe that the Bible says this, but in reality, it does not. There are passages such as the Sodom story (Genesis 19) that depicts every male in the town gathering to gang rape some visitors. But the issue here is hospitality, not gay sex. These men were just plain cruel to outsiders. There are other passages that people turn to, such as Leviticus 18:22, and focus on men having sex with each other as an abomination. But such people do not take into account the why for this abomination. Just as in Genesis 38, in which Onan is struck dead by God for avoiding making his sister-in-law pregnant by coitus interruptus, (pulling out early) and spilling his semen on the ground, the issue in Leviticus 18 is about the people of Israel needing to grow in numbers. Any wasting of semen was not to be tolerated and thus was an abomination. As much as some would like it, neither of these situations in Genesis and Leviticus is talking about two same-sex people in a loving relationship. Perhaps Pastor Carpenter needs to take a refresher course in the Hebrew Scriptures.
- “Nobody got bashed or anything.” No one – that is – except for his intended target.
- “All I did was simply speak biblical truth.” Carpenter’s citing biblical truth is commendable, but the Bible “truths” have been used to justify many of the world’s evils – from gender inequality, homosexuality and child abuse, to capital punishment, the environment, and birth control – so I would like to pose a few questions concerning “biblical truth.” The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky so as to allow more daylight, thus enabling Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites. Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? Is this a “biblical truth?” The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “biblical truth?” What kind of God would do that? The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons, and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few. The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally as “truths” have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kinds of inhumanity. If Carpenter is going to talk about so-called “biblical truths,” let us hear all of them and apply all of them. Why single out homosexuality when the Bible condemns so much more?
- “The number one audience that I have to please is God.” If God is Carpenter’s number one audience, then a tax-funded public school is the wrong venue to do his pleasing. People who want “religion” can get it in a church building in the context of a church function, not as part of a public school’s graduation exercises. Students are in school for an education, not for sectarian theological indoctrination, especially of the kind that Carpenter professes. His statement perfectly demonstrates that he does not give a damn (yes, I believe that is the appropriate word here) about saving anyone else’s soul; his actions are simply to save his own. When it is all over and done with, he wants to be able to stand in front of his Maker and say “Hey, God, I did my part: I spent the life you gave me haranguing everyone I could about burning in hell for their various [specifically, sexual] sins. See, I was your fervent spiritual foot soldier; you have to open the pearly gates now.” What pious self-deception balderdash Carpenter utters! Perhaps he should remember words attributed to Jesus, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, Revised Standard Version)
- “Was I trying to be mean spirited?” I do not know what was in his heart, but the result of what Carpenter said was that he was hurtful during a time when everyone was happy and proud of their accomplishments. If that was his intention, he definitely succeeded.
- “I simply had to do what I had to do as a Christian minister.” Was it Carpenter’s duty as a Christian minister to spread hatred and fear-mongering to all those in his audience? What he said does not sound like something that Jesus would have said, but here is something that the carpenter’s son from Nazareth did say: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matthew 7:1-3, Revised Standard Version)
I can only hope that the powers that be in King’s Mountain are not even tempted to invite Pastor Carpenter to hand out the diplomas at graduation. From what I have been able to learn about Scott Carpenter, I am convinced that he would say something like this as he handed the diploma to each senior and shook that graduate’s hand: “Congratulations! Burn in Hell!”
Right back at you, Rev!