Home Questions Answered How Would You Handle This Topic?

I teach a composition class that focuses on writing a long (3,000 words), well-researched argument essay. The prompt is very general, letting students focus on an area of their choosing: “What is the most important problem facing us today?” I received the following essay idea for an assignment I call “Initial Planning.”

Thesis: Christians are now being persecuted for standing firm on their beliefs and exercising their religious freedoms. Topic areas: Constitution’s Bill of Rights, recent stories of Christians demonstrating their beliefs and the public’s response, how the U.S. was founded on Christian faith and principles, reasons as to why what used to be acceptable in the U.S. is not acceptable now. Sources: News and journalism websites, CBS News and TV news stations like World News Tonight, newspaper articles.

I normally let people argue what they like and don’t swat down those that come from ideological/religious positions I don’t personally hold. But this one felt way too shaky and I had to say something. What do you think of this response?

A perfectly fine topic, but as your instructor I have to encourage you to do some tough thinking on this issue. You’ve started with some base assumptions in your thesis that, themselves, might be hard to prove.
The first is the notion of “persecution” — what it means, and how to tell the difference between persecution and simply not controlling the outcome of a legal or ethical conflict. I do agree that public conscience and public opinion has shifted away from what many Christians hold to be true, but that in itself does not imply persecution. Also, not being allowed to transcend the law on the basis of religious belief does not equate to persecution. Christians aren’t being driven into hiding, banned from holding office, murdered for their beliefs, or any of the other things we associate with persecution. Even if there are isolated instances where someone has done those things, actual persecution is a society-wide movement toward oppression, and that just isn’t the case.
Another shaky area is the notion of hanging this argument on the founding of the United States. It has never been decisively proven that the framers of the Constitution were or were not Christians (which in itself demands a more specific definition) — many called themselves “Deists.” But even if they were Christian, the connection between their religion and the way they constructed the law is ambiguous at best, and quite possibly irrelevant — what does it matter what they believed? Does our country exist for the benefit of the dead, or for the living?
Things change, and our country is no different. If they didn’t, we’d all be living under the Laws of Hammurabi and speaking Indo-European, possibly. What used to be acceptable ceases to be so, what used to be forbidden ceases to be so. One ethnic/religious/gender group is dominant for a while, then the balance of power shifts. That shift in itself is not bad, except perhaps to the group who has lost the ability to control the issues.
All of this is to say: Your feelings are very valid, and I have no problem with you writing about them or coming from the position you hold. However, it seems like the goal of your essay is to redefine “persecution” in such a way as to include “losing dominance,” which doesn’t seem reasonable. An argument that sums up to “Christians should be in control” is going to be hard to prove to anyone who doesn’t already agree. Your best bet is to focus on one specific case and try to argue that the law either shouldn’t have pertained in that case or that religious freedom should have prevailed — then list specific reasons why that is the case.

Am I being too harsh? Do I have grounds for saying this? Should I go with it? Soften it? Cut it altogether and just let the student hang their own essay on flawed reasoning and “facts”? I appreciate any advice I can get from my fellow teachers. Thanks.

I’m an art professor, I teach in the studio and also teach lecture classes in art history and art appreciation. I also teach at a state college in Florida who has in legislation the Gordon Rule: To graduate, students must complete courses that involve substantial writing for a total of 24,000 words.

The lecture classes I teach are all Gordon rule classes.

The other exciting legislature they decided to pass last year was that students couldn’t be required to take an entrance exam at state schools which means that they can’t be required to take preparatory courses that are at their level before starting higher level courses, it also meant they aren’t required to take Composition BEFORE taking other Gordon Rule classes. :)

In short, now all professors teaching Gordon rule courses are required to become composition teachers so I see where you are coming from.

My students are all required to write a research paper and then develop an oral presentation on their paper. When I receive my dubious stack of papers that are bound to be painful to read I try to remain positive and then procrastinate as much as possible before grading. Their writing is often very bad and I am required to give low grades and cannot do so without an explanation because students think they should receive an A on everything and I’ve learned that the more I write to explain where their paper is deficient and argument is weak I have less students who question me about the grade they receive.

I think a thorough explanation like the one you wrote sounds excellent. However, I do agree that perhaps you are being harsh about Christianity and need to tread carefully here. At a college level I think you should question the argument being made as well as how well it is written and documented.

The fact that you are challenging the argument isn’t the problem. But how you respond to the word Christian could have another look. If I were you, in my response I’d point out that there might be some truth to the fact that Christianity in and of itself had something to do with pilgrims coming to America but that it was to escape persecution. Perhaps by researching how they were being persecuted in Europe which made them want to flee could be a good place to start with not only an understanding of persecution but how the U.S. was formed.

If the U.S. was formed by people who were forced to leave their homelands for their beliefs and wanted to form a society for all to be accepted than perhaps those Christians were actually more open to the idea of change and acceptance of alternative ideas than Christians today.

I would also offer a source for this information (just to help them get started)

I feel with this type of argument you must respond by talking about Christianity but remind her that it isn’t the only faith in America. Maybe suggesting she look to see if other faiths are facing the same issues she wants to discuss about Christians. This would negate the argument that they are being singled out and persecuted but it would also give her the opportunity to strengthen her argument on religious freedoms.

They have written laws that allow certain faiths to slaughter animals in religious ceremonies that would otherwise be illegal to the general population so she may be able to make a point that new laws are trying to force Christians to exercise rights they believe are wrong because of their faith.

I’d use the instance of Gay marriage because I’m sure this is where the topic is leading. I know of two instances in particular where Christians have been affected by standing up for their beliefs. A couple lost a lawsuit because they refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, a city worker was fired for refusing to perform a gay marriage ceremony. But they aren’t forcing the Catholic Church to do ceremonies. They aren’t imposing on the religion itself. So maybe in her argument she needs to figure out where the line is drawn. There is a difference between the religion and the believers. If they aren’t in a place of worship do they lose their rights to stand up for their beliefs? That would make an excellent topic for the type of paper you describe no matter your beliefs.

I also mention citing a source, not only to help the student get started but this then gives you some documentation that you actually are encouraging the student and trying to make sure they get the best resources to accomplish their goal, so if she does go above your head you have the paperwork to backup your stance.

Things change, and our country is no different. If they didn’t, we’d all be living under the Laws of Hammurabi and speaking Indo-European, possibly. What used to be acceptable ceases to be so, what used to be forbidden ceases to be so. One ethnic/religious/gender group is dominant for a while, then the balance of power shifts. That shift in itself is not bad, except perhaps to the group who has lost the ability to control the issues.

I’d replace it with something slightly less accusatory. I think you are trying to say that Christians have had the majority vote for a long time. However, abortion was passed even when they had the majority vote. This issue can be picketed and you can decide what you believe and it doesn’t affect your life unless you are put in a position to have to make a decision about a pregnancy and if you are pro-life then your decision has been made. Now they are losing control and our country is changing. One ethnic/religious/gender group is dominant for a while, then the balance of power shifts. That shift in itself is not bad, except perhaps to the group who has lost the ability to control the issues.

That is where Gay marriage comes into view and now people in positions who are required to respect these new laws may not agree with them (I’m not saying this is my personal view) but they have to do their job and go against their faith. So perhaps they aren’t being persecuted but there is discrimination going on and maybe she’s using a stronger word that she can prove. But, the threat of losing my job which could make me lose my livelihood, my home, my family’s security etc. might make me question if it was worth saying no rather than doing something my faith disagreed with.

However, I think that it is interesting that there are laws that do protect people of other faiths. I once held a job where we all took turns cleaning the bathroom. One person, because of their beliefs could not clean the bathroom and we had to respect that. Her argument isn’t as absurd as you might think. We are just in flux right now and haven’t figured out how to navigate a world where a big part of our population disagrees with our current politic state. We’ve dealt with it before but not on this scale and haven’t had to decide how to handle things yet.

I tried to play the devil’s advocate here for you to really think about what she is saying and taking out the word Christian. Good luck! It might not hurt to run it by your department head, or bcc him/her in an email about the exchange. Whenever I do something that I know a student might complain to the higher-ups about I send them an FYI message letting them know the circumstances and how I’m handling it. Then, if a problem arises they already have an idea of what is going on and aren’t left with just the students side of the story before reaching a conclusion.

Good luck!

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question submitted and answered through reddit.com/r/Proffesors by TeacherAffairs

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