Think About It: On Taking Offence

Dr. Don Meyer, PhD, is the President of Valley Forge Christian College
Dr. Don Meyer, PhD, is the President of Valley Forge Christian College

“Four-letter words have always offended me. I cringe at hearing them. Can’t, don’t and won’t are the worst.”

Rachel E. Goodrich

An essay by George F. Will titled “Taking Offence to Ceremonial Prayers,” (Daily Local News: May 8, 2014), and Harvard University’s sponsorship of a “Satanic Black Mass” caused me to think about this matter of taking offence. In his essay, Will reflects on the Supreme Court’s ruling that Greece, New York, did not violate any law by opening its board of supervisors’ meeting with a prayer.

Will says, “Taking offence has become America’s national pastime; being theatrically offended signifies the exquisitely refined moral delicacy of people who feel entitled to pass through life without encountering ideas or practices that annoy them. As the number of nonbelievers grows — about 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, as are one-third of adults under 30 — so does the itch to litigate believers into submission to secular sensibilities.”

He even references Thomas Jefferson, who said, “It does me no injury to my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Will continues, “Still, Jefferson made statesmanlike accommodations of the public’s strong preference for religious observances” and even himself attended Christian services in the House of Representatives, Supreme Court chamber and the Treasury building. He even attended a service in the house two days after praising (in an 1802 letter) “a wall of separation between church and state.”


Will ended his essay with these words: “Jefferson was no slouch when it came to asserting rights. But Greece’s prickly plaintiffs, having taken their town to court, might now ponder his example of relaxed, friendly respect for practices cherished by others and harmless to him.”

I agree with Will that “America would be a more congenial place if it had more amiable atheists…” who would not be offended so easily over something such as a simple prayer.

But there are offences and then there are offences.

For another example of taking offence, consider the issue of the Satanic Black Mass to be held on the Harvard University campus. Organized by the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club and the New York-based Satanic Temple, this ceremony has been performed by satanic cults to parody the Catholic Church.

Initially, Harvard President Drew Faust said that the event was “…consistent with the university’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs.” But she could hardly have anticipated the firestorm of opposition which she was about to face.

Hundreds of Harvard students and alumni signed a petition which said, “This form of satanic worship not only ridicules the central practice of Catholicism, the Mass, but it also mocks and offends all who have faith in Christ” and added, “We are Catholics, and other Christians, and supporters of genuine tolerance and civility, and we are offended and outraged this event has been permitted to take place at Harvard.”

After this intense opposition from religious leaders, Harvard administrators and fellow classmates, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club backed down and, at the last minute, decided not to host the event on campus.

What can we learn from these two episodes? It is obvious that some offences cause very low voltage and strike us like a mere irritation. My friend Bob says that we each carry a bucket of water and a bucket of gasoline.

When these low voltage offences occur, we should apply water, not gasoline. As Rene Descartes said, “Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it.”

On the other hand, when the very core of who we are and what we believe is being threatened, we might want to consider the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA

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