While sitting through endless commencement exercises, both as a faculty member and as a dad, David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, has had a lot of time to think about how graduation ceremonies show how faith is expressed in the public square.
He see three basic approaches: no faith, single-faith and multi-faith. Besides the volume of religious content (or lack thereof), he notes an interesting difference in the ethical content of the ceremonies.
His essay appears in the (A)theologies blog of Religion Dispatches:
On reflection, it is clear that these three faith orientations also carried with them implicit or explicit ethical connotations.
The “no faith” high school graduation also included “no ethics” morality. These were truly “naked public square” events. Surely it doesn’t have to be this way; one can imagine a secular high school or university maintaining a studious religious neutrality while communicating some kind of moral vision. But I have not seen it.
The single-faith graduation exercises combined evangelical/Baptist Christian religiosity with its associated ethical vision of personal piety and Christian witness in a secular world.
The multi-faith graduation events leaned left ethically and politically, emphasizing social justice and globalized moral commitments and the constructive resources available in the world’s religions.
The American public square circa 2013 seems to vacillate between these three options. At the national level events are sometimes “no faith” and often “multi-faith.” Certainly the small-town South is an exception, as the public square often remains drenched in a single-faith Christian religiosity, even at the most public of events. But that time has passed at the national level.