Chicago's rebuff of the Southern Baptist Convention's plans to meet
in the Windy City next summer, on the grounds that the large Christian
group might foment "hate crimes" against minorities, is sounding alarm
bells among Christians who fear that merely speaking openly about their
core religious beliefs will soon be considered a crime.
The Southern Baptist Convention -- with a membership of 15.8 million
and representing more than 40,000 churches nationwide -- has been
planning for two years next summer's evangelistic outreach in Chicago.
Along with performing good deeds -- including housing rehabilitation and
medical clinics -- the initiative also would encompass church-starting,
door-to-door evangelism and block parties.
But when the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago
sent a letter to Paige Patterson, head of the Southern Baptist
Convention in Nashville, urging the Baptists to reconsider their plans,
the Baptists were shocked and dismayed.
It seems Chicago's council leaders -- representing 40 mainline
denominations, Jewish synagogues, and African-American denominations --
believe the outreach might spark violence and hate crimes against
minority religious groups in the city. "We are particularly disturbed
that the two groups who appear to be among your primary targets, Muslims
and Jews, have during the past six months been victims of faith-based
terrorist violence in Chicago," said the letter urging the Baptists to
"While we are confident that your volunteers would come with entirely
peaceful intentions, a campaign of the nature and scope you envision
could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes," said the
Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive director of the Chicago Board of
Rabbis, and chief author of the letter, cites the fact that that six
Orthodox Jews were shot and wounded in July outside of their synagogue
on Chicago's North Side, as well as last May's vandalism against a
Mosque in Villa Park, as examples of "hate crimes" that might be
replicated by the presence of the Christian outreach there.
The council also includes Cardinal Francis George of the Catholic
Archdiocese of Chicago, the Rev. Paul Rutgers, a Presbyterian minister
and Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of the United Methodist Church's Northern
The Southern Baptist campaign "smacks of a kind of non-Jesus-like
arrogance," said Sprague, according to an Associated Press report. "I
am always fearful when we in the Christian community move beyond the
rightful claim that Jesus is decisive for us, to the presupposition that
non-Christians ... are outside God's plan for salvation."
Sprague, who oversees 425 United Methodist Churches in the Northern
Illinois Conference, told WorldNetDaily that the Council was concerned
that the presence of Southern Baptist missionaries in Chicago next year
could upset the unity that has carefully developed between Protestants,
Catholics and Jews in Chicago during the past few years.
"We did not in any sense want to suggest that we did not want them to
come to this area. They are welcome to come," said Sprague, "if they're
coming to join with us in acts of mercy and justice on behalf of this
community in general, and specifically on behalf of the marginalized and
dispossessed." But Sprague makes it clear that traditional Christian
evangelism is not acceptable or welcome. "We are not interested in their
coming to proselytize or to suggest, however well intentioned, that
Jews, Hindus, or others are second class."
The problem, according to Sprague, is that proselytizing with the
kind of attitude that one group is saved, while another is in need of
saving, can provide "fodder" for deranged or demonized persons to attack
religious minorities. To suggest that other religious groups are
second-class citizens can be dangerous, because it feeds into the
ideology of hate groups, he said.
When it comes to Christian views on homosexuality, the prohibition
against proselytizing is even stronger. Christians who treat homosexuals
as second-class citizens are setting them up for persecution in a
"fear-ridden society," said Sprague.
"This sets them [homosexuals] up for the deranged and demonic to go
after them. We have example after example of gay and lesbian Christians
being treated less than lovingly by virtue of that kind of mentality."
Does Sprague consider preaching against homosexuality, even within a
church, a hate crime?
"It not always does, but it certainly can. It creates a climate in
which hate can fester," answered Sprague. "It's like, if I plow my yard,
it doesn't necessarily make it a garden, but it means it has become
prepared to become a garden."
Sprague is far from alone in his view that Christians should not
criticize the homosexual lifestyle. According to the Women's Division of
the United Methodist Church, "An example of giving societal permission
to engage in violence against gay and lesbian people is the recent media
campaign with the misleading slogans of 'Truth in Love' and 'Hope, not
Hate.' Such slick campaigns, though couched in seemingly kind and
Christian words, promote bigotry," the Women's Division wrote in a 1998
"Christian groups like the ones sponsoring this campaign have
consistently waged campaigns of fear and misinformation. ..." The
Women's Division was referring to Focus on the Family, the Family
Research Council and other conservative religious organizations that are
attempting to help homosexuals who want to leave the lifestyle.
Commenting on the women's division policy, Faye Short, a conservative
Methodist, asks, "Are we fast approaching the point within our society
when Christians can no longer make public statements that convey
principles of biblical morality? Will we be disallowed from upholding
the biblical model of marriage and family," she said in Good News
Magazine. "And, shall we, as women of the church, allow ourselves to be
co-opted into unwittingly supporting public opinion and homosexual
advocacy opposing Christian organizations that dare to proclaim the
Baptists: Ready or not, here we come
Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist Convention still plans to bring
100,000 missionaries into Chicago next summer to conduct evangelism
campaigns. The Chicago effort is part of the Baptists' "Strategic Cities
Initiative," which will also target Phoenix, Los Angeles and Boston.
"We are not targeting groups," said James M. Queen, executive
director of the Chicago Metro Baptist Association. "We want to show
love, show our faith. Everybody needs to hear the gospel."
But grave concerns remain. In response to the Council's letter, Dr.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, "To say that Southern Baptists
should refrain from an evangelistic campaign because it might, as the
council said, 'contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes,' is not
a very far step away from then claiming that the act of witnessing
itself to those whom you believe need to be saved is a 'hate crime.'"
"I think it is instructive that those who criticize Southern
Baptists' efforts to evangelize cities or groups always preface their
criticism by acknowledging Southern Baptists' right to express our
beliefs, Land continued. "It seems they affirm our right to express our
beliefs as long as we agree not to do so."
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary in Louisville, Ky., agrees: "To link New Testament evangelism
with hate crimes is cowardice posing as compassion. This is political
posturing, not a serious argument. It saddens me to see so many
supposedly Christian leaders who are determined to avoid evangelization
at all costs."
Anti-Christian bigotry on the rise?
Is it true, as conservative religious groups and commentators have
been contending for years, that there is a rising tide of anti-Christian
bigotry in our culture?
Southern Baptist Convention spokesman William Merrell observes, "I
believe there is a growing climate of hostility that is directed against
Christians ... who find themselves as the targets of a great hostility
in this culture."
In late September, presidential candidate Gary Bauer cited the
shootings at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Forth Worth, Texas, the
targeting of Christians at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. and
the shootings of praying students in Paducah, Ky., as examples of a
"disturbing pattern." In fact, there has been almost no media coverage
pointing out that these were anti-Christian acts of violence against
Bauer's views were echoed by House Majority Leader Dick Armey in a
Sept. 29 speech. "We are witnessing a rising level of bigotry against
people of faith, especially Christians," said Armey.
The Congressman pointed to the comments by Barry Lynn, of Americans
United for the Separation of Church and State, on CNN's May 21 Crossfire
show. Lynn criticized the acclaim given to Cassie Bernall, a young girl
who was shot at Columbine when she said she believed in God. According
to Lynn, "I think that what we've done here is to take this one victim,
turned it into an example of martyrdom, and then used it to become the
springboard for even more exploitation of this tragedy by people with a
religious, political agenda."
Armey observed that, after the memorial service for slain Columbine
students, the Denver Post editorialized May 1 against what it called the
"disenfranchising" nature of the memorial service. The editorialist
noted, "While the service deftly satisfied the needs of fundamentalist
Christians, it estranged too many others who came in search of healing."
The Post urged that future services be more "inclusive, not
Then Armey takes aim at the Justice Department's own "Healing the
Hate" middle school curriculum, which suggests to school counselors that
children may be dangerous if they grow up in a "very religious" home.
"This, without one shred of evidence showing any linkage between
Christians and any of these terrible acts of violence that our nation
has faced," said Armey. The Justice Department says one of its goals in
publishing this curriculum is to "reshape attitudes and beliefs" of
middle school students.
The "Healing the Hate" curriculum begins with this quote from
President Clinton: "Prejudice and contempt, cloaked in the pretense of
religious or political conviction, are not different ... they fuel the
fanaticism of terror."
Can't read Bible on radio in Canada
"Conservatives are in a pickle," writes Jonathan Alter in
Newsweek. "They like to say that ideas have consequences. Well,
the consequences of condemnation can turn out to be death. ... But just
as the white racists created a climate for lynching blacks, just as hate
radio created a climate for militias, so the constant degrading of
homosexuals is exacting a toll in blood. ... Discerning clergymen and
moralists can hate the sin and love the sinner; but by the time the
homophobic message reaches the angry guys sitting in the bar, that
distinction has been lost."
Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson contends that if such
anti-Christian trends continue in the U.S., Christians will face the
same kind of restrictions on their free speech and faith as believers
currently do in Canada.
"In Canada," says Dobson, "certain portions of Scripture can no
longer be read on radio or television. If broadcasters chose to
elaborate on Romans 1, for example, or other Scriptures that address the
subject of homosexuality, they would be charged with unethical practices
because officials would interpret the comments as hateful. Focus
couldn't even cite certain medical information related to AIDS on a
recent broadcast because, again, it might have offended the homosexual
community. That's where I believe gay and lesbian activists in this
country are taking us."
Worldwide persecution of Christians
While the Southern Baptists sponsor 5,000 "home missionaries," they
also support more than 4,000 foreign missionaries in 126 countries. So
the problems confronting Christians overseas are also on their minds.
In September, a Roman Catholic priest was killed in India for his
"illegal" attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity. But that's just
In the Sudan, Islamic forces have force-starved an estimated 1.5
million "infidels" in recent years.
Muslim gangs in Java have ransacked hundreds of churches. In China,
police continue to arrest members of underground Protestant churches.
Open Doors, a religious freedom group founded by Brother Andrew,
reported on several instances of persecution last month. In
Turkmenistan, a pastor spent 12 days in prison before being freed
and fined one month's wage for holding unsanctioned meetings. In
Indonesia, 30 Christians were massacred by soldiers on the island of
Ambon. In Chechnya, Russian Orthodox priests are being kidnapped and in
Turkey, 40 Christians have recently been arrested for worshipping in an
However attitudes toward Christianity have changed in America in
recent decades, a parallel shift seems to have occurred worldwide.
What about the future of Christianity in America? Will evangelism be
chilled, or even silenced -- or perhaps just neutered -- due to an
ever-more-intolerant culture? Will it end up as an underground movement
as it is in many corners of the world?
Phil Roberts, of the Baptists' North American Mission Board, sees it
this way: "As a result of this effort" to evangelize in Chicago next
summer, "Canada and the United States will either have been closer to
being truly and fully evangelized -- or we will see our culture becoming
Frank York is a reporter for