The “On Faith” column in the Washington Post presents an unusually rich target this week, as Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn ask the (loaded and unfairly worded) questions, “Proselytizing overseas: Religious freedom or coercion? What is the real problem with proselytism overseas by U.S. religious groups? Isn’t sharing one’s faith part of religious freedom? When does it cross the line into manipulation and coercion?”
Let’s begin by stipulating that seeking conversions through the use of force, threats or bribery is completely unethical, at least as far as Christians are concerned. The latter two of these need some definition, however. So let’s start with Chris Seiple, an evangelical who is president of the Institute For Global Engagement. He makes an excellent point:
Proselytism now connotes an asymmetrical power relationship, a quid pro quo where the one with more power exerts an undignified influence over the one with less. You can have this bowl of soup, this amount of money, etc., but only if you make this profession of faith. It is the worst of religion, threatening to create a sacred public square that coerces uniform belief.
Sharing, on the other hand, suggests a relationship of mutual respect; a relationship where individuals are honored that people would care so much that they would share their faith with them…even if they end up disagreeing agreeably about irreconcilable convictions (theological and political). It is the best of faith, encouraging a civil public square that invites all beliefs to the conversation.
I think his distinction is a good one, certainly in the context of a Christian view of religious freedom. So let’s keep it in mind as we go on to Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics, who starts out with the truth, and then slides into vague finger-pointing:
Christianity is a religion of evangelism. Christians have a divine imperative to share their faith in word and deed.
Christianity is also a religion of ethics. Christians have a divine imperative to share their faith with integrity and transparency.
Unfortunately, some Christians and Christian organizations follow the former and ignore the latter. They think that the ends of conversion justify any means–concealment or manipulation or taking advantage of folk during emergencies. They even think that they can trick government officials and local citizens in foreign countries into believing they are not really Christians or not really proselytizing. Such an American Christian mindset represents the worn-out colonial attitude that “the natives” aren’t really smart enough to know what’s going on. And that’s plain wrong.
Who do you suppose he’s talking about? I can guess. Pretty much anyone to the right of Parham, in his definition, is a fundamentalist, and hence evil. It’s fair to say that he’s talking about organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse, and missionaries from the Southern Baptist Convention and other conservative denominations. Of course, he presents no evidence for these charges, nor does he demonstrate any understanding of the dangers that some Christians risk by seeking to spread God’s love among people living under totalitarian, and especially Communist or Muslim, regimes. Maybe he thinks that, if a government objects to people exercising the freedom of religion guaranteed them in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they should go along with that. Give Caesar what is God’s, as it were.
Then there’s UCC pastor Susan Smith, who is against proselytism and for sharing, but who suggests that sharing that seeks to bring others to knowledge of the truth is unnecessary:
I have been taught that Roman Catholics feel their religion is THE religion, the only religion, the only right religion. Christians think that confessing Jesus is the only way to get to heaven. For Muslims, adhering to the tenets of the Qur’an and living the Muslim life constitute a life of Truth. [Note the difference between “Roman Catholics” and “Christians”–once again, it’s apparent that anti-Catholicism is the last respectable prejudice on the left.-DF]
These religions in effect limit the capacity of God to embrace all of the people God created, seeing as how religions do teach that God created all people. These religions, through their proselytizing, serve to confuse and coerce people into THEIR way, and suggest that all who do not commit to THEIR way are apostates.
Would it be a fact that this God, the creator of us all, would have created people of different cultures who would create different religions based on their cultures would ban those people, condemn them to hell or eternal suffering?
So for Smith, “proselytism” is suggesting that universalism is not true, and that God might just have one path of salvation–namely, faith in Christ. Of course, if universalism is true, there’s no need to tell anyone, so that means that Smith can engage in “sharing,” and leave the “proselytizing” to those mean, arrogant, no-necked Neanderthal evangelicals and Catholics.
Then there’s the Rev. Janet Edwards of the PCUSA’s More Light Presbyterian caucus, who bizarrely manages to turn questions about faith-sharing into a screed on homosexuality:
There would be no problem with religious proselytizing if it remained as Thomas Farr describes it at its most humble: “Peaceful persuasion, respectful of human dignity, culture and tradition.” But speaking from my Christian tradition, the moment believers took to heart Matthew’s report of Jesus’ Great Commission to His followers “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20), there has always been way, way more to it than that. And, almost always, it quickly crosses the line into manipulation and coercion.
A current example of tremendous concern to me is the situation in Uganda, where a bill is pending in the Parliament — in part due to the activism and influence of American evangelicals — to punish people convicted of homosexuality with death or, as a concession to international uproar, life imprisonment.
Huh? What does one of these things have to do with the other? The anti-homosexuality law in Uganda–which I do not support, by the way–has nothing to do with Christianity per se but rather cultural norms that people like Edwards are normally hot to defend. It also has nothing to do with Christian evangelism, whether coercive or not, and so is irrelevant to the entire discussion, except inasmuch as for folks like Edwards, everything has to do with homosexuality.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite begins by noting that “dangerous ideas” (like evangelism) are not always bad ideas, but ends up condemning evangelistic efforts anyway:
[R]eligious proselytism in a rapidly globalizing world is an even more dangerous religious idea than in centuries past. Globalization, fueled by the speed of the Internet, is creating widespread anxiety and a sense of cultural threat around the world. Religion, especially, but not only, conservative religion, offers itself as a refuge from the destabilizing and even dehumanizing effects of globalization. Proselytizing in a globalizing world shakes the foundations of security that religion offers and it has a profoundly unsettling effect. Since increased anxiety often manifests itself in aggression and even violence, religious proselytizing is an ever more dangerous religious idea, and a bad one at that.
It is unquestionably true that those whom Christians seek to evangelize–Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, secularists–sometimes get violent in response, as has happened within the last year in India, Burma, Pakistan, China, and elsewhere. It’s also true that sometimes that violence is not because Christians were seeking to spread their faith, but simply because they exist. Thistlethwaite is in effect arguing here for the “heckler’s veto“; in other words, Christians should allow the possibility of violent reactions to their speech and actions to force them to give up their religious freedom. That’s what you call a dynamic defense of individual rights and civil liberties.
Aseem Shukla of the Hindu-American Foundation, a Minnesota oncologist, also takes the view that your religious freedom must take a back seat to his:
Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), is often held up as the rationale–the green light for proselytization. That every individual “has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
But adherents of the pluralist religions–Dharma religions, paganism and native religious traditions–have long argued that there is a very basic asymmetry at play rendering the Declaration deeply flawed. Abrahamic religions–the non-pluralist traditions–claim exclusivity in their belief system’s legitimacy as the only religious and spiritual path and demand absolute adherence. In contrast, pluralist religious traditions subscribe to a more expansive ethos–that one’s religion may not be the exclusive source of Truth and which acknowledge the potential of multiple legitimate religious and spiritual paths. Most pluralist religious traditions allow for the assimilation of beliefs and traditions of another religion without demanding repudiation of one’s own religion or conversion to the other.
And your point is what? That adherents of the “Abrahamic religions” must bow to the pluralist view? Sounds like a claim that Hinduism’s historical syncretism is superior to the exclusivism of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and a call to conversion to an Eastern theological perspective. Throughout his article, Shukla certainly sounds as if he arguing that only the pluralist approach is correct, and that any religion that seeks converts is somehow illegitimate if not evil.
Finally, there’s Arun Gandhi, who as usual goes completely over the top:
I call proselytizing evil because it is responsible, in a tangible way, for all the violence that we experience today.
Anyone out there want to buy Mr. Gandhi a one-way ticket to Pyongyang or Harare so that he can discover that there actually is violence in the world that isn’t based in “proselytizing”? Of course, what do you expect from a guy who once wrote in this very same “On Faith” column, “We have created a culture of violence (and Israel and the Jews are the prime instigators) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity.”