Proselytism and Interfaith

This piece was originally posted to Interfaith Youth Core’s blog, www.ifyc.org/stay-informed on October 16, 2013

Thanks to IFYC’s Alumni Professional Development Fund, I was recently attended the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge Gathering in Washington, D.C. The Gathering brought together staff, faculty, administrators and students from universities all over the country who are participating in the President’s Challenge. The two days were spent in plenary and breakout sessions listening to panelists from various college campuses discuss what their schools are doing to work across lines of religious and non-religious difference for the common good of their communities.

Though it was great to hear a number of inspiring stories about the work of young people who are able to come together in their difference, see a need in the community and work to fill that need, I left the Gathering knowing there is still much work to be done.

During one of the breakout sessions a question was posed to the panel that went something like this: “How do you get people of different religious identities together in a room to dialogue—and what do you do about those who are there to only proselytize?” While the panel offered some helpful advice about how to recruit students for dialogue, the panel never answered the question about proselytism. I am not criticizing the panelists here, but it reminded me that there is still much work to be done in how we deal with proselytism. It is a topic we love to brush under the rug. This is a common frustration of mine as an Evangelical Christian.

At interfaith gatherings I regularly hear interfaith professionals talk a big game about making safe spaces for students of different religious and non-religious identities to express themselves authentically, but in the next breath say something denigrating about Evangelical Christians or other “conservative types.” At the same time, interfaith professionals regularly complain that they cannot seem to get Evangelicals involved in interfaith work.

There’s an obvious disconnect here.

While we can agree that interfaith dialogue is not a place for proselytism, we still have to be intentional about making sure those whose spiritual practice involves proselytism can still have a place at the interfaith table. How can we allow Evangelical Christians, and others who proselytize (let’s remember that this is not only a Christian practice), to participate in interfaith work while being authentically themselves? One of the ways we can do this is by affirming that proselytism is a central spiritual practice for some.

Gatherings like the President’s Challenge Gathering at Georgetown last month are a great way to be reminded of the wonderful interfaith work being done across the country. We can be motivated by the interfaith work of others to do better interfaith work ourselves. Let’s remember that this is a young movement, and there is still much to learn about how to be the best movement we can be. One thing we can work on is our reception of Evangelicals (and other proselytizing groups) and how we talk about proselytism within the interfaith movement.

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2 thoughts on “Proselytism and Interfaith

  1. John W. Morehead

    This is a huge question, and one that raises problems in interfaith. I have had some heated but civil exchanges with Pagan friends who believe that proselytism has no place at interfaith, that it should be only about commonalities and work for the common good. But what about those religious traditions that have persuasion built into their core identity? This is one of the issues we will continue to wrestle with at the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Readers may be interested in the special theme issue of Sacred Tribes Journal about to be published online looking at the ethics of evangelism and allegations of predatory proselytism. It overlaps with your essay. Thanks so much for addressing this.

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  2. John W. Morehead

    As a follow up to my previous comments, related to this issue is the question of the ethics of evangelism and proselytism. This has to be considered before a consideration of its place or lack thereof in interfaith can be understood. I would like to make a free copy of the new Sacred Tribes Journal devoted to an exploration of the ethics of evangelism and allegations of predatory proselytism available to all interested. The Kindle version currently at Amazon.com can be downloaded in PDF on my Academia.edu page: http://www.academia.edu/4838807/Sacred_Tribes_Journal_8_1_2013_-_The_Ethics_of_Evangelism_When_is_Proselytism_Predatory_Kindle_Edition_

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