The camel’s nose called ‘evangelism’

Before we look at the journalistic essay that has me so hot and bothered, let us pause and read two crucial passages in a document that used to be dear to the heart of old-fashioned liberals — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This cornerstone of human-rights work was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Article 18.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Note, in particular, the link — by proximity and logic — between the right to convert people to another faith and the right to express one’s beliefs to other people in any medium, which I would certainly assume includes human speech (and newspapers, too). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said at a World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver, during a debate about public evangelism, one person’s evangelist is another person’s political activist.

Now, there are missionaries who take this too far. I assume that rape and forced marriage is not a valid form of evangelism, even though it is common in Egypt. I assume that bribery is not a valid form of evangelism. The same goes for torture and death threats that must be taken seriously.

With all of that in mind, please read the following online essay — entitled “Christian Soldiers” — from Robert Wright at the New York Times. I would never claim that his point of view dominates American newsrooms. That’s a straw man argument, the kind of thing that conservatives spout who, in reality, tend to hate journalism. However, his point of view is common and may affect coverage in some significant newsrooms.

To comment, you are really going to need to read it all. But here is the top of the piece, which contains a key part of his argument against Christians who insist on following the commands of their Scriptures and attempting to convert other people to their faith.

You see, it seems that missionaries — and even native Christians who are part of local churches in foreign lands — are causing violence. It is also crucial that, according to the Times, Muslims do not attempt to convert others and Christians would be very, very upset if Muslims began trying to spread their faith.

Last Friday night a New York Times headline underwent an online transformation. The article formerly known as “A Christian Overture to Muslims Has Its Critics” acquired a new billing: “A Dispute on using the Koran as a Path to Jesus.”

For my money this was a big improvement, and explaining what I mean will illuminate a dirty little secret: some American Christians are fostering religious strife abroad. They mean well, but the damage they’re doing can be seen all the way from Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims are killing each other, to Malaysia, where Muslims are trying to keep Christians from using the term “Allah” for God.

The Times story is about an outreach technique that some Baptist missionaries use with Muslims. It involves stressing commonalities between the Koran and the Bible and affirming that the Allah of the Koran and the God of the Bible are one and the same.

You can see how a headline writer might call this an “overture.” And certainly the Christians who deploy the technique see it in sunny terms. Their name for it — the “Camel Method” — comes from the acronym for Chosen Angels Miracles Eternal Life. But a more apt etymology would involve the “camel’s nose under the tent.” The “overture” — the missionary’s initial bonding with Muslims via discussion of the Koran — is precision-engineered to undermine their allegiance to Islam.

Now, apparently, when some Christians get together with Muslims (and members of other world religions) and talk about areas of common ground between the faiths — while stressing that the faiths are all equally true and there is no need for anyone to convert anyone — this is called “interfaith dialogue” and this is a wonderful thing.

But when former Muslims and foreign missionaries meet with Muslims to discuss areas of common ground between their faiths — while insisting that, as these two faiths claim, one of them is eternally right and the other eternally wrong, this is dangerous evangelism that leads to violence.

The status of both of these activities under the U.N. Charter? They are both protected. But it appears that some civil liberties are more protected than others, even when they involve activities that are tightly linked to free speech and the freedom of the press.

Now here is what we are going to discuss here, since I totally concede that some forms of evangelism are dumb and some are offensive.

However, what is the journalistic argument for arguing that the U.N. Charter is wrong? Is it wrong on press freedom, too, since that is very, very dangerous. Right? Was Tutu right to connect persuasive political speech and persuasive religious speech? Etc., etc.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mollie


    This view may not be common in newsrooms, but even more worrisome to me than Wright’s piece is this AP story from a few days ago.

    Culture clash: European art provokes Muslims.

    In it, reporter Michael Weissenstein suggests that secular artists are to blame for the violence and threatened violence that some Muslim terrorists are plotting against them.

  • Sam

    I’m confused. First, this was an opinion piece (which I thought you rarely dealt with…but maybe I’m just remembering incorrectly). Second, no where in the piece does Wright mention the U.N. Charter. Nor, for that matter, does he state that Muslims, in the form of legal regulation of the use of Allah, etc., are in the right. The funny thing is that three things can be true all at the same time 1)some Christians are fostering strife through their proselytizing, 2)this is protected speech under the U.N. Charter, and 3) some people (Wright included) can legitimately believe this proselytizing is unfortunate. I was a little surprised at your shock and horror after reading the column itself.

  • Jerry

    I read that story much the same way that Sam did. First, it’s an opinion piece, and, as such, is the authors views not news. Second, I think that piece was accurate especially in its frequent use of the word ‘some’. And it was accurate in portraying one of the issues – whether or not either Christian or Muslim view the God they worship as the same or not. Both sides of that issue were given weight.

    Also, the turnabout of how Christians would feel if Muslims from the middle-east tried to convert their children to Islam is accurate.

    So, to me, the biggest thing the author was doing was illustrating how tricky the relationship can be in some countries.

    Especially important was his point that many are ignoring the impact their words and deeds are having. I think that was one of the central messages of his piece.

    Also, I’m especially pleased to note this statement:

    I’m not saying Christians are more to blame than Muslims for the world’s diverse Christian-Muslim tensions.

    And, in an earlier post, I said that I considered many commentators here on the right wing. One classic example of why I feel that is:

    let us pause and read two crucial passages in a document that used to be dear to the heart of old-fashioned liberals — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Since when did the author of an opinion piece represent all “old-fashioned liberals” or even most? That snarky statement is not something I look for from one who is upholding journalistic excellence.

    Pointing out that the actions some people take have negative consequences is so totally far from saying that people don’t or should not have the right to do such things that it’s from a different universe.

  • tmatt


    So writing a defense of the UN Charter is now right wing? Classic.

    I am sure, btw, that Americans would not like it if Muslims attempted to convert their children. But I would totally defend the rights of Muslims to evangelize, even it ways that make me uncomfortable. As you know, this site is a fierce advocate of the Clinton era equal access laws — another right-wing stance?

  • J Maass

    “Conservatives … tend to hate journalism.” This kind of throw away line is absurd, and reduces the author’s credibility significantly.

  • David Adrian

    According to WikiPedia (, “A ‘straw man’ argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To ‘attack a straw man’ is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the ‘straw man’), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

    Ergo, it wouldn’t be a “straw man” argument for conservatives to “spout” (itself an obviously pejorative term) that Robert Wright’s viewpoint “dominates” (rather than “is common in”) newsrooms. On the contrary, it would simply be an assertion of fact amenable to empirical verification.

  • Mollie

    Wright’s post was about the journalistic approach the Times took on the issue. I think we cover things like that a lot here.

  • Jerry


    So writing a defense of the UN Charter is now right wing? Classic.

    Please reread what I wrote carefully because that is NOT what I wrote and not what I meant.

  • Julia

    Wise observations from the comments box of the NYT article:

    As to the Christian use of Allah as the name of God: the indigenous Christians of the Middle East, at least the Orthodox and Catholic ones, when they celebrate Eucharistic and other liturgies in Arabic as most do (sometimes with some Greek or Syriac as well), use the word Allah where we would use God (theos, Deus, le bon Dieu, or whatever) The Arabic translations of the liturgies also accord God the title Rabb, as the Qur’an does for Allah. There are debates over the nature of Allah (trinitarian vs. unitarian most fundamentally) but until this controversy in Malaysia came along–and I note that Arabic is a foreign language there as it is for most Americans–there’s not, among native speakers, a linguistic one. We might do well in our discussion, sometimes, to recall, and maybe even learn from, the Arabic-speaking Christians who have been in the region all along. Liberty Baptist College and the like may wish they had a monopoly on the name Christian, but they don’t.

    It’s my understanding that there was never a problem with Christians in Indonesia using “Allah” in their liturgies. It was the new use of “Allah” in newspapers – probably like waving a red flag at the Muslims. I don’t know which Christian group’s newspapers these were.

    There is a difference between having a legal right to do something and the abuse of that right. The indigenous Christians in Iraq are paying a heavy price for the activities of the proselytizing US Christians that poured into the country soon after the US soldiers. The local Muslims are identifying their ancient Christian neighbors with the infidel Christian proselytizers and US troops. This is even happening in Kurdish areas that are the most identified as friends of the US. These Christians were there centuries before Islam arrived. Why should foreigners think they have the right to exacerbate things with their proselytizing and too bad for the consequences suffered not by them, but by the indigenous Christians who have survived all these centuries by trying to keep their heads down and being inconspicuous.

    What does all of this have to do with freedom of journalists? Why are they not reporting on the plight of the indigenous Christians who are caught in the middle of the fight between the Muslims and the West? Europe and the US have no exclusive claim to Christianity. It’s unconcsionable that European and US Christians think their cover from the UN declaration excuses the horrible penalty being laid on their brethren Christians – many of whom still use Jesus’ own language in their liturgy.

    The UN declaration is not wrong, but exercize of rights demands common sense and realizing who gets hurt when you exercize those rights.

  • Bill R.

    Like Mollie said, Wright seemed to be rebuking the Times for its first headline, which used a modestly positive term (overture) to describe what he considered an offensive and destabilizing activity.

    What gets me about Wright’s point of view is his cynicism, which, as is often noted on this site, lies behind many a failure to get religion. Take this quote:

    In Nigeria, for example, the intensity of Christian proselytizing comes partly from past persecution by a Muslim majority; the Christians seek safety in numbers, so the bigger their numbers, the better.

    Though it pertains to Nigeria, Wright extrapolates the principle to proselytizing in general. So sharing your faith is not about what’s true and false, not about causing someone to see the reality of his/her spiritual situation from a better perspective; it’s just about getting more people to believe like you do, so that you can be safe/feel better. In Wright’s analysis, he just sort of assumes that practitioners of the “Camel Method” don’t really believe what they’re saying about Jesus and the Koran: it’s just a ploy designed to win more converts. But what if they actually do believe it?

    Seems like it would make all the difference. If a man calling himself a Christian started talking to me (not my son; apples to apples, now) about the Bible and Muhammed, and it turned out he was actually a Muslim trying to convert me, I would be positively delighted to find a representative of a completely different worldview who was willing to wrestle with the deep questions of both faiths in a relational, non-belligerent way. I would certainly have more in common with this undercover Muslim than with, say, Robert Wright.

  • Bill R.

    Oops, Mollie didn’t actually say that. I should have written “Like Mollie said, Wright’s critique was a journalistic one. Wright seemed to be rebuking the Times for…”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The basic question is do you actually believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Those who defend Wright’s column are doing what he is really doing–painting those who have the temerity and “chutzpah” to actually exercise those freedoms as the “bad guys.”

  • Peter

    You can believe in freedom of speech, religion while questioning motives, means. That’s called, wait for it, free speech. I think even the UN Human Rights charter would support the right to criticize bad or not bad actors.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Peter–of course there is the right to criticize “bad or not bad actors.” But the Wright article was clearly attacking people for daring to exercise their rights because it was exercising their rights that was causing others to react violently to shut them up To take that attitude is to attack freedom of speech and religion through the back door.
    One might as well outlaw political cartoons because some Moslems have reacted by wanting to kill the cartoonists. Yup! It’s all those freedom exercising cartoonists who want to evangelize for their political point who are to blame. If they would only stop trying to non-violently convert people to their point of view the world would be a much more peaceful place where violence wouldn’t be needed to shut them up.

  • Jerry

    Terry, one final comment. I was thinking about this off and on for the past few hours and realized how strongly one’s world view influences how one reads pieces like this. I think the best way to think about it is to look at it from a vastly different perspective.

    Does a husband have the right to criticize his wife’s choice of clothes. Does she have the right to criticize his football habit (to be stereotypical)? Of course. But method is critical as almost every married person would say.

    I believe the subtext of the piece and certainly my comments upheld the right of speech. But we also have the right to offer feedback on the consequences of that speech. After all, if a guy tells his wife that her beloved dress is ugly, there will be consequences. And, after seeing such an exchange, telling him that he should be tactful is not disagreeing with his right to say what he wants. It is suggesting that it would be helpful to understand the consequences and to choose skillful methods.

    And to smear those who disagree with their methods as being hypocritical left wingers was, to put it mildly, wrong.

  • Jim

    Hi Terry:
    No comments on the article. Just came across this and thought I’d say ‘hello’. Your old Martin says ‘hello’ too! Still loving it.
    Jim Street