The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Evangelical Challenge: A New Face of Western Imperialism

Yoginder Sikand

Some months ago I wrote an article on western Christian evangelical groups active in various Muslim countries, pointing out how many of them were actively working for promoting the strategic interests of Western governments, particularly the United States. I had been careful to buttress my arguments with ample quotations from Christian sources themselves so as not to appear to be making any unsubstantiated claims. I sent the article to several Muslim magazines, websites and Internet discussion groups, expecting it to raise some discussion of the issue in Muslim circles. To my surprise, while almost no Muslim readers got back to me about the article, I received several letters and emails from angry Christian evangelicals, almost all of them American and working among Muslim communities in South Asia, protesting that I had unfairly tarnished their image. Yes, they admitted, they did believe that the way to heaven was through Jesus alone. Without accepting him as ‘personal saviour’, they stressed, no one could hope to escape eternal damnation in hell. But, they protested, despite their firm faith in the exclusiveness of Christianity, they were engaged in doing ‘good’ for the Muslims they were working among. They were supplying them free education, and medical help, they said. They were running scores of economic development project to help ‘uplift’ the poor, they argued. Hence, they insisted, I had presented a completely one-sided picture of Christian evangelism among Muslims, ignoring the many ‘positive’ contributions that the missionaries were apparently making.

The angry response from evangelical Christians to my article prompted me to delve further into the history and broader agenda of European and American Christian missionaries working among non-Christian, particularly Muslim, peoples. A random search on the Internet revealed to me the existence of a vast, well-organised network of institutions I never knew existed, devoted specifically to missionary work among Muslims. These include academic institutes, publishing houses, radio and television stations, medical missions, centres for training missionaries and so on, all seemingly generously funded and, for the most part, located in western Europe and the United States. As they described themselves and their mission, they all seemed to be fired by a passionate belief in Christianity as the only road to salvation, and Islam, as well as other faiths, as paths to perdition in hell. Some of them described Islam as nothing less than a Satanic invention.

As many critics, including several Christians themselves, have pointed out, the fiery zeal that drives white Christian evangelicals to swarm to the ‘Third World’, including Muslim countries, in a desperate bid to save ‘lost’ souls reflects the continuing hold of the nineteenth century European imperialist discourse that saw ‘natives’ as beyond the pale of civilization. Today, when Christianity is almost dead in the West, how does one explain the rush of American and European evangelicals to the ‘Third World’? Quite obviously this has little or nothing to do with mere pious intentions, for the decline of religion is far from apparent in the West than in the rest of the world, making it more of an urgent imperative for missionaries to work in the West than elsewhere. Thus, one has to turn to other factors to explain this seeming paradox. From a close examination of the agenda of evangelical groups in the ‘Third World’ it appears that, as a whole, Christian fundamentalism in our part of the world is no simple religious mission. As is widely believed, many evangelical groups working in the ‘Third World’ are simply fronts for Western agencies and governments, helping to promote their vested interests and strategic goals. This is most readily apparent from the cozy relationship between Christian fundamentalists and the current Bush administration. Right-wing American Christian groups are known to be sources of immense financial support to Israel. They are also vociferous backers of America’s imperialist designs on the Muslim world, seeing these as a divinely mandated crusade against the forces of ‘evil’.

My own discomfort about western Christian evangelicals were further confirmed when, recently, I came across a fascinating book titled ‘Mission, Myth and Money in a Multicoloured World’, authored by a certain Jules Gomes. Gomes is apparently a leading Indian Christian scholar, a member of the teaching faculty at one of the largest Protestant seminaries in India, the United Theological College at Bangalore. Author of several books, he is presently a research scholar at the University of Cambridge. In this insightful book Gomes describes in detail the dark and little-known world of Western evangelicals who see themselves as entrusted with the burdensome task of bringing the ‘light’ of Christianity to the ‘benighted’ non-white world.

Gomes tells us that many white right-wing Christian evangelicals whom he has interacted with closely for many years see America as God’s chosen nation, capitalism as ‘sacrosanct’, globalisation (a euphemism for American imperialism) as a ‘blessing’, the carpet bombing of Afghanistan as ‘necessary’, the war on Iraq as a ‘crusade’ and the American flag as a ‘quasi-religious icon’. In short, he says, he has discovered, much to his dismay, that ‘the western church [is] replicating the imperialistic behaviour of the western world’. The only difference now is, he writes, that the centre of imperialism, economic, cultural and political, has shifted from Europe to America. Today, America leads the world in sending out missionaries to other lands. In 2002, America is said to have sent out 60,200 missionaries to 220 countries in 2001. ‘Coca-Colonisation’, as Gomes describes American imperialism, thus goes hand in hand with Christianisation.

Gomes writes that the close alliance between the Christian rightwing and American imperialism is not a new phenomenon, although the bond seems to have become even closer in recent times. As early as 1854, he tells us, a book appeared in America under the revealing, though clumsy, title of ‘Armageddon: Or, The Existence […] of the United States Foretold in the Bible, Its […] Expansion into the Millennial Republic, and Its Dominion Over the Whole World’. Two decades later, in 1885 another tract, ‘Our Country’, was published, that claimed that America had attained the ‘highest degree of Anglo-Saxonism and true Christianity’ and that God had bestowed upon it the task of Christianising and ‘civilising’ the whole world.

While white racism, American imperialism and evangelical Christianity thus have a long history of mutual collaboration, Gomes writes that the rise of America as the global centre of right-wing Christian evangelism is largely a post-Cold War phenomenon. He argues that in the aftermath of World War II, America deliberately sought to promote right-wing Christian missionary groups in other countries, particularly in the ‘Third World’, in order to combat the ideological challenge of communism and anti-imperialist nationalism. These Christian groups also served to promote American interests abroad. Several of them received generous funding from far-right American government lobbies, CIA front organizations, American big business and right-wing think tanks. Many missionaries were appointed as sources of vital information for the CIA, and were used to bolster American hegemony by indoctrination and spreading American propaganda. As Sara Diamond writes in her ‘Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right’, these Christian groups eagerly sought to promote ‘dependence on the world leadership […] of the United States’. For them, missionary work was simply a means ‘to organize social movements and development programs favourable to US political and economic priorities’.

Contrary to the image of evangelical missionaries as pious, God-fearing do-gooders that they are so concerned to portray, Gomes shows how many of them have been involved in murky deals, working closely with American imperialist organizations. In 1975, the journal ‘Christianity Today’ admitted that large numbers of both Protestant and Catholic missionaries had provided information to the American intelligence authorities. In 1996, the ‘Washington Post’ reported that CIA officials admitted the existence of a ‘controversial loophole’ that permits the CIA to recruit ‘American journalists as agents, use newsgathering organizations as cover and [employ] clerics or missionaries for clandestine work overseas’. Gomes provides several examples of the active role of missionaries working in

Gomes contends that American evangelicals today are one of the fiercest supporters of Israel, seeing Islam as their greatest ideological enemy. Several Christian fundamentalist groups send huge sums of money to Israel, including to various fiercely Zionist Jewish organizations. The close collaboration between right-wing Christian groups in America and world Zionism, Gomes says, is clearly suggested by the fact that when the Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington in January 1998, his first meeting was not with the American President, but, instead, with the leading Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell and more than a thousand Christian fundamentalists. At the meeting he was hailed as ‘the Ronald Reagan of Israel’, and Falwell promised to contact more than 200,000 Christian pastors, asking them to ‘tell President Clinton to refrain from putting pressure on Israel’. The unrelenting hostility of many American Christian groups towards Islam and Muslims is clearly apparent in their passionate endorsement of recent America’s military strikes against Muslim countries. Thus, Gomes writes, let alone the Protestant fundamentalists, even the apparently somewhat less extreme US Catholic bishops blessed the American invasion of Afghanistan. The evangelicals are now among the most fervent supporters of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.

To come back to where I started, I do not wish to tar all evangelicals with the same brush, for surely there must be noble souls among them as well. However, taken as a whole, the evangelical project, I would still insist, constitutes a major menace, a thinly veiled guise for western imperialism, and a powerful threat to religious and cultural communities in the ‘Third World’.


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