Not that stupid Jesus T-shirt again

Public School is not the Public Square, and William Swiminer should retire his t-shirt once and for all

Mike Dembeck/CP Images

My grandmother is a God-fearing woman. She votes Conservative because she believes if she doesn’t, Israel might founder. If she were an American, she’d probably have voted for Ronald Reagan. She wouldn’t, however, have voted for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney—all loudly resolute in their support of the Jewish state. Why? Because, in her words, “there isn’t a statesman in the bunch.” She’s taken to watching a lot of CNN lately in her retirement home, and during the GOP primary debates this past winter and spring she was wont to regularly shake her head at the screen—usually after Newt referred to Barack Obama as the “food stamp president” or Romney made a $10,000 bet at the podium—and pronounce again: “Not a statesman in the bunch.”

As close as some of her politics might be to the GOP’s (although being a Canadian, she knows socialized medicine will not bring on the apocalypse), she wouldn’t vote for the current GOP for a simple, old-fashioned reason: there’s something to be said, she would say, for respect and decorum—something to be said for being a mentsch. Something that isn’t being said these days in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia, where a teenager’s t-shirt has sparked a nationwide debate about religious freedom.

The t-shirt in question has been worn for over a week, by a 19-year-old Halifax high school student named William Swiminer. The quotation on the t-shirt is taken from the Bible, the Book of Philippians: “Life is Wasted without Jesus.” The word “wasted” is printed in a large, psychedelic-style font, which originally led me to believe the shirt was ironic, the kind of thing you could buy at a store that specializes in beer cozies. It’s not. But that doesn’t mean it’s escaped controversy. According to the principal of Forest Heights Community School, which Swiminer attends, a number of students were deeply offended by the t-shirt’s message, which they took to mean that those who reject Jesus are “wasting” their lives. Taking their point, the principal told Swiminer, who has been known to proselytize in science class—an activity he calls “witnessing”—to stop wearing the shirt to school. He didn’t. Instead, he wore it all day and every day through a series of in-school suspensions and one that sent him home.

Suddenly a star was born: Swiminer’s refusal to heed his school’s demand (and apparently do laundry) captured the hearts of religious freedom types across the country, and in no time the very people allegedly wasting their lives, were wasting their time defending him: The Atlantic Jewish Council (wasting away without Jesus since 1975), the Islamic Association of Nova Scotia (since 1966), and even The Centre for Inquiry—a national organization of atheists and agnostics—all came out in support of Swiminer’s protest, denouncing his school board for silencing free speech and freedom of religion. Even Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leader, Jaimie Baillie hopped on the bandwagon, arguing that Swiminer’s rights had been “trampled” on. Finally the board caved in, and the 19-year-old was given permission to return to school in his favourite t-shirt.

It was a great day for freedom of expression. But a terrible day for tact. Swiminer should not be allowed to wear the shirt in question to school, not because it’s overtly religious, but because, like some of its more secular t-shirt counterparts (Bart Simpson’s “Eat My Shorts,” say), it’s rude. There is a great difference between cherishing a belief and wielding it like a weapon. If I eat meat and my dinner guests are vegetarians, I’m not going to serve steak on principle. If I’m anti-gun control and my guests are pro, I’m not going to pull out my revolver at the dinner table. Widespread support for Swiminer’s behaviour gives young people the impression that bravado is substance, and boasting and belittling others, a stand in for belief. The most sincerely devout people I know are the most discreet—which isn’t to say that they are ashamed of their faith but exactly the opposite: it’s far too precious to flaunt.

So while we should never try to restrict a person’s right to worship, we should feel no compunction about questioning his methods of worship: whether, for example, he observes modestly, or (think Jeremy Lin) publicly declares his every three point shot the greatest miracle since Moses parted the red sea. Whether he prays between classes, or disrupts them. Whether he privately lauds his particular deity or announces, “My God’s better than your God” (which William Swiminer effectively did.) That is a valid question. And it’s one that our religious and political leaders have answered irresponsibly by making a martyr out of a cocky teenage boy. As grandma likes to say: Not a statesman in the bunch.

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