A Christian student balances his faith above the circus of campus Cancel Culture
ack Denton had no intention of walking the high wire when he first visited Florida State University. He did like the idea of something extracurricular that would let him exercise the enthusiasm for performance he’d discovered doing drama in high school. But being part of a campus circus … that had never crossed his mind.
On his orientation tour, though, Jack learned FSU, in Tallahassee, was one of only a handful of universities in the country with a student-led big top — a tradition dating back to the school’s origin in 1947. Jack began entertaining visions of himself cavorting in the circus ring in oversize shoes and a colorful wig. He auditioned. They called him back. Soon, he found himself trampolining, and doing push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups — a lot of ups, of one kind or another, for a fellow planning to clown around on the ground.
Then they told him he’d made the cut, and would be performing on the tightrope … doing acrobatic things he’d never done, at heights he’d always strenuously avoided.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to do it,” Jack admits. “I had a fear of heights that I got over pretty quick, because I had to.” And?
“It was awesome! The most unique experience of my collegiate career. I loved it.”
That’s showbiz. And, as Jack would find out, the “biz” of student politics, too. But the challenges of the FSU big top would prove considerably easier to manage than the tightrope of campus culture.
ack came to FSU from North Carolina, bringing along a strong interest in politics, honed in the Teenage Republicans (he launched his own chapter) and working for various state candidates: knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, stamping mailers, manning the phone banks. He signed on as a political science major, and figured serving in the Student Senate might flesh out his studies, give him valuable experience, and even be a chance to do something fun and relevant.
He ran his first semester, won by six votes, and went on to serve three full terms.
“I loved student government,” Jack remembers. “Growing up in Catholic school, I was in a bubble. My Boy Scout troop was associated with the church that I went to — again, a bubble. Teenage Republicans: that was all people who thought like me. So, going to Florida State, I really stepped out of my comfort zone. I was in a very diverse university with people who had a very different experience growing up than I did.”
Through the Student Senate, he says, “I really learned a lot about working with people of differing viewpoints. How to compromise. How to negotiate. And I loved it. I enjoyed getting to challenge others’ viewpoints while having my own views challenged. It gave me invaluable experience, moving forward in life.”
“I was in a very diverse university with people who had a very different experience growing up than I did.”—Jack Denton
oon enough, the high-wire man learned the ground rules. The first legislation he sponsored was in support of a bill in the Florida legislature banning speech zones on public university campuses. (Speech zones are typically small, designated areas on campus where students are banished to address topics administrators deem too controversial for public discussion.)
Jack thought students at FSU — where administrators had a reputation for restricting free speech — would benefit from the state bill. He was astonished to learn how vehemently many of his peers disagreed. He saw his legislation pass, but at a price.
“That experience labeled me as a conservative, which made my life a little bit more difficult in the Senate. College students are typically liberal, and that gave me a certain stigma. Some people just instantly disliked me; some were less willing to work with me.”
That disdain was multiplied when Jack opposed Student Senate funding for a club — ostensibly nonpartisan — that allowed presentations on socialism but not on capitalism. “I rubbed some people the wrong way, doing that,” he says.
He won a minor victory (the funding went through, but it was minimal), but “that was another big defining moment in my student government experience,” he says. “I learned that I can’t just go out there and rail against every single thing I disagree with. No one will trust me or want to work with me on anything.”
Jack held several Student Senate offices — chairing the judiciary committee, serving as president pro tempore. By his junior year, he felt he had enough experience to run for president of the Senate. “I wanted to serve my fellow students,” he says. “I had gained as much as I could from student government, and I wanted to give back and teach the next class of new, incoming senators.”
“The experience labeled me as a conservative, which made my life a little bit more difficult in the Senate.”—Jack Denton
The president is chosen by the senators each fall semester, to serve for a full year. Jack won the job — seemingly a sign that, whatever his politics, his peers respected his work and leadership. But it soon became apparent that some in the chamber were still angry about stands he had taken, and biding their time for retribution.
Their opportunity arose from a moment Jack never saw coming.
arly on at FSU, Jack found two other happy diversions from his school / Senate / circus routine.
One was the Catholic Student Union, a sizeable campus organization that offered social activities and spiritual support to young people. An only child, Jack particularly cherished “having other men my age and older, whom I could look up to. I got to make those deep bonds with other men and really have people whom I consider brothers.”
But it was the young woman he met on a CSU retreat who most changed Jack’s life.
“We had a five-minute conversation he doesn’t remember,” laughs Emily, who became Jack’s wife last summer. “But we had a class together. He sat down next to me one day, and we got to talking. I asked him to study, and we studied. And he eventually asked me on a date, and … here we are.”
The two were already engaged by the summer before their senior year, and enjoying some downtime at a campus pool when a text came over Jack’s phone … part of a group chat among CSU members. The text related to the social upheavals sweeping the country that month, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. The texter was urging students to offer financial support for controversial political activist groups like Black Lives Matter and the ACLU.
Wary, Jack quickly looked up the groups’ websites, finding strong support from all of them for abortion, same-sex marriage, and communism — ideas that clearly contradicted Catholic teaching. Surprised to find CSU students promoting such groups, he sent a text of his own.
“I knew there were some people in the Catholic Student Union who were left-leaning,” he says, “but they were very purposeful Catholics. By and large, they practiced what they preached. They were very intentional about their faith.” So he shared what he had learned:
“I don’t mean to anger anyone — I know this is a very emotional topic. However, it is important to know what you’re supporting when you’re Catholic. If I stay silent while my brothers and sisters may be supporting an organization that promotes grave evils, I have sinned through my silence. I love you all, and I want us all to be aware of the truth.
“As far as it’s a religious issue or not, there isn’t an aspect of our lives that isn’t religious, because God wants our whole lives and everything we do to be oriented around him!”
“If I stay silent while my brothers and sisters may be supporting an organization that promotes grave evils, I have sinned through my silence.”—Jack Denton
ending the text was “instinctive,” Jack says. “I knew it was the right thing to do. Being part of the Catholic Student Union in this community, we believe that life begins at conception … that marriage is between a man and a woman. These are just things that we cannot bend on."
With that, he hurried to get ready to preside over that evening’s Senate meeting, where initially business proceeded as usual. Then a hand went up — one of the students who’d been irked by Jack’s position on some earlier issues. He called on her, and she made a motion demanding a vote of “no confidence” in Jack.
The motion blindsided him — what on earth had he done to spark that? Then she began reading from his texts in the CSU group chat.
Jack had assumed his texts would be kept within the CSU community. In fact, they were now on the Internet, along with a petition calling for his resignation or removal from the Senate. Within 48 hours, the petition would carry thousands of student signatures.
First, though, came this vote to remove him. The motion failed to secure the required two-thirds vote — but Jack saw that a majority of senators had voted against him.
“I realized I was in hot water,” he says.
he water was just beginning to boil. Along with the petition signatures, social media was alive with threats and ardent wishes that something terrible happen to Jack. One person even cast a hex on him. And his fellow senators petitioned him to call a special meeting, two nights later, in which students could weigh in on the petition to have Jack removed as president.
It was an invitation to summon his own firing squad, but he scheduled the meeting. “It was the right thing to do,” he says. “I had the opportunity to say what I wanted to say in my private group chat. Let’s let everyone else say what they want to say.”
Many people, friends and foes, urged him to just resign, but “if they wanted to remove me, they were going to have to do it themselves,” Jack decided. “They were going to have to look me in the face. I wasn’t going to stand aside for my religious convictions. I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“I wasn’t going to stand aside for my religious convictions. I hadn’t done anything wrong.”—Jack Denton
But he was beginning to think he might need help. A friend of a friend knew an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom. Less than 24 hours after the first no-confidence vote, Jack was talking with that attorney, working out a strategy.
“Now, I think of ADF as the 911 for constitutional rights,” Jack says. “It was God’s providence that I would be on the phone with him that quickly.” Almost simultaneously, another friend from his church connected him with an attorney in Governor Ron DeSantis’ office — a fellow Catholic who, during law school, had participated in ADF’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship program. That lawyer was available to join Jack for the Student Senate Zoom meeting that same evening.
He wasn’t the only one, for which Jack was profoundly grateful. Emily joined him, too, and a friend, Jae Williams. Williams was director of the Catholic Student Union and usually supervised the group chat, but he’d been at work when the troubling text string came along. He was as surprised as Jack to find texts from the conversation online, and quickly realized that the same senators now looking to unseat his friend might also choose to delegitimize CSU.
The two sat across from each other, with Emily to one side, as the specially called meeting began … and almost immediately turned into a kangaroo court designed not only to remove Jack from the presidency, but to denigrate his faith and destroy his reputation.
“I think of ADF as the 911 for constitutional rights.”—Jack Denton
The Friday night meeting lasted seven hours. Hundreds of students were lined up to speak (a normal meeting drew two or three); more than a hundred would get their chance. Of those, only a handful offered support for Jack. The rest hurled all the pent-up venom and frustration that was ravaging the country that summer straight at him:
“Jack Denton should never have been allowed to hold this position in the first place, with his known beliefs.”
“I am disgusted that other Catholics are trying to stand behind him, with his outdated and extreme cult mindset.”
“Do not let this man cower behind his religious views.”
“Jack, I hope you’re listening, and you understand why your beliefs are so vile and wrong.”
“Kill you … kill you … kill you …”
On and on, the “virtual firing squad,” as Williams calls it, continued. Although they were present at the meeting, university officials made no effort to limit the free-flowing hatred.
“It was made very clear — like in the first half-hour — that ‘anything goes,’” Williams says. “‘Here are the rules, but we’re not going to enforce them.’” Through it all, Jack sat, poker-faced, listening without comment.
“To watch this man sit across from me, never criticizing anybody,” Williams says, “his composure, the whole time. He didn’t flinch. He sat there and took it.”
“It was made very clear — like in the first half-hour — that ‘anything goes. Here are the rules, but we’re not going to enforce them.’”—Jae Williams
“It’s one thing to have someone say horrible things about you,” Emily says. “But to say them about the person you love most, and to know those things aren’t true.… It’s still a very painful time to look back on. But I see a lot of grace and blessings in those moments, now when I look back.”
“The number of people praying for me was astronomical,” Jack says. “So many reached out — it was incredible. And I credit their prayers for why I was able to get through that second Senate meeting. It was 100% the Holy Spirit. He let me get through it without breaking down.”
After the student comments ended, in the wee small hours of the morning, the Student Senate held a second formal hearing. This time, all but three voted for removal. Jack’s presidency was over.
“The number of people praying for me was astronomical. So many reached out – it was incredible.”—Jack Denton
ack’s ADF attorneys hoped to get his job back. FSU’s policies provided two internal options. The first was to file an appeal with the Student Supreme Court. But Jack’s firing happened in early summer. Several student justices had graduated, and now had to be replaced … by the Student Senate. Who obviously had no great incentive to speed up the process.
Given that the first option was unavailable, ADF employed the second. Jack’s attorneys asked FSU administrators to rule on Jack’s complaint themselves. They refused. That left a third, external option: a federal lawsuit.
ADF filed the lawsuit, then petitioned the federal court for a preliminary injunction that would force the Student Senate to reinstate Jack as president while his case proceeded. The federal court held that FSU had likely violated Jack’s rights. While the court stopped short of immediately reinstating Jack, it did order the university to continue paying Jack’s salary while the case continued.
A short time later, the FSU Supreme Court found its quorum — and to the surprise of Jack and his attorneys, the justices were eager to hear his case.
“They wanted to decide the case quickly,” says ADF attorney Logan Spena, “and their questions indicated that they understood the seriousness of the issue.” In fact, the court made its decision very quickly … and in Jack’s favor.
“People still embrace Christian values. Though we live in a postmodern society, many Christians around the world share our faith.”—Emily Denton
“They basically said, ‘If we don’t do anything here, this sends a message that you can just discriminate against people in student government for their religion,’” Spena says. “‘And we’re not going to let that stand. We’re going to order him reinstated.’” The decision was unanimous.
“That was such an ecstatic, happy moment,” Jack says. In fact, he only had a month left in his term — time enough to pass a few legislative bills, but not much more. Still, “at least I got to finish what I started,” he says. “And I’m thankful for that.”
e’s thankful for a few other things, too. The fiancée and friend who sat beside him that long Friday night. The countless others who prayed. The attorneys who listened in, too, on short notice, “who cared about me as a person, and not just as a client,” he says.
“It’s certainly solidified my faith,” Jack says. “Really made me lean on God. I'm glad I had the experience — that God gave me another trial. He gives us trials to prepare us for whatever's to come, and now … I feel more ready.”
“We have met so many people who’ve reached out to us and told us, ‘You’re not alone,’” Emily says. “It’s been really reaffirming. People still embrace Christian values. Though we live in a postmodern society, many Christians around the world share our faith and are praying for us.”
Today, Jack and Emily are back in North Carolina, making their home in Raleigh. She teaches school, while he works on the staff of a state legislator and looks toward a career in either law, the military, or both.
Spena says many college students could learn from Jack’s example.
“He did a great job of saying what he thought and not shying away from that at all — while going out of his way to be clear that he loved the people he was talking to. To combine that deep understanding of what you believe with a consistent and gracious way of expressing it — that makes your witness unassailable.”
“Jack knows who he is, and he knows what he is living for,” Williams says. “He’s doing better than ever before, and he’s thriving and doing well.”
Courage. Confidence. A sense of balance. Determination to go higher.
You learn things, walking the tightrope.
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