Saturday, May 31, 2008

Evangelical Christianity and Proselytizing

There have been a variety of reports about evangelical Christians proselytizing while members of the United States military. Most recently, a group of Marines in Fallujah distributed gospel verses to Iraqis. In particular, they distributed coins that on one side asked “"Where will you spend eternity?" The other side read

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16."

I’m not going to discuss in detail how this sort of behavior is unproductive and undermines the U.S. presence in Iraq. The potential damage from these actions is obvious.[1]

I am going to discuss why evangelical Christians are more prone to these sorts of proselytizing abuses than are members of other religions. Evangelical Christianity has a track record of using positions of authority to proselytize and of claiming to be persecuted when its adherents are blocked from doing so. [2] More generally, evangelical Christians have more trouble abstaining from proselytizing than do members of other religious groups. In my personal experience, interfaith dialogue groups between Jews and Muslims, Jews and non-evangelical Christians, and between other groups work much better than any form of interfaith dialogue with evangelicals. One joint Jewish-Christian text study group at Yale College fell apart because many of the evangelicals were not trying to learn about Jewish attitudes towards the texts, but were interested instead in converting the Jews.

At an initial glance, the apparent difference between evangelical Christianity and other groups could be a matter of sampling bias. Evangelical Christianity is currently dominant in the United States. We have an evangelical President. The second most successful candidate in the 2008 Republican Presidential primary was an evangelical minister. Although there has been fluctuation in the fraction of the population which self-identifies as evangelical, currently about twenty-six percent of the population of the United States identifies itself as evangelical.[3] As a religion with many adherents and many of those adherents in positions of power, there will be more proselytizing incidents involving evangelicals than members of smaller groups even if the overall rate of the behavior is the same in both groups. This sampling issue could explain why proselytizing incidents such as that which occurred in Iraq seem more common with evangelicals than with other religious groups.

However, this is not a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon as a whole. For example, it does not explain why interfaith dialogue groups with evangelicals are more likely to be disrupted by missionizing tendencies than interfaith dialogue with other religions.

I suggest four reasons why evangelical Christians are less inclined or less able to restrain their proselytizing tendencies than are members of religious groups.

First, as discussed earlier, evangelical Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States. Evangelicals thus have more self-confidence than others in presenting their beliefs. Moreover, when they are restrained by courts or superior officers, evangelicals are more likely to feel that this is something out of the ordinary.

Second, evangelical Christianity in many forms emphasizes that failure to accept Jesus leads to consignment to hell for eternity with no chance for future redemption. This contrasts with the beliefs of many other religions. For example, in many forms of Judaism, eternal suffering is essentially impossible. In many Eastern religions such as Buddhism, the worst punishment one can get for bad behavior in this life is an unpleasant reincarnation. For evangelical Christianity, the stakes for failing to convert people are much higher than the stakes for other religions, given the evangelicals’ certainty that the unconverted will go to Hell for eternity. Petty, temporary laws such as the First Amendment pale in comparison to the threat of eternal damnation. Indeed, if someone convinced me that any individual who had not accepted Jesus as personal lord and savior was going to Hell, I’d abandon concerns like the First Amendment. It would be the only logical, decent course of action.

Third, even for the other religions and other forms of Christianity that believe that this life determines what happens to one for eternity, there are more options in the afterlife than just heaven and hell. For many evangelical Christians, the afterlife is an either-or proposition: the saved go to heaven and the unsaved go to hell. This contrasts, for example, with Roman Catholicism that historically adopted the idea of Limbo in which resided unbaptized babies as well as, in some theological lines, virtuous pagans.[4]

Fourth, the need to witness is evangelical Christianity’s strongest obligation for its believers. In contrast, other religions have many distinct obligations. For example, Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews believe that they need to keep kosher. Orthodox Jews pray three times daily. Roman Catholics take communion and go to confession. Reform Jews vote Democratic. However, evangelical Christianity has one single major obligation: proselytize.

Moreover, because there are few other obligations for evangelicals, proselytizing is an obligation of central importance. Thus, telling an evangelical not to proselytize is akin to telling an Orthodox Jew not to say Shemai. The Orthodox Jew so constrained will, understandably, feel under attack and persecuted. Witnessing is the primary ritualistic obligation of evangelical Christianity. Indeed, this is a religion whose name is intrinsically connected with spreading the “good news.” The centrality of witnessing leads to evangelical feelings of persecution when their proselytizing is blocked.

In summary, there are a variety of reasons why evangelical Christianity have difficulty restraining themselves when it comes to proselytizing. These difficulties are due in a large part to beliefs deeply embedded in evangelical Christianity. Thus, we are not likely to see this behavior change in the foreseeable future.

[1] I’m also not going to comment on their failure to use the original Quenya: “An Eru tambë mellë Ambar sa antanes eressë yónerya, ya nostanes, sië aiquen ná vórima tan avafiruva, mal haryuvas oira cuilë.”

[2] See for example this essay by Elizabeth A. Castelli, "Persecution Complexes". See also Laurie Goodstein, "Air Force Chaplain Tells of Academy Proselytizing" , May 12 2005, The New York Times.

[3] Laurie Goodstein, October 7, 2007, For a Trusty Voting Bloc, a Faith Shaken The New York Times. Larry Eskridge, Defining Evangelicalism.

[4] While Dante is not an authority on Catholic theology it is noteworthy that he includes even Saladin, a Muslim, in limbo.

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