Many evangelicals wear their religion on T-shirts and around their necks and on car bumpers and eye-blacks. They hand out tracts on college campuses and stage revival meetings on military bases. They use weddings and funerals to preach come-to-Jesus sermons. In their resolve to spread the good news that Jesus saves, some also do things that are more morally dubious.
In Tucson, nice young couples cultivate relationships with lonely college students without disclosing that they are paid to engage in “friendship missions.” In Seattle, volunteers woo first- and second-graders to afterschool Good News Clubs that the children are incapable of distinguishing from school-sponsored activities. In Muslim countries, Christian missionaries skirt laws that ban proselytizing by pretending to be mere aid workers, putting genuinely secular aid workers at risk. In the U.S. military, soldiers bully other soldiers into prayer meetings or the Passion of the Christ and then send bizarrely profane emails to people who try to stop them.
Perhaps the most devastating consequence of evangelical zeal in recent decades has been millions of unnecessary deaths in Africa. Many evangelicals saw the HIV epidemic as an opportunity.
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“AIDS has created an evangelism opportunity for the body of Christ unlike any in history,” said Ken Isaacs of Samaritan’s Purse. Another group that pursued HIV dollars has its mission built right into its name: Community Health Evangelism. Christian ideology ultimately redirected billions of U. S. aid dollars away from science-based results-oriented interventions such as contraceptive access and safe-sex education and into programs that espoused traditional Christian values: monogamy, evangelism, and compassionate after-the-fact care for the sick.
I spent over 20 years of my life as an evangelical Christian, and during that time these behaviors seemed benign, even laudable to me. Today, as a psychologist who creates resources for former fundamentalists, I find them disturbing. Even so, I am sympathetic to the moral conundrum fundamentalism can cause for genuinely decent people. After I watched the documentary Jesus Camp, a friend commented, “Wasn’t that horrifying?” I had to confess that it seemed kind of, well, normal — and that I could relate to the woman running the camp.
To explain why Christians will sometimes violate their own commitment to compassion or truth in the search for converts, it helps to consider the psychology of fundamentalist religion.
Religion has a set of superpowers—ways it shapes or controls human thinking and behavior. Chief among these is the fact that religions take charge of our moral reasoning and emotions, giving divine sanction to some behaviors and forbidding others. Because there are many kinds of “good,” all of us make moral decisions by weighing values against each other. For example, most parents place a value on not hurting their children and yet get them immunized because long-term health trumps short-term pain. Religion can alter the way we stack those competing values, adding emotional weight to some, removing it from others.
The relationship between religion and morality is complicated. Religion claims credit for our moral instincts. It channels them via specific prescriptions and prohibitions. It offers explanations for why some things feel right and others feel so wrong and why we find the wrong ones tempting. It engages us in stories and rituals that bring moral questions to the fore in day-to-day life. It embeds us in a community that encourages moral conformity and increases altruism toward insiders. It creates the sense that someone is always watching over our shoulder.
When religious edicts align with the quest for love and truth, religion’s power can encourage us to be more compassionate, kind, humble or act with integrity. But religions also assert moral obligations that have little to do with love or truth, harm or wellbeing. Consider, for example, sacramental rituals, pilgrimages, circumcision, veiling, vows of silence or rituals of purity. Some demands of piety have little human or planetary cost. But other times, divine edict compels adherents to do harm in the service of a higher cause that to outsiders simply doesn’t exist. The Aztec and Inca practice of human sacrifice to appease gods was one of these. To outsiders it was a horrifying moral violation; to insiders more analogous to a community vaccination; the young men and women who were sacrificed gave their lives for a greater good—the wellbeing of the whole society.
Since religions add to an adherent’s bucket of moral obligations, they can create moral dilemmas or tradeoffs where none would otherwise exist. Should I spend my days studying Torah or working to feed my children? Should I drive my daughter to the hospital even though it’s Friday? Should I give the little I can spare to the poor or to the nuns? Should I wander with a beggar bowl or help my father tend the fields so my sisters can go to school? Should I encourage my poor African parishioners to wear condoms to prevent HIV or tell them to entrust God with their family planning?
Sometimes the tradeoffs are a matter of life or death, as when Saudi girls may have been forced to remain in their burning school rather than flee unveiled. Or consider the case of a young Arizona mother who had to choose between her own death and the abortion of a 12-week fetus her church deemed a person. She chose to live so she could continue raising the children who waited for her at home. But her bishop, who saw the abortion as premeditated murder, excommunicated a nun who helped her, claiming the more moral path was to allow the death of both woman and fetus as God’s will.
Evangelical Protestants who believe the Bible is the literally perfect word of God take as one of their highest mandates a verse they call the Great Commission. I have seen it emblazoned in letters two feet high on the wall of a megachurch: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19, NIV). The word evangel means good news, and the name evangelical identifies Christians whose beliefs center on spreading what they think is the best news ever to reach the human race: that Jesus died for our sins and anyone who believes can be saved from hell. (One of my deep secrets as an evangelical teenager was how much I hated trying to sell other people on the Four Spiritual Laws that laid out the plan of salvation.)
Follow me, says the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel, and I will make you fishers of men. For evangelical Christians, fishing for souls is an obligation that can trump all others. What good does it do to feed the hungry or tend the sick if you leave their souls to eternal torture? Catholic Christians typically believe that good works are of value in their own right. Universalist Christians believe that the death of Jesus on the cross ultimately redeemed all of creation. Modernist Christians believe the Bible is a human document and that the life of Jesus is more important than his death. Evangelical Christians believe they have a moral obligation to proselytize.
Beliefs have consequences, and one consequence of evangelical belief is that decent people end up doing ugly things in order to recruit converts and save souls. It is because they care about being good that they do harm. In the much quoted words of Steven Weinberg, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” The mechanism by which this happens is that religion creates a narrative in which the evil serves a higher good.
A new book by Mikey Weinstein, No Snowflake in an Avalanche, offers a window into how corrosive the Great Commission can be. It chronicles a harrowing decade in, what is to Weinstein, a fight to the death for religious freedom. You may be familiar with fragments of the story. When fundamentalist Christians at the Air Force Academy began goading and harassing Weinstein’s cadet son, Curtis, they awoke a grizzly bear.
Weinstein assumed at first that the harassment was an anomaly and would be addressed quickly. Alas. The more pressure he applied using his own standing as an Academy graduate and former Reagan administration attorney, the more he uncovered an entrenched network of fundamentalist Christians that ranged from cadets to chaplaincy to brass, and that pressured all others to convert: Clubbish Bible-believing cadets bullied Catholics, Muslims, Jews, nontheists and even mainline Protestants (who, after all, weren’t real Christians to them). Evangelical chaplains brazenly told supporters they were missionaries on the public dime and the armed services was their mission field. Righteous officers pulled rank and pressured subordinates to participate in Bible studies and prayer meetings –and covered up abuses. Middle Easterners complained that America’s troops were Christian crusaders, and outside organizations fanned the flames by providing tracts and Bibles so that combat soldiers could work on converting Iraqi and Afghan civilians.
Livid about violations against the U.S. Constitution and livid about the personal violations and added dangers being endured by America’s soldiers because of the crusade mentality, Weinstein formed the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). Since then, thousands of phone calls, letters and emails have poured in from all arms of the services—not only from the academies but from men and women whose lives are on the line in war zones. The MRFF has fought like a cornered lion on their behalf—fierce, muscular and unpredictable—leaving fundamentalist perpetrators convinced that Weinstein and his colleagues are agents of Satan.
As exposure after exposure has demonstrated, the evangelizers are legally in the wrong. They also are in violation of well-established moral and ethical principles including, often, humanity’s most central moral principle, the Golden Rule. They would be outraged if adherents of other religions solicited their children or exploited their collegial relationships in the quest for converts. So why don’t they give it up? They can’t. Their beliefs require that they push as hard as they can to implement their understanding of God’s will.
In recent years, evangelicals have expanded their outreach in the military, public grade schools, “faith-based” community services and international aid programs, leveraging existing structures and secular funding streams when possible to support their work. To qualify for grants or gain access to public facilities, they argue that they are social service providers, not missionaries. From a personnel standpoint they argue that they are churches, exempt from civil rights laws. America’s Supreme Court has been remarkably willing to let them speak out of both sides of their mouths, which means this trend will continue. Evangelical organizations like Officers Christian Fellowship, Child Evangelism Fellowship, Prison Fellowship Ministries and World Vision will proselytize as much as they are allowed to, diverting as many public dollars as they can, because that is what their reading of the Bible demands.
Inside and outside of Christianity, vigorous debate is challenging the pillars of fundamentalist belief, like the idea that the Bible is literally perfect or that Jesus was the ultimate human sacrifice. But the evangelical quest for converts will be constrained only by whatever moral limits the rest of us set.