The Limits of Evangelism

In other matters too, applying policies designed to respond to Muslims produces potential conflicts between other religious believers and the state. One pending legal crisis concerns religious evangelism and conversion. If European states preach complete freedom of religion, then states should claim no role whatever in decisions to change religion or attempts to promote such conversions. But of its nature, evangelism or proselytizing usually means asserting the superiority of one religious tradition over another, and in the process, disparaging other religions. Now, conversion is big business in contemporary Europe, and both Christians and Muslims engage enthusiastically in the practice.37 This trend has enormous potential for enhancing religious grievances and even provoking violence, since notoriously, a Muslim who deserts his or her faith is worthy of the death penalty. As recently as 2004, "moderate" Muslim leaders in the United Kingdom urged Prince Charles and other Christian figures not to appeal for an end to the threat of capital punishment in apostasy cases. Yet Britain has flourishing Asian Christian fellowships that work among both Hindus and Muslims, and Bishop Nazir-Ali's parents converted from Shia Islam. African Christians are equally committed to the evangelistic Great Commission.38

The basic legal issue remains: can a Christian be permitted to condemn Islam and its Prophet in order to make a convert? Laws against religious hate speech in practice become anti-proselytization measures. Issues of evangelism and conversion proved central to the recent British debates over new laws prohibiting "religious hatred," which could be taken to outlaw Christian proselytizing. Christians and specifically evangelicals were among the main critics of the proposed measure and celebrated its defeat as a religious victory. In the words of evangelical activist Andrea Minichiello Williams, "A new political constituency has been awakened." Together with gay rights issues, and the limits placed on public displays of Christian religious symbols, the restriction of evangelism alarmed conservative Christians. In a lengthy report entitled Faith and Nation, Britain's Evangelical Alliance discussed just how far Christians should go in resisting threats to religious liberty. The authors concluded that "the use of defensive force may become a necessary and legitimate remedy for Christians." In theory, at least—and nobody was discussing such ideas as serious prospects— "active resistance" might include "disobedience to law, civil disobedience, involving selective, non-violent resistance or, ultimately, violent revolution."39

Also working against religious liberty is the strong European tradition of anti-cult or anti-sect laws that proliferated during the cult scares of the 1990s. Such measures were driven by notorious events like the mass murder-suicides associated with the occultist Solar Temple in France, Switzerland, and elsewhere in 1994-1995. A French law passed in 2000 proposed prison sentences for religious "proselytizers" undertaking "mental manipulation" of the public, the offense being to "exercise serious and repeated pressure on a person in order to create or exploit a state of dependence." The law was arguably well inten-tioned, and the justice minister spoke of "giving a democratic state the legal tool to efficiently fight groups abusing its core values." But such a law comes close to regulating which religious traditions can be practiced within a nation, suppressing controversial Christian or esoteric movements. France's official list of dangerous sects includes groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, and Unificationists, but there is no reason it should not extend to virtually any sufficiently enthusiastic evangelical group that "manipulates" people by pointing out that they face hellfire if they do not receive Christ. And that extended definition is by no means fanciful. In 2004, the Nouvel Observateur ran a hysterical cover story entitled "Evangelicals: The Cult That Wants to Conquer the World." Exhibit A for cult behavior was President Bush, "a devotee of a weird church, Protestant, expansionist, millenarian and apocalyptic: George Bush is a Born Again Christian."40

Religious restrictions are still more marked in countries such as Greece and Russia in which entrenched church establishments are desperately anxious to combat possible upstart rivals. Sunday Adelaja has complained of the chilly attitude his church encounters from Ukrainian authorities: "They treat us as a disgrace of Ukraine. This is the opinion of the government; they consider us a thorn in the flesh." The potential for legal and cultural clashes in coming decades is immense.41

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment