Is ‘proselytism’ a dirty word?
    March 5 2010 by Eric Fingerhut, Religion News Service

    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 rape.”

    “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 arrested.”

    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 ago.  
    3/5/2010 4:47:00 AM by Eric Fingerhut, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

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