Proselytism is a dirty word for both secularists and goodwill Christians. Many secularists oppose any expression of Christian witness – at home or abroad. They favor freedom from religion. Many goodwill Christians favor freedom of religion and oppose witnessing that is manipulative and coercive.
When the Washington Post “On Faith” page asked its panelists if there is a problem with proselytism overseas by U.S. religious groups, several panelists made some weird leaps.
An atheist linked proselytism with U.S. government funds, saying that it was wrong for religious organizations that receive government funding to proselytize.
A liberal Christian, a member of the United Church of Christ, made a similar comment. She also wrote that proselytism was a dangerous and bad idea, noting that her denomination had given up the practice.
A Jewish panelist contrasted proselytization and education, expressing opposition to attempts at conversion.
My own entry spoke in favor of evangelism and ethics.
I noted that two goodwill Christians, an evangelical and a Catholic, disavowed proselytism as they advocated witnessing to their faith last October at a conference on Christians and Muslims at Georgetown University.
David Robinson, senior advisor for World Vision International, said, “We have instituted policies that prohibit proselytism and we train our staff … to respect those of other faiths and not engage in any type of religious manipulation.”
Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, said, “The employees of Catholic Relief Services do not proselytize – ever – period. We are organizationally inspired by our faith. But we let our actions do the talking.”
In a way, both men – representing very different wings of Christianity – reflected the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, who reportedly said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
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. That’s plain wrong.
Regrettably, many Baptists prioritize missions/evangelism and abandon ethics. They think their work is so important that they can be secretive, covert, almost secret agent-like – call it the CIA for Christ.
The best Baptists know that truth beats deception every time. Walk trumps talk. Transparency trounces secrecy.
Christians must give witness to their faith with the highest ethical standards. Evangelism and ethics are inseparable.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. This editorial appeared originally on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Web page in a shorter and different version.