As Bush proselytizes for faith-based charities, some thoughts to consider

Issue: "Mel Martinez: HUD's man," March 3, 2001

One trap the left is laying for defenders of President Bush's faith-based initiatives concerns a long word, proselytize. In press interviews so far it is often assumed to mean an attempt to bring about religious "conversion" through force or through the offering of bribes.

Evangelicals especially, though, should never accede to a blanket indictment of proselytizing, because a third meaning of the word-to put forth religious claims and let people decide-is at the heart of evangelism. Some football coaches frown on the forward pass because three things can happen when a quarterback throws one, and two of the three-incomplete, intercept-are bad. But the third possibility, a completion, is a joy to behold, and a completion in evangelical proselytizing is far more joyous.

Quick history lesson: The word proselyte emerged in Greek and Latin 1,800 years ago as a term for a person converting to Judaism. Proselytize, a word that first appeared in 1679, means to induce a person to convert to one's faith. What kind of inducement? The pressure of force is the worst. In Russia under the Czars, Jews were sometimes drafted into the army and forced to undergo baptism, as if that made a person a Christian. Rousas Rushdoony, whose death is reported near the front of this issue, wrote about how some Turkish officials a century ago lined up captured Armenians and asked them whether they worshipped "Christ or Allah." If the answer was Christ, a sword thrust to the gut followed.

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A second type of inducement, also bad, is the material inducement offered as a payoff for making a profession of faith. A century ago missionaries in Asia warned of the danger of encouraging what they called "rice Christians," those who might say anything so as to get bowls of rice. If Christians running a homeless shelter today were to tie provision of food and basic shelter, "three hots and a cot," to saying some words about Jesus, then that brand of proselytizing would also receive scorn, and rightly so.

But the third type of proselytizing is what most religions in America currently do: Their adherents say what they believe and why they think such a faith is good not only for themselves but for others as well. I teach a course called "Journalism and Religion" at the University of Texas and regularly bring in Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and pagans for the class to interview. Each interviewee proselytizes in the third sense of the word, laying out arguments why his belief is right, reasoning with students who ask questions, and inviting them to attend worship services and discussions.

Christians in particular are called to engage in that third type of proselytizing, also known as evangelizing. The last command of Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark is to "go and make disciples of all nations"; that is known as "the great commission." Throughout most of American history evangelical Protestants and Catholics have run homeless shelters in large American cities, offering both material and spiritual food. Individuals have not been forced in, but those who came were expected to listen to some kind of a sermon.

I've listened to sermons at homeless shelters and feeding programs in Chicago, New York, and Washington, and in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Texas as well. Some have been good, some have been bad, most have been short. None of the listeners has ever been forced to say anything.

Those sermons are as much an impediment to freedom of conscience as bathing suits are to freedom of swimming. Sure, some "naturalists" think that all beaches should be nude ones, but most people aren't shocked by a requirement to wear a swimsuit at a beach or to sit through a sermon at a Christian shelter. As long as no one is forced to do the butterfly stroke or pretend to a butterfly conversion, why is this terrible? (After all, for those distressed by the thought of hearing a sermon, secular alternatives are available.)

Over the next few months, whenever we hear someone praise or (more likely) condemn proselytizing, we should ask, "What do you mean by that?" Some people think of proselytizing as badgering a person until he gives in. That's rude, and wrong. Other people don't like the idea of ever encountering, or having others encounter, unfashionable religious ideas. But the freedom to proselytize in that sense is part of our liberty, and it makes our land sweet. When it is proselytizing for Christ, those whom God has called will respond, and their lives will become sweet.


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