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.
* 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.
* 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.