U.S. congressman Jim McDermott is a man on a religious mission. The Washington Democrat has thrown himself into a controversy over Southern Baptist prayer guides for the conversion of Hindus, and he has even put the weight of his congressional office behind his mission. But the congressman's mission is not what one might expect of a man who graduated in 1958 from the evangelical Wheaton College, whose slogan boasts "Since 1860, for Christ and His Kingdom."
Mr. McDermott, in an Oct. 28 "Dear Colleague" letter distributed to all 434 of his fellow House members, charged Southern Baptists with "an aggressive, intolerant approach" and "an intolerant view that has inflamed Hindu communities worldwide." Mr. McDermott's letter, sent on official congressional stationery, called on fellow House members to join his effort to urge Southern Baptists to "end your conversion campaign directed to members of the Hindu faith."
On Nov. 5, the congressman sent a slightly less hysterical letter, signed by six other members of Congress, to Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee. Nevertheless, the toned-down letter included this ominous statement: "We cannot understand how men and women, raised and educated in the world's bastion of religious freedom and tolerance, can characterize another religion as spiritually dark and false. The lack of respect that this statement shows for the basic rights of an individual to believe in whatever faith they choose is perhaps the most disturbing."
It is Mr. McDermott's letter that should disturb American taxpayers, who should be outraged at the intrusion of governmental officials into the evangelism efforts of American Christians, who are, after all, supposedly protected by the Bill of Rights.
Mr. Chapman responded to Mr. McDermott in a Nov. 18 letter that defended conversionist missions, taking the gospel "to every person, of every ethnic background, in every place in the earth." Further, "your letter presents us with a real dilemma. Do we attempt to obey God, or do we take our signals from some Hindu spokesmen ... or from persons such as you who counsel 'a more tolerant and enlightened' approach?"
"We believe the attempt to use any governmental office to pressure Christians to change their doctrines or practices is improper and reprehensible," Mr. Chapman emphasized.
Mr. McDermott's letter also rewrites India's history in terms of religious liberty. "India has been one of the great bulwarks in her commitment to secularism and the belief that all men and women have a right to believe in their own faith," Mr. McDermott wrote. "Hinduism has lasted for thousands of years and espouses a fundamental respect for all creeds and ways of life."
Anyone aware of the intense sectarian strife that has marked India from its beginning as a nation must find Mr. McDermott's statements uninformed, if not ludicrous. Recent massacres and the murder of Christian missionaries are a strange way to demonstrate "fundamental respect." Interestingly, Mr. McDermott's congressional stationery lists him as co-chairman of the "U.S.-India Interparliamentary Working Group" a loose-knit organization that sponsors exchanges between U.S. and Indian politicians.
Mr. McDermott's efforts come amid an already roiling controversy over Southern Baptist outreaches. Late last month, a group of Chicago religious leaders asked Southern Baptists to cancel plans for an evangelistic effort planned for next summer as a part of the SBC's "Strategic Focus Cities" initiative (see WORLD, Dec. 11). The "Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago" lectured Southern Baptists: "While we are confident that your volunteers would come with entirely peaceful intentions, a campaign of the nature and scope you envision could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes."
Evangelism is now the cause of "hate crimes"? Are these Chicago church leaders so afraid of gospel evangelism that they will hide behind the politically correct ethic of tolerance and thus oppose what the New Testament commands? This groups sounds like the Sanhedrin judging Peter and John in Acts 4: "We must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this [Jesus'] name." Do they really believe that conversion is a "hate crime"?
This is theological cowardice posing as courage and compassion. These so-called religious leaders have thrown their lot with Congressman McDermott and his offensive against Christian evangelism. What they oppose is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their greatest fear is that someone, somewhere, for some reason, may be offended by gospel witness. The result of their cowardice and compromise-if followed by others-would be that no one, anywhere, by any means, would be confronted with the authentic gospel.
Evangelical Christians now face a critical time of testing. Today it is the Southern Baptists, but the attack is directed to any church or denomination that believes in what the late Francis Schaeffer called "true truth'" and obeys the Great Commission. In post-Christian America, the gospel is an offense to reason and a threat to civic order. To preach Christ is to risk being charged with a hate crime, and to pray for the conversion of non-Christians is intolerant. To describe those without Christ as "lost" and in "darkness" is outside the pale of enlightened and acceptable conduct, according to Mr. McDermott and the Chicago "religious leaders."
The church has heard all this before-and heard it early. The apostles faced the same charges and bore the same burden. We should respond to these modern inquisitors just as Peter and John responded to the "religious leaders" in Jerusalem: "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."
The McDermott letter is a wake-up call for evangelical Christians. This warning to the Southern Baptists came on congressional stationery. What comes next?