Evangelical Credibility and Religious Pluralism by John W. Morehead

Evangelicals are having a serious credibility problem in regard to religious pluralism in the public square. This problem is amplified when it comes to Islam in a post-9/11 environment. Consider a couple of examples.

Former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is facing increasing criticism from both political parties due to accusations that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. The problem is Abedin passed intense security scrutiny to obtain her job, and Bachmann’s claim is also stymied by a lack of real evidence to substantiate what many are labeling an outlandish claim.

But Bachman is not alone as an evangelical in making questionable claims about Islam. Lt. General William G. “Jerry” Boykin (Ret.) is the new vice president of the Family Research Council. In his understanding of Islam, “we need to realize that Islam itself is not just a religion—it is a totalitarian way of life. It’s a legal system, shari’ah law; it’s a financial system; it’s a moral code; it’s a political system; it’s a military system. It should not be protected under the First Amendment, particularly given that those following the dictates of the Qur’an are under an obligation to destroy our Constitution and replace it with shari’ah law.”

These conspiratorial and simplistic views of Islam held by Bachmann and Boykin are symptoms of something bigger. Evangelicals not only have a credibility problem when it comes to engaging Islam in American politics, but they are also ill prepared for America’s increasing religious pluralism in the public square.

Stephen Prothero, in his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t, documents that most Americans, including Christians, lack the most basic understanding of various religions. This was confirmed in the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey in 2010 where atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons, outperformed “Protestant Evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.”

Yet this uninformed stance toward other religions has not stopped Christians from forming judgments and taking action on religious issues. After Mitt Romney announced his candidacy for president, many Christians said they would not vote for a Mormon “cult” member. When a Lutheran minister participated in an interfaith memorial service in Yankee Stadium just days after the 9/11 he received emails and letters from those in his denomination accusing him of heresy and terrorism against Christianity. As a result of his work with the Muslim community Rick Warren has been labeled a heretic and promoter of “Chrislam.” And in response to a Hindu offering the opening prayer for Congress, Christians shouted down the religious leader.

If Christians are to overcome this credibility problem, they will have to address the reality of life and faith in the midst of religious diversity. Skye Jethani, Senior Editor of Leadership Journal, has said that if the culture is religiously diverse around us, but the church is not talking about what it means to be a Christian in this environment, then the church will continue to suffer as a result.

But how can this credibility gap be addressed? How can we move forward in ways that are faithful to our religious convictions? And can this be done in positive ways without compromise?

A variety of fears underlie problematic Christian stances toward various religions. Some of these fears include concerns over the possibility of spiritual contamination, syncretism, conversion, and in some cases, violence. These fears must be addressed, but they are not insurmountable.

A new movement has arisen among Evangelicals, involving organizations like the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and others, a movement of people who believe that it is possible to engage those in other religions without compromise, and to do so in civility. At the core of this movement is a desire to follow the way of Jesus. At times Evangelicals have attempted to support such a model with reference to biblical passages where Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees (Mat. 23:27). But a more careful reading reveals that this passage is not applicable to interreligious encounters. Here Jesus criticizes leaders in his own religious community. It is not a text that applies to consideration of how Jesus engaged those outside of his religious community.

To understand the example of Jesus for a religiously diverse world we must consider other biblical passages, such as those where Jesus interacts with Gentiles and Samaritans. After considering what might be learned from these interactions we can emulate this approach and apply it to Christian engagement with those in other religion.

Gentiles, particularly Samaritans, were despised as outsiders by the Jewish people of the first century. We might naturally expect Jesus to share in this hostility, but instead a different portrait emerges with a fresh reading of the Gospels. Two passages are particularly noteworthy, including Jesus’ dealing with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42), and the parable of the compassionate Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).* From these texts we find several features of Jesus’ example which are important. First, he broke with the negative assumptions, attitudes, and practices of his religious community concerning those in other religions. Second, Jesus positively engaged those of other religions by exhibiting respect rather than denunciation. Third, his engagement involved an awareness of the religion and culture of his dialogue partners. Fourth, Jesus engaged in mutual interaction through dialogical exchange that included listening as well as evangelistic proclamation. If Christians are to have the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5), and remember that “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6), then we must emulate the model of Jesus for the church as we engage those in other religions.

When the example of Jesus in interreligious encounters is followed the results are transformative, in the lives of Christians, as well as non-Christians. Among Christians an example comes by way of the students at Gordon College in Massachusetts. Kyleen Burke describes the results of working through a Loving Our Religious Neighbors campaign at the school based upon the study material by Joshua Daneshforooz. As a result of this study, coupled with new relationships developed through joint service projects with Muslims, Kyleen and her fellow students were given opportunities that few Evangelical college students encounter. She writes, “We are able to meet thoughtful and devout students our own age and develop relationships that broaden and challenge our comfortable lines of thinking. … Without learning from, and engaging with, our religious neighbors, we neglect an important aspect of how we might develop as students and as Evangelical Christians.”

The impact on non-Christians can be just as transformative. Daneshforooz shares the story of a mosque that was being built next door to a church in Memphis, Tennessee. When the pastor of the church learned of this development in his community he immediately put up a welcome sign, and allowed Muslims to use the church facility while the mosque was under construction. This action caught the attention of international media, and as a result of a CNN broadcast the impact was felt around the world. Daneshforooz writes, “One day, a room full of Muslim men in the country of Kashmir watched in amazement. One man spent four hours on the phone attempting to reach the Memphis pastor. When he finally got through to the pastor’s church office phone in Tennessee, the Muslim man said: ‘It was like God was talking through you …. Pastor, please tell people in your country we are not terrorists. We are so cut to the heart by the kind and loving way you treated your Muslim neighbors in America that we have taken a vow to protect the Christian church down the road here in Kashimir, a largely Muslim culture, for the rest of our lives.’”

At conferences on interreligious relations and peacemaking the question is often raised, “Where are the Christians, and in particular, where are the Evangelicals?” Many times we are absent, and we still have a long way to go to address our credibility gap in this area. But when Evangelicals are prepared for interreligious encounters in the public square, and it is put on our agenda as a religious movement, it will have tremendous implications for gospel witness and for the common good in our pluralistic, post-9/11 world.