Recently, I received a rare student complaint over an e-mail I had sent to all my classes. In the e-mail, which welcomed all of my students back for a new semester, I characterized myself as an “outspoken Christian professor.” I admitted that I had been critical of some aspects of Darwinism and that I saw my students as more than mere “random mutations.” Finally, I said my Christian views would cause me to treat them differently – namely, by holding them all to a high standard that would help them find their purpose in life: a Divine purpose given to them by their Creator.
The remarks in this e-mail were all couched within the context of the story of a former student of mine. He had often come to class late and talked throughout my lectures – at least until he received a poor grade on his first exam. Afterwards, I castigated him for his conduct and told him he would never become anything until he learned to act like an adult and to fulfill his God-given potential.
In his letter to the department chair, the student claimed that it was inappropriate and offensive for a professor to reveal his religious affiliation in class. He said he was also offended by what he perceived as an inappropriate put-down of Darwinism. Finally, he expressed his concern that he would become a victim of religious discrimination because he did not share my religious views.
If he’d bothered to approach me directly, I could have told this student a little of what I know about inappropriate and offensive religious expression in the classroom. In fifth grade I had a teacher named Barbara O’Gara. Mrs. O’Gara was my favorite teacher despite the fact that I was then a Baptist and she was an atheist. Mrs. O’Gara made no secret of this fact. She mentioned it on the first day of class, and she mentioned it throughout the year.
During the course of the year, though, it never occurred to me to report Mrs. O’Gara for simply stating her religious affiliation. If it offended me, I simply dealt with it. Even as a fifth-grader, I sensed that this was how mature people handled things. She had a right to her feelings, and I had a right to mine.