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Evangelism in the halls of the Pentagon.  Personalized Bible studies for foreign diplomats.  Passion of the Christ advertisers next to plates in the Air Force Academy mess hall.  Officers Christian Fellowship buses from military bases to revival meetings.   A Southern Baptist fundamentalist at the head of the Chaplain Corps.

Through Christian Embassy and similar organizations, millions of dollars annually are dedicated to insuring that our military leadership is steeped in born-again Christianity.  The investment has paid off. Mikey Weinstein at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation receives letters daily from service men and women who have been coerced or intimidated because they aren’t born again.  Ironically, most of those who complain are Christians – just not the right kind.

You can’t have this kind of conversion activity going on inside the military without it spilling over to the outside.  One missionary boasts that he sent 1.3 million tracts to Iraq.  Claiming to be humanitarian aid workers, others go bearing Bibles and video tapes or coins with Bible verses for Iraqi children.  But much of the public didn’t get the pattern until Al Jazeera this week ran footage of soldiers unwrapping Bibles in Afghanistan and a chaplain urging them to "hunt people" for Christ.

From a moral standpoint, the behavior of missionary soldiers is akin to missionaries who pretend to be aid workers.  Soldiers handing out tracts or Bibles are violating an explicit military rule while deceptive aid workers violate an implicit ethical rule, but the reason those rules exist is the same—to prevent harm.  How much effort and tax money has gone into convincing the Arab world that our presence among them is not a religious crusade?  How much lethal hatred have our soldiers absorbed because Muslims believe that it is?

Even when conversion activities don’t cause soldiers to get physically hurt or genuine aid workers to be driven off, they do cause harm.  A conversion agenda undermines the slow painstaking work of laying down trust, the foundation material that lets us bridge our cultural and religious differences and see our shared humanity.

So why would soldiers put their fellows at risk?  Why would those who seek to serve the God of Truth lie about their objectives?   Why can we count on these problems continuing?  Because evangelical Christianity is about evangelizing.   Evangelicals believe that they have a moral mandate to win converts, one that trumps other moral priorities.

Don’t get too superior.  The fact is, we all weigh moral priorities against each other constantly, violating some in the service of others.  Constantly.  The problem isn’t that evangelicals are doing this.  The problem is what they believe.

From its beginnings, Christianity has been a proselytizing religion, one that seeks to convert others to orthodoxy, meaning right belief.  The writer of Mark didn’t say, "If you’re finding this way of life rich and full you might want to share it with a friend."  No, he said, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost." (Mk 16:15) Christians call this the Great Commission, and it appears in various forms in our Bible.  "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Mt 4:19)   Some religions are about tending the gods.  Some are about living well or attaining insight.  Traditional Christianity is about believing well and attaining salvation and persuading others to do the same. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved – from eternal torture.

If you truly believed that this is how things work, wouldn’t winning converts take priority over a slightly increased risk to your buddies?  Wouldn’t it take priority over some peacekeeping mission?  Wouldn’t it take priority over being up front with immigration officials and people you befriend?

When the Asian Tsunami happened a few years back, a local mega-church suggested how members could respond .  (I’m paraphrasing):  1.  Pray for the people who were affected.  2  Give to Mars Hill Church.  3.  Give to our Church building missions in India.  From the outside it is appalling that an institution would seek to divert the compassionate impulse into conversion activities or filling their own coffers.  But if you genuinely believe, as they do, that belief is the toggle that sends people to heaven or hell for eternity, what higher good could there be?

I get frustrated sometimes with well-intentioned tripe about respecting all beliefs, as if , in order to respect each other as human beings we must subjugate reason and evidence to the higher priority of making nice.   Beliefs matter.  They shape behavior, and when they are powerful enough, they control it.  If you walk in my front door and I believe that you are in my house to kill my daughter, that belief dictates my every move.  If my husband believes I am wrong, he has a moral imperative to argue me down.  And fast.

True believers of all stripes take belief too seriously.  They mistake the feeling of certainty for external reality, and they underestimate the vast human capacity to err.  But I think that many of the rest of us don’t take belief seriously enough.  We think beliefs can somehow exist in isolation from social and personal priorities.  We talk about people setting aside their religion in the voting booth, as if they could or should pull their deepest values on and off like a sweatshirt.

Does everybody have the right to believe whatever they want?  Yes.

But that doesn’t mean we must give religious belief a free pass. We don’t have to treat "I just know" as if it meant something about anything other than the speaker’s mental state.   Nor should belief be treated as a valid excuse for bad behavior, the way that intoxication used to be.  Harm done in the names of gods is still harm.  A chaplain or soldier who doesn’t understand this doesn’t belong on the government payroll.

Organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and Americans United are fighting to re-establish the legal separation between church and state, but some religious beliefs obligate practitioners not to honor this separation.  The only solution I can see is to address the beliefs themselves – to stop exempting them from the normal rules of discourse.  Any beliefs that insert themselves into the public square must be subject to rigorous public scrutiny and debate.  We owe it to ourselves and each other to take belief more seriously.

Originally posted to Awaypoint on Fri May 08, 2009 at 12:38 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The SBC, the UMC, and the Great Commission (12+ / 0-)

    The "constitution" of the Southern Baptist Convention is The Baptist Faith and Message.  This is the governing document that was amended in a way that caused Jimmy Carter to resign from the SBC in 2000.  In Section XI – Evangelism and Missions the SBC explains its purpose, its mission in life:

    It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations. ... It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ.

    And on the website ( of the United Methodist Church (UMC) can be found this mission statement:

    Why does the church exist? According to Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Christ made it clear: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (28:19-20).

    Based on this ‘Great Commission,’ our United Methodist Church has stated its purpose: "The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.

    Several gospel scholars, collectively called "the Jesus Seminar," worked with available manuscripts that contained words attributed to Jesus.  Over six years they tried to answer the question, "What did Jesus really say?"  Included in their study was the "Great Commission" that forms the mission of Christian churches, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." The Jesus Seminar tried to determine if Jesus actually ever uttered these words.  They wrote on page 270 of The Five Gospels:

    The great commission in Matt 28:18-20 has its counterpart in Luke 24:47-48 and Acts 1:8 (both Luke and Acts were written by the same author).  In John 20:22-23, Jesus bestows the holy spirit on the disciples and confirms their authority to forgive and bind sins.  These commissions have little in common, which indicates that they have been created by the individual evangelists to express their conception of the future of the Jesus movement.  As a consequence, they cannot be traced back to Jesus.

    The commission in Matthew is expressed in Matthew’s language and reflects the evangelist’s idea of the world mission of the church.  Jesus probably had no idea of launching a world mission and certainly was not an institution builder.  The three parts of the commission — make disciples, baptize, and teach — constitute the program adopted by the infant movement, but do not reflect direct instructions from Jesus.

    The Jesus Seminar found that Jesus did not say most of the things ascribed to him by the four Gospels, and this "Great Commission" passage was one example.  Of course, those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible have assailed the work of the Jesus Seminar.  The SBC and the UMC choose to believe, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Matthew was correctly quoting the risen Christ.  The tyranno-churches want to control the message that is presented to the faithful.  The message they have is well suited to their purposes so the tyranno-managers of these churches do not welcome new information; especially when it is presented directly to the flock.

    Please note: in my lexicon Christianity exists in two forms: tyranno-Christianity and liberto-Christianity.  Jesus would be a liberto-Christian.

    Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning.

    by hestal on Fri May 08, 2009 at 12:57:07 PM PDT

  •  The military and the church (5+ / 0-)

    have long been linked when one country went into another country (i.e., the Spanish or the French coming to North and South America).  I can only imagine that the results are even worse when the two are linked as one.

    If our soldiers actually followed the Christ's teachings that they pretend to be studying, they would refuse to kill. the elites...actually believe that society can be destroyed by anyone except those who lead them? - John Ralston Saul -

    by Silverbird on Fri May 08, 2009 at 01:11:47 PM PDT

  •  It occurs to me... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lefty Mama, grada3784, bnasley, gfv6800

    that if we're going to go about nation-building in predominantly Muslim nations, it would behoove us to teach our troops, irrespective of their chosen religious views, the teachings and nuance of the Muslim faith.

    It's hard to imagine being able to carry on an enlightened conversation with those you're trying to persuade to lay down their arms wouldn't help.

    However sensible this must seem, I'm sure the thought of it is soon replaced by the thought of how the right would twist this around...I can see the Drudge Report now, beneath it's idiotic beacon: "Pentagon to convert troops to Islam! Korans to be distributed to the deployed!!!"

  •  Excellent diary. Thanks for posting this. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sychotic1, Lefty Mama, bnasley

    It has me thinking hard about how the 'tyrannos' really know their psychology, and use it to control their base. There's no better way to lock in your supporters than to cause them to close off all reason, in service to the delusion that you offer them the only safety and certainty in their lives.

    Clearly the 'tyrannos' are wolves in sheep's clothing when posing as Christians, merely co-opting the mantle of Christianity as a socially acceptable framework for implementing their self-enriching plan for dominance. This is why the so-called 'Next Christianity' as outlined by Bruce Wilson (troutfishing here) consists of 'non-denominational' churches: clearly their interpretation of Christianity has no basis in Jesus' words.
    It's very hard to crack through the certainty, as long as the certains continue to trust their deceivers/leaders.

    Astronautagogo posted a diary about the experience that led to his awakening and separating himself from his evangelical upbringing. A personal trust must be shattered or violated in order to break through the certainty.

    Sara Robinson wrote a series of articles on how to break down the walls of the kind of certainty described here. Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians also explores this mindset.

  •  Well, if what they are doing is against the law (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lefty Mama

    then they can become martyrs for their diety.  I want anyone so stupidly certain about his diety that he is willing to break the law and endanger his comrades in arms to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    I was in the Army and never took to the amount of prayin' and whatnot that seemed to be forced upon us.  I have nothing against the Chaplains, but only as a comfort and support to those with a thiest bent in the stressful event of military conflict.

    It enrages me that they are trying to turn our military into God's Army.

    There are bagels in the fridge

    by Sychotic1 on Fri May 08, 2009 at 02:08:46 PM PDT

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