Is ‘proselytism’ a dirty word?
Eric Fingerhut, Religion News Service
March 05, 2010

Is ‘proselytism’ a dirty word?

Is ‘proselytism’ a dirty word?
Eric Fingerhut, Religion News Service
March 05, 2010

WASHINGTON — In a world

wracked with religious divisions that too often spill over into violence, is

proselytism a dirty word?

It may not always be

popular, but experts say its presence has historically been a sign of religious

and economic freedom.

That was the conclusion of

prominent sociologists at a day-long conference March 3 at Georgetown University,

which probed the political implications of sharing the faith — particularly

among Christians and Muslims.

Part of the debate centers

on the word itself, usually defined as sharing one’s faith with the hope that

others can be persuaded to join. Richard Land, president of the Southern

Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called

proselytizing a “politically correct negative term for sharing one’s faith” and

bemoaned its “negative connotation of inducement.”

For his part, Land prefers

the terms “witnessing” or “evangelizing,” and emphasized that any attempt to

coerce others to one’s faith is not permitted. In fact, he called it “soul


“For Christians, this is an

act of love, not an act of hostility,” he said. “It has to be voluntary sharing

and voluntary acceptance.”

Indeed, many of the problems

associated with proselytizing relate to its excesses, most recently seen in the

case of 12 Baptist missionaries from the U.S. who were accused of trying to

illegally smuggle Haitian children into the Dominican Republic.

University of Notre Dame law

professor Gerard Bradley noted some overzealous and self-righteous missionaries

“need to be restrained,” but said the solution is that they be “corrected, not


The topic of proselytism

seems to be newly en vogue among prominent religious leaders. In January, the

group Christian Churches Together in the USA — composed of Catholics,

evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Orthodox and Pentecostals — broached the

topic for the first time at a summit in Seattle.

Also Wednesday, at a

separate conference held at Washington National Cathedral, Christian and Muslim

leaders from the U.S., Iran and the Vatican released a statement saying that “to

impose a system of belief on others, or to proselytize them to change their

beliefs, is a violation of the sacred dignity of the human person.”

Worries that proselytizing

can cross the line from voluntary into coercive, as well as concerns that

allowing the practice could diminish support for state-approved religions, have

led some countries to pass law that ban or restrict the practice.

But Roger Finke, a

sociologist of religion at Pennsylvania State University, said his research

shows that such laws are hardest on minority religions, and that countries with

anti-proselytizing laws are generally less peaceful and civil.

For example, Finke said “religiously

motivated violence” was widespread in 44 percent of the countries where

proselytizing was limited or restricted, compared to just 14 percent with no

limitations on proselytization.

“To the extent that a

religious group achieves a monopoly and holds access to the temporal power and

privileges of the state, the ever-present temptation is to openly persecute

religious competitors,” Finke said.

Meanwhile, Robert Woodberry,

director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change and a sociologist at

the University of Texas at Austin, cited history and data to argue that

Protestant missionaries have long been a key factor around the world in

loosening the power of elites in societies.

For example, Woodberry said

a number of Muslim and Buddhist countries lagged for centuries in sharing the

printed word with the masses — only relenting when foreign evangelists started

bringing copies of the Bible to the people.

Historically, the longer

Protestant missionaries have been present in a given country, the healthier

social indicators are, from higher gross domestic product to lower infant

mortality rates, he said.

Not everyone, however, would

agree with that assessment.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive

director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, proposed some sort of

international body to regulate proselytizing because Christian missionaries are

often seen by residents of the Muslim world as “agents” of the United States.

“We don’t want to reinforce

the notion of the clash of the civilizations” but “proselytizing creates the

notion … of the Crusades again,” specifically when it involves American

Christians, Al-Marayati said.

Finke and Woodberry

objected, with Woodberry noting that many Islamic countries turned to Islam

only after they had been conquered — and evangelized — by Muslims centuries