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