Are Evangelism, Missions, and Apologetics a Hate Crime?

Dr. R. Philip Roberts

"All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." (Jesus - Matthew 28:18-20).

Given the gleaming confidence of those words, and in light of the appalling failings of Jesus' followers, that last command goes on contributing heavily to the evils of national and religious warfare, institutional and individual hatred, imperialism and enslavement." Reynolds Price, Time, December 6, 1999, page 94.

The Great Commission is now labeled as a contributor to "warfare," "hatred," "imperialism and enslavement."  Attempts to share the Gospel or to pray for specific people groups is reported as undiluted bigotry and intolerance.  Traditional Christian outreach is construed as an attempt to limit non-Christian groups' freedom and rights or is an expression of ancient religious hatred.  This twist on interpreting various forms of evangelistic activity done by particular denominations and parachurch groups, is rapidly becoming in much of the press and media, it seems, commonplace.  It is becoming commonplace probably because of the growing acceptance of postmodernism by many Americans.  A relativistic postmodern worldview that has rejected absolutes, particularly religious ones, is completely skeptical about any ideology that sounds a note of certainty about salvation, forgiveness and assurance about a home in heaven.  This skepticism is especially acute when the worldview in question is conservative, Bible-based evangelical Christianity.

As evangelicals, a first encounter with the intolerance of political correctness might produce a genuine sense of shock and dismay.  "Just who are the critics of biblical values talking about?" an evangelicalmight ask.  "Bigotry, hatred, enslavement": surely what Jesus Christ has brought to our lives is a far cry from those qualities.  Rather, we sense and know from both our own hearts and heads that it is indeed the love of Christ which compels us to share Him with a lost and dying world (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14).  As well, we sense His love for that world and want genuinely and graciously to share the Gospel with people everywhere.  But no, the relativistic worldview in which much of our society is immersed maintains that any religious conviction, particularly if it bears the name Christian, which holds to absolute truth cannot be based on any other presupposition but uninformed animosity.  Therefore it is to be opposed, and perhaps in the minds of some, prohibited.

An Urgent Moment

Evangelicals, and our country generally, are in a kairos movement-a moment of crisis and urgency.  It is a period of history fraught with wonderful opportunities to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  But it is also a period where perhaps more than any other time in the Grand Experiment called the United States of America, religious liberty might be seriously imperiled and endangered.  Unless Christians are able to understand the times like the sons of Issachar (cf. I Chron. 12:32) and are equipped to address the issue of religious freedom from a biblical and historical perspective, then it is likely that opposition to the work of Christ will continue and perhaps increase.  This article will examine the developing pattern of instances of allegations of hate crimes being leveled against evangelicals, and why these charges are being made.  Then we will describe evangelicals' understanding of evangelism, subsuming missions and apologetics under that rubric, and why the charges of hate crimes will not stick.  Finally, a suggestion will be made as to how evangelicals should respond. 

Allegations of Religious Hatred

The White House

On December 15, 1999 in a press conference at the White House, the Press Secretary for President Clinton, Joe Lockhart, was surprised when an unexpected issue was posed-"Joe, the Southern Baptists are still issuing a warning against Hindus, Jews and Muslims during their special holidays.  We are trying to repair and bring peace to the 21st century, while they are trying to take us into the 20th century again.  Mr. Lockhart, questions or comments on this?"  Mr. Lockhart replied, "I think the President has made very clear his view from any quarter, .one of the greatest challenges going into the next century is dealing with intolerance, ethnic and religious hatred and coming to grips with the longstanding resentments between religions.  So I think the President has been very clear in his opposition to whatever organization, including the Southern Baptists that perpetrate religious hatred."

The question was poorly framed in that Southern Baptists had produced prayer guides for the various religious entities just prior to the High Holy Days, the Festival of Lights and Ramadan.  No warning was issued in them, but only a request to pray for the material and spiritual welfare of the groups concerned including the request that they would come to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  It was Lockhart's response that was the shocker, however.  He later apologized.  Lockhart said, "I just didn't think through that question and it was a mistake.  Mr. Clinton would never hold that position.."

Let's give him the benefit of a doubt.  He made a mistake, making comments he shouldn't have and jumped to conclusions.  The point is unfortunately that the conclusion he did jump to was the worst possible one.  He landed in the morass of assumption that anyone who prays for another person's conversion hates.

Rabbinical Rhetoric

The prayer guides produced by Southern Baptists, though tastefully done, spun off other responses including a Larry King Live show dedicated to the subject.  One participant, Rabbi Schmuley Boteach of Oxford L' Chaim Society made this comment - "Who would have thought that in the new millennium we would once again see the prevalence of spiritual dictatorship and totalitarianism?  .The Nazis said there is a problem with the Jewish body so let's find a solution and these groups (assumably evangelicals) are saying there is a problem with the Jewish soul, we have another solution.  It is called conversion.these are nefarious and insipid messages which led to inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions and ultimately the holocaust." 
The leap of logic in Boteach's thinking is tremendous.  His conclusion is that Hitler is a soulmate of evangelicals and anyone who claims that Jesus is the Messiah is laying the groundwork for the next holocaust.  Was this mere ignorance of evangelicalism's convictions and history or perhaps that of the Nazi movement itself?

Problems of Postmodernism

If it was ignorance, both Lockhart's and Boteach's comments are excusable.  A little education is in order, which we shall come to in a moment.  But perhaps there is genuine bigotry and intolerance here-not on the part of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, but on the side of their antagonists-the Postmoderns.  Postmodernism which holds absolutely to the proposition that there are no absolutes, and that the real truth is that no one can claim to have the truth, especially in the religious realm, is an avowed enemy of a movement filled with conviction and religious absolutes like evangelicalism.  For Postmoderns tolerance has been interpreted, not as a willingness to live peaceably and lovingly with those with whom we might disagree, but that we must deny that we know or possess objective truth.  No one has the right to claim finality on any matter, particularly religious issues.  Such a position is is interpreted as being intolerant and spiteful.

Notably those religious communities which are not Postmodern in perspective-the more conservative Jewish and Muslim movements apparently had little complaint about Southern Baptist's prayer efforts-at least that was expressed publicly.  The reason for this phenomenon was perhaps that they believe that truth can exist, and that believing they might possess it are eager to make converts themselves.

Unfortunately it is not just the religious community that finds fault with evangelical religious absolutes, but in a frightening way it is also members of government-those who called upon to defend our Constitution and freedom to speech and religion.

Congressional Displeasure

In the wake of the prayer guides' controversy, seven members of the U.S. Congress wrote to the Executive Committee Director of the Southern Baptist Convention - "We were disheartened to learn that Southern Baptists have published a pamphlet recently, regarding a prayer for Hindus that uses overly aggressive and insensitive language."  While this is certainly arguable and in my understanding not the case, a later statement in the letter makes a non-sequitur and gigantic leap of logic.  Having expressed their dismay at what they consider insensitive language, these Congressmen state - "Your pamphlet has demonstrated.a lack of understanding of the right of every individual to pursue their own religious beliefs."

What is the connection between praying for someone's conversion to a different religion and their right to religious liberty?  The answer is none.  Rather the issue seems to be that firmly held convictions, convictions that would lead you to pray for another's conversion and salvation, are questionable.  They incipiently imply a sense of confidence that cannot be trusted.  In the worldview of the relativist and the Postmodern, yes even Congressmen, those who hold such convictions cannot be trusted, and apparently have stepped over the line into the realm of ideological totalitarianism.  Therefore such views cannot be tolerated.

Chicago Religious Leaders

Other examples could be multiplied including the Council of Religious Leaders Metro Chicago who stated explicitly that SBC evangelism could "unwittingly abet the designs of those who seek to promote hate crimes by fomenting faith-based prejudice."  What can this statement possibly mean?  There are one of two possibilities - either evangelism itself is a hate crime or it serves as an encouragement to racists and other genuine bigots who would stoop to violence.  In the first case, an appalling lack of understanding is apparent regarding who evangelicals are and what their motives are.  In the second case it is a small step indeed from claiming that evangelism "foments" hate crime to actually calling sharing the Gospel a hate crime.

An attempt seems to be made to lay the groundwork for stating that no one who holds firmly to any one conviction has the right to encourage others to embrace it as well without committing a hate crime.

Federal Communications Commission

Perhaps the boldest attempt by an official government agency to redefine evangelism as useless and less than worthy of full constitutional protection came in a decision by the Federal Communication Commission on December 29, 1999, to provide "additional guidance" on what constitutes permissible programming for a non-commercial educational television broadcast license.1   An affiliate station of the Family Net corporation, Cornerstone Television, had sought to acquire a non-commercial license when the ruling was issued by the FCC.  What "additional guidance" or limitations were considered?  Among them were that such stations must use at least half of their broadcast hours for "educational, instruction or cultural" programming and that preaching and worship services don't fit that category.  Any program "primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally-held religious views and beliefs" are not qualified.  The focus of such stations should serve the needs of "the entire community to which they are opposed to the sway of particular political, economic, social or religious interests."2

Compliance to such "guidelines" would obviously be impossible.  How could any program be focused on the entire community and all needs represented simultaneously with no particular view being predominant?  If ever such a program has been produced, I for one would dearly love to see it.  It staggers the imagination to consider what breadth and depth of content that program or programs would entail.  If ever an inclusivist worldview dominated by Postmodern presuppositions sought through a government agency to control religions, along with evangelical communication and speech, this move was it. 
After the filing of numerous complaints and initial action being taken by various ministries, including the Southern Baptists' North American Mission Board, the FCC decided to reconsider its December 29 action.  The decision of December 29 was reversed on January 28 with one dissenting commissioner.  In part the FCC stated - "we see the difficulty of meeting clear definitional parameters for educational, instructional, or cultural programming."3

The motive and perspective behind such action or attempted action seems to have been anti-religious, and perhaps more particularly, anti-Christian.  The FCC had determined that programming that was religious was of less value and made little contribution to a community than a generic educational broadcast.  It is dangerous and frightening, very frightening, when a government agency presumes to serve as a filter and censor for religious speech and content.

Evangelicals, Evangelism and Religious Liberty

Is the current hostility and opposition faced by evangelicals, and perhaps more particularly by Southern Baptists, merely a result of ignorance?  Could it be that evangelicals need to do a better job of presenting themselves to a watching world?  Certainly anyone who attempts to understand what is meant by Christian evangelism and is acquainted with the long and noble history of evangelical mission activity, and is conversant with our commitment to religious freedom, would appreciate afresh how incredible the charge of "hate crimes" is.

In this regard, it is very important to allow a religious movement to speak for itself.  The Lausanne Covenant of 1974 contains evangelicalism's most widely acknowledged and endorsed definition of evangelism.  Endorsed by thousands of evangelicals, representing hundreds of denominations from most countries on earth, it states that, "To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures.."4   Notable in its definition of evangelism is the acknowledgement that in times past elements of evangelistic workers may "have compromised our message, manipulated our hearers through pressure techniques" or may have been "worldly" in doing evangelistic work.  Both the definition of evangelism as verbal communication and the renunciation of manipulation highlight that for the broad swath of evangelicals-now almost 700 million around the world-evangelism must primarily be genuine spiritual and intellectual persuasion.  The Lausanne Covenant added to this perspective the view that, "When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom."5   This concept of salvation is distinctive from proselytization which would insist on a convert's induction into a church or church-type movement for salvation to be effected or fulfilled.  Evangelicals are just not interested in seeing people change church membership-we are committed to seeing them come to faith in the living Lord Jesus Christ and experiencing His redemption.  All of these concepts regarding the meaning and significance of evangelism cohere to produce an innate commitment to protect religious liberty-"We therefore pray for the leaders of the nations and call upon them to guarantee freedom of thought and conscience, and freedom to practice and propagate religion in accordance with the will of God and as set forth in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights."6

An evangelistic message based on the inviolability of the human conscience, the freedom of choice and culminating in a call for complete religious liberty to follow one's conviction, hardly sounds oppressive and bigoted.  Obviously evangelicals believe in the exclusivity of salvation in Christ.  As well, part of the work of evangelism includes apologetics and occasional polemics-as Lausanne has stated: "For we detect the activity of our enemy, not only in false ideologies outside the church, but also inside it in false gospels which twist Scripture and put man in the place of God."7   But evangelism or apologetics must never be used to violate or manipulate the consciences of others, restrict their freedoms or be based on anything but love: "It becomes a stumbling block to evangelism when it (the church) betrays the Gospel or lacks.a genuine love for people, or scrupulous honesty."8

There is perhaps no more widely endorsed or quoted contemporary evangelical document than the Lausanne Covenant.  Before antagonists are quick to criticize evangelicals and other Bible-based Christians for their positions they would do well to review their stated values.  These same values have been reaffirmed and strengthened by the Manilla Manifesto of 1989. 
The convocation of world evangelical leaders in Manilla was the successor to Lausanne 1974 and was labeled "The Second International Congress on World Evangelization."  This congress' statement had the subtitle "An Elaboration of the Lausanne Covenant 15 Years Later."  Along with its affirmation to exclusivity, "We affirm that other religions and ideologies are not alternative paths to God.for Christ is the only way", there was included the affirmation, "We will also work for religious and political freedom everywhere."9   In a passionate elaboration regarding freedom the manifesto states, "Christians earnestly desire freedom of religion for all people, not just freedom for Christianity.  In predominantly Christian countries, Christians are at the forefront of those who demand freedom for religious minorities.  In predominantly non-Christian countries, therefore, Christians are asking for themselves no more than they demand for others in similar circumstances.  The freedom to 'profess, practice and propagate' religion, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, could and should be a reciprocally granted right."10   It would be hard to imagine a more straightforward commitment to universal religious liberty and freedom of speech than this document.

Additionally, of all religious movements, evangelicals have conceivably the most to gain by the furtherance of religious liberty around the world.  With perhaps tens of thousands of martyrs annually evangelicals have demonstrated their willingness not only to live by their convictions, but to die for them as well.  The Gospel for them is furthered only by the willing advocation of its principles by the humanly unfettered wills of converts to its cause.  Religious liberty and free choice are its mainstays.  Open and uninhibited discourse for all peoples in the open marketplace of ideas is a desire of evangelicals everywhere.

In a recent book-The Churching of America, sociologists Rodger Fink and Rodney Starke make the case that it is the environment of freedom that has done much to elevate and strengthen virtually all religious groups which operate in the United States.  The sense of healthy competition on a level playing field has encouraged all denominations - Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, and otherwise - to do their best.

Evangelicals would agree and voice a hearty amen!  If the Gospel cannot withstand criticism and opposition, then it is of little or no value.  In fact, it was for this reason that Christians around the world, even under persecution have shown such resiliency.  The Baptist movement, of which I am a part, was born in the matrix of persecution with tens of thousands of martyred Anabaptists, burned at the stake, drowned (more appropriate for Baptists some would say) in rivers and lakes as well as put to death by the sword.  Even in what would become the United States, Baptists and other free churchmen were driven from colonies and/or jailed for preaching the Gospel freely and advocating a non-state church.  For evangelicals, Baptists among them, the freer the religious marketplace generally the better.

Formulating an Evangelical Response

So what is to be our response as evangelicals to an increasingly hostile and unsympathetic environment?  How do we constructively confront a media elite, a portion of which is apparently bent on giving Christians and Christianity as bad a name as possible?  Must we simply accept the inevitable and put up with a degeneration in relationships between ourselves and those who wish to paint us with the hate crimes brush?  Absolutely not.

It is, in fact, incumbent on us to use the freedom of speech granted by the Constitution of the United States of America to argue our position well.  We must either use it effectively or stand eventually to lose this precious right.  No one handed our forefathers religious liberty on a plate.  Rather it was fought for and realized after a long and arduous struggle.  As well, if this freedom is to be maintained it must be guarded and defended diligently.

Benjamin Franklin, in addressing his fellow would-be-revolutionaries prior to their unilaterally declaring independence from Great Britain, reminded them additionally of the need for unity.  He said that in their case, "they would either hang together or hang separately."  Similarly, evangelicals will do the same.  Either there will be an effort to respond constructively to this crisis or the freedoms we cherish could well be lost.

First of all, evangelicals can point to a recent document titled The Chicago Declaration on Religious Liberty: Sharing Jesus Christ in a Pluralistic Society. This document was endorsed by many denominations and parachurch groups, and it clearly: 1) defined what we mean by evangelism - i.e., sharing the good news of Jesus Christ without coercion, manipulation, proselytization or deception, but simply then to leave the results with God; 2) forswear prejudice, hatred, coercion, manipulation, deception and intimidation of all types; 3) reaffirmed evangelicals' commitment to uphold, protect and defend religious liberty, not just for evangelicals, but for all religions and creeds.

This reaffirmation of religious liberty included the liberty to evangelize or proselytize (on the part of non-evangelicals) as well as to convert.  Of course, such a reaffirmation to complete freedom by evangelicals implies our commitment not only to gain adherents in the process, but to lose them as well.  We must show a continued and unflagging willingness to put our convictions on the line and to compete openly in the free marketplace of ideas.  Believing as we do that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, then we must be driven by the desire to let the message be heard even if we are faced by severe opposition or one day open persecution.

Next evangelicals should look for and cultivate allies in the struggle to defend freedom.  Thankfully there are some out there who both understand evangelicals and are willing to represent them and their values honestly.  Jeff Jacoby, editorialist for the Boston Globe, remarked upon the charges of evangelical anti-Semitism: 

Rubbish.  Worse than rubbish!  The 250 years that Jews have lived amid American Christians have been an era of peace and prosperity, virtually without parallel in Jewish history.  To link Southern Baptists or any evangelicals to European anti-Semitism, never mind to Hitler, is utterly indecent.

Thank God for people like Jeff Jacoby who accurately portray and represent us.  They need to be encouraged. 
Another apparent ally is Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Seattle, founder of the Toward Tradition movement, a conservative Jewish organization committed to the preservation of traditional Judeo-Christian values.  In his magazine, Toward Tradition, he featured an article "What is a Hate Crime?"  Two front pages of The New York Times were reproduced, one from August 11, 1999 with the news story of three boys wounded at a Jewish day camp in Los Angeles.  The other was a front page from September 14, 1999 regarding the killing of eight church attendees at Wedgewood Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas.  The former story received large headlines while the latter was relegated to the lower left-hand corner virtually obscured from the prime news of the day.  The writer comments: 

We cannot help asking, 'Does the New York Times really believe that Jewish people getting injured is a bigger story than Christians getting killed?'  Apparently so, for the very best secular, liberal reasons, the former was a hate crime while the latter was not.  Another bastion of elite opinion, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights tracks hate crimes against Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Asians, Arab-Americans, Gays, Lesbians and Women.  White Christians need not apply.  This myopia has real world consequences and they appear in the Ft. Worth case:  Even though the shooter, Larry Ashbrook, "screamed insults about 'the Baptist religions,'"  the Times reported that investigators had not yet discerned his motives.  Imagine a similar case in which the criminal had shouted insults against Blacks or homosexuals.  A police chief who told the national media the he 'could not discern a motive in such a case' would have been fired on the spot.11

Friends of evangelicals like Lapin and Jacoby are allies in the struggle for fair representation and the maintenance of religious freedom.  May their tribe increase.  And we as evangelicals should encourage their fair and intelligent comments.

Lastly, it is necessary for evangelicals to just keep on evangelizing and sharing the Gospel freely.  After all, evangelism is what God will use to bring people into a saving and life-changing experience with Jesus Christ.  Real liberty comes only by knowing Him who is life and truth.  Jesus Himself said "you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."  (John 8:32)  If all of our freedoms were gone tomorrow, how could we stop talking about Him who loved us and gave Himself for us-even God's own son.

The struggle for the soul of our nation will not be won on the political playing field, although we are mandated to be salt in a tasteless world-it is to be won in hearts and minds of people as they experience God's love and grace through His glorious Gospel.

1 Baptist Press release "FCC reverses decision on religious broadcasting",  January 31, 2000. 
2 Ibid. 
3 Baptist Press, January 31, 2000. 
4 See the Lausanne Covenant, section 4, "The Nature of Evangelism," as found in Making Christ Known:  Historic Missions Documents from the Lausanne Movement, 1974-1989, John Stott, editor, (Grand Rapids, 1996), p. 20. 
5 Ibid, p. 24. 
6 Ibid., p. 44. 
7 Ibid. 
8 Ibid., p. 28. 
9 Stott, Making Christ Known, pp. 231 and 232-affirmations 7 and 20. 
10 Ibid., p. 247. 
11 Toward Tradition, Summer 1999.

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