May 14, 2001
-- Martin E. Marty
Public religion in the American setting poses the issue of proselytizing, especially with respect to providing government funds to faith-based organizations that might use that money to convert the people served. Arguments about this subject rage daily.
They are mild compared to those arguments concerning public religion and proselytizing in the global arena. There "evangelization" is a seldom used word because of its Christian ring and its mild connotations. "Proselytization" is more aggressive, more threatening to believers whose settled cultural and religious communities get disrupted by would-be converters.
To some, the problem would be solved if either religion disappeared, which it shows no signs of doing, or the passion to convert others dissipated, which it shows few signs of doing. Jimmy Durante once asked, "Why doesn't everyone let everyone else the hell alone for five minutes?" Believers in universalism in its many forms or apathetic believers do let others alone, but many Christians, Muslims, adherents to Eastern religions and "New Religious Movements" (Jews and Zoroastrians sit this one out) cannot sit on their hands, shut their mouths, and leave others alone. At worst these evangelistically inclined believers come across as arrogant; at best they come across as well-intentioned as they try to save others from eternal destruction.
John Witte at Emory University Law School is our reigning expert on international proselytism (having directed an extensive Pew-funded project on the subject), and he has edited book-length materials on it. We've been impressed by a new piece in Fides et Libertas (2000) entitled "A Primer on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism."
Witte there deals with the ironic, surprising, late-twentieth-century boom in religion of passionate, conversionist sorts. He poses governmental questions: "How does the state balance one community's right to exercise and expand its faith against another person's or community's right to be left alone to its own traditions?" The major international human rights instruments breathed the spirit of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but they are being challenged and tested now.
Witte urges that "the preferred solution to the modern problem of proselytism is not so much further state restriction as further self-restraint on the part of both local and foreign religious groups." Is this realistic or utopian? He worries about "missionary mavericks and 'drive-by' crusaders," hears pleas for a moratorium on proselytizing, and ends, perhaps too hopefully: "Moratoria on proselytism might provide temporary relief, but moderation by proselytizers and proselytes is the more enduring course."
The problem is that aggressive converters are by nature immoderate. The issue seems to be insoluble but addressable, and Witte addresses it sanely.