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

War for Souls in Iraq and Beyond

Yoginder Sikand

Right-wing evangelical Christian groups in America are among the most vociferous supporters of Bush’s global ‘war on terror’. As they see it, all religions other than (their version of) Christianity are nothing less than the inventions of the Devil, and their followers are doomed to eternal perdition in hell. For them, America’s current ‘war on terror’ is nothing less than a divine mandate to America to break down the walls of heathendom, paving the way for them to pursue what they call their global commission to spread the ‘good news’ of Christianity. Not surprisingly, evangelical groups have been quick to enter Iraq in the wake of American arms, distributing Bibles and material aid.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is one of the several American evangelical groups now operating on a war-footing in Iraq. Established in 1845, the SBC is the largest and most powerful ultra-conservative Protestant Christian organisation in the country. It has a membership of some 16 million in America, with some 42,000 churches. In a statement of its beliefs it insists that salvation is possible only through belief in Jesus Christ and his death on the Cross, and is predicated on baptism in the Christian church. Non-Christians, no matter if they have led morally upright lives, ‘become transgressors’ and ‘are under condemnation, that is, they are lost’. It insists that those ‘without a personal commitment to Jesus Christ will be consigned to a literal hell, the place of everlasting separation from God’. ((SBC Resolution on the Necessity of Salvation, June 1988).

The SBC is firmly committed to Bibilical literalism. ‘The Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God and is the infallible touchstone by which all other authorities, teachers and traditions must be judged’, it lays down (SBC Resolution on Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, 1994). It asserts that the Bible is ‘God’s revelation of Himself to man’, a ‘perfect treasure of divine instruction’. ‘It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter’. Not surprisingly, it is vigorously opposed to liberal Christian groups who advocate a contextual understanding of the faith and a more conciliatory position on other religions. It argues that the belief that ‘hell is not a reality’ and that ‘all people will eventually be saved’ is completely erroneous. Hence, it insists on the fundamental duty of the Church to spread the Christian faith and to uphold ‘the belief in a conversion theology’. (SBC Resolution on the Necessity of Salvation, June 1988).

The SBC, like other evangelicals, sees as its primary task the conversion of the entire world to Christianity. ‘The Great Commission mandate of our Lord Jesus’, it declares, ‘compels us to disciple the nations’ (SBC Resolution on the Priority of Global Evangelism and Missions, 1999). The SBC is convinced of the urgent need to ‘share Christ with all people everywhere to the end that the unsaved may be converted and the unchurched may become a part of Bible-teaching, Christ honouring congregations (SBC Resolution on Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, 1994). The SBC’s global conversion agenda is directed by its International Missions Board (IMB), which is now active all over the world. The IMB operates on a multi-million dollar annual budget, sending thousands of American missionaries to various countries every year. In 1999, in the course of a single year, it claimed to have established 5000 new churches in different countries and to have recorded some 750,000 baptisms. In 2003 it recorded over 500,000 baptisms worldwide, and the total number of congregations reached 87,419, a net increase of more than 20 per cent over the preceding year. In 2003 its overseas church membership stood at more than 7 million, with 1523 international missionaries working in the field.

The SBC operates in the classical colonial missionary mode, its missionaries armed with the Bible in one hand and material aid in the other. Its ‘Cooperative Programme’ runs a vast network of social work projects—distributing food, medical aid and providing education—that gives its missionaries a vital entry point into what it calls ‘unreached people groups’. Material assistance to the needy is seen as simply a means to bring them to Christ. Photographs and video clips of well-fed rosy-cheeked white Americans doling out food and Bibles to hungry natives are proudly displayed on the SBC’s website and those of affiliated organizations as a sign of its commitment to what it sees as God’s mandate to it to spread the ‘good news’.

As an ultra-right wing church, the SBC’s political stance has consistently been pro-establishment, and one of its principal functions has been to provide suitable theological sanction to American imperialism. In the heydays of the Soviet Union, the SBC was regarded as a bulwark against what was seen as the menacing threat of communism. It lent full support to the American state’s war on communism, which it equated, in its own words, with ‘cancer’. The ‘Christian faith’, it declared, ‘is incompatible with communism’. It expressed its gratitude to ‘all agencies, organizations and persons who guard our homes, our churches and our nation against communist subversion’. ‘We speak our No to communism when we say Yes to Jesus Christ’, it announced in a resolution passed at its annual meeting in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. It insisted that the ‘proper and only adequate response to the challenge of communism is to be thoroughly Christian, and to seek to establish and support New Testament churches at home and abroad’ (SBC Resolution on Communism, 1962). This, of course, tied in comfortably with the American policy of sponsoring right-wing Christian groups in the so-called ‘Third World’ to counter ‘red menace’.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, American Christian evangelicals have been among the most forceful champions of the Huntingtonian thesis of a ‘clash of civilisations’ pitting the ‘Christian’ West against Islam. Leading evangelicals have issued statements that clearly indicate that they see America as engaged in nothing less than a crusade against the Muslim world. Rich Cizik, vice-president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals spoke on behalf of the American Christian right-wing when he declared that Islam had replaced the Soviet Union as a major focus of concern for evangelicals. Accordingly, American evangelicals have launched a massive camapaign to demonise Muslims and Islam, playing on deeply-rooted anti-Muslim prejudices among Christians. Jerry Vines, for instance, former president of the SBC, described Muhammad as a ‘demon-possessed pedophile’. Numerous other evangelicals have issued statements in the same vein, causing considerable embarrassment to Bush, an evangelical himself.

For their part SBC spokesmen are said to have spoken out against these statements, not because they do not necessarily agree with them, but simply because they realize that such outspoken views would gravely hamper their missionary work among Muslims. In a letter issued in early 2003, a group of more than two dozen SBC missionaries working in various Muslim countries suggested that rather than criticize Islam Baptists should ‘emphasise a focus on bearing witness for Christ as a blessing for Muslims’. To unnecessarily anatgonise Muslims with such statements would, they argued, place a major hurdle in the path of their evangelical efforts. At the same time, the SBC remains firmly committed to the belief in Islam (like all other non-Christian faiths) being fundamentally flawed and totally insufficient for salvation. Its websites and numerous publications portray Islam and the Prophet in the most lurid colours, tirelessly repeating standard orientalist-missionary accusations of Islam as inherently violent and barbaric, conveniently forgetting, of course, the wars and genocides that have accompanied much of Christianity’s own history.

America’s ‘war against terrorism’ has come as a major blessing to the SBC as it has provided it just the opportunity it needed to enter the Arab world. No sooner had Bush announced America’s latest imperialust offensive (which he termed as a ‘crusade’) than the SBC rallied behind him to provide his declaration with religious sanction. At its annual meeting in 2002 the SBC passed a lengthy resolution on the ‘war on terrorism’. Without even mentioning, leave alone critically examining, the complex political and economic factors behind Islamist militancy that led to the attacks of September 2001, it exhorted the faithful to rally behind Bush’s declaration of war. It legitimized the war as being forced on America in ‘self-defence’. It claimed the existence of a ‘vast, international terrorist network’ allied with regimes that ‘sponsor and support its evil goals’. These groups and their sponsors were said to ‘continue their assault on innocent people’ using ‘instruments of mass destruction, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons’ (no mention of course was made to the fact that America has by far the largest stockpile of such weapons or to the fact that it is the only country to have ever used a nuclear bomb). In response to this grave threat to America that the SBC spied, it enthusiastically blessed Bush’s ‘war on terror’ by arguing that the Christian scriptures explicitly ‘command civil authorities to restrain evil and to punish evildoers through the power of the sword’. It fervently appealed to Christians to ‘pray for those in authority’, and applauded what it called the ‘moral clarity’ of Bush in his denunciation of ‘terrorist’ groups as ‘evildoers. It resolved to ‘wholeheartedly support the United States government, its intelligence agencies and its military’ in what it called the ‘just war’ against the ‘terrorist networks’. But, as it saw it, the war, while necessary, was not the final solution to the problem of ‘terrorism’, which could only come about through the global spread of Christianity. Hence, it concluded its resolution by insisting that the ‘conversion of the people of all nations to salvation through belief in the Lord Jesus Christ’ was ‘the only ultimate answer to all forms of terrorism’.

The 2002 meeting of the SBC also passed an important resolution on the situation in West Asia. Like most other American evangelicals, and following faithfully the official American line, it expressed unstinted support for Israel. It insisted that the Old and the New Testaments ‘affirm God’s special purposes and providential care for the Jewish people’, and argued that ‘The Jewish people have an historic connection to the land of Israel, a connection that is rooted in the promises of God Himself’. It declared, in no uncertain terms, that Israel properly belonged to the Jews, claiming that the ‘international community’ had ‘restored’ land to the Jewish people in 1947 in order to ‘provide a homeland for them and to re-establish the nation of Israel’ (no mention, of course, was made of the forcible occupation of the land by the Zionists and the consequent killings and forced migrations of thousands of Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians). In a thinly veiled reference to Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation it expressed its ‘abhorrence of all forms of terrorism as inexcusable, barbaric and cowardly’. It provided ‘Christian’ sanction for denying the Palestinians the right to oppose the Israelis (‘We denounce revenge in any form as a response to past offences’, the resolution read), but at the same time asserted that Israel had the God-given right to oppose the Palestinian resistance ( ‘[We] support the right of sovereign nations to use force to defend themselves against aggressors’) (SBC Resolution On Praying For Peace in the Middle East, 2002).

True to its long-standing tradition of lending support to American imperialism, the SBC is firmly committed to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. In a resolution passed in 2003 titled ‘On the Liberation of Iraq’, the SBC declared that while the Bible commands ‘individual Christians’ to ‘love our enemies’, it also demands that ‘civil authorities […] restrain evil and […] punish evildoers through the power of the sword’. It argued that Saddam Hussain had viciously oppressed his own people for decades (of course, conveniently ignoring America’s consistent support to Saddam till recently), and called for the US government to protect the American people against ‘rogue states’. Hence, it insisted that what it called ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, America’s invasion of Iraq, was fully justified and was, in fact, ‘a warranted action based upon historical principles of just war’. It congratulated Bush (naming him specifically) for the ‘successful execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom’) and issued an impassioned appeal to Southern Baptists to pray for the success of American arms. In another resolution on Iraq passed in late 2003 the SBC urged Southern Baptists to ‘pray for those in authority’, for the success of the US President and the American military, and for the peoples of Iraq to ‘experience God’s mercy and love’.

For his part, Bush is known to be in close sympathy with the American evangelical right-wing, including the SBC. In 2002 he delivered an address to the SBC’s annual convention through satellite (accessible on, where he explicitly acknowledged the role of preachers of the SBC in ‘nurturing’ his ‘faith’. He extolled the SBC’s alleged commitment to ‘democracy, the ‘separation of church and faith’, ‘social justice’ and the ‘common good’, remarking that it was because of this that the SBC had ‘become a powerful voice for some of the great issues of our time’. He indicated in no uncertain terms his support to the SBC and its agenda by declaring, ‘You and I share common commitments’, including ‘protecting human dignity’ and ‘human rights’ (and this at the same time as American bombs were raining down on Afghanistan). He clearly indicated that he saw the Christian right-wing as a major partner, insisting, much to the delight of his audience, ‘We believe that our government should view the good people who work in faith-based charities as partners, not rivals. We believe that the days of discrimination against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end’. He ended his speech by thanking the SBC for what he called its ‘good works’. ‘You’re believers, and you’re patriots, faithful followers of God and good citizens of America’, he said in closing, beseeching God to bless them and America.

Given the close nexus between the Bush regime and the Christian right-wing, it is no surprise that no sooner had American soldiers entered Iraq than reports began pouring in of American evangelical groups rushing to the country to dole out food and Bibles to starving Iraqis. For the SBC, the American invasion came as a blessing in a not-so-thin disguise, for the presence of American soldiers provided them what they saw as a God-sent opportunity of preaching Christianity among the Muslims of the country. ‘Southern Baptists have prayed for years that Iraq would somehow be opened to the gospel. Now Southern Baptist workers have unprecedented access to what was one of the world’s most closed countries’, the SBC’s official website exclaimed. As the SBC appears to see it, God had Himself commanded America to invade Iraq in order to ‘open the doors’ to Christian evangelists to break down the walls that stood in their missionary path. The SBC’s International Mission Board President, Jerry Rankin, welcomed the invasion of Iraq by announcing that God ‘is using the chaos and tragedy of current events to open the hearts of people to a spiritual harvest, that will come to faith in Jesus Christ’. ‘He is moving to extend His Kingdom to every tribe and people and tongue and nation’, he exclaimed in delight, suggesting that the missionary entry into Iraq was simply prelude to a grand missionary conquest of the entire Muslim world. ‘The question is’, Rankin told his followers, ‘whether Southern Baptists will accept the challenge that God is giving them to be a blessing to the Muslim world’. ‘God is breaking down the walls’, he thundered. ‘It is God’s time for the Gospel to penetrate those barriers in the Muslim world’. Echoing him, John Brady, in-charge of the SBC’s International Missions Board in West Asia and North Africa, argued that the battle in Iraq was nothing less than a ‘war for souls’. ‘God will have His way in Iraq’, he insisted, appealing for Southern Baptists to make a beeline to the country in order to help ‘God’s kingdom grow’.

Websites of groups associated with the SBC carry numerous stories about the ‘great’ work that SBC missionaries are apparently engaged in in Iraq, providing food to starving Iraqi civilians. The SBC website pleads with its followers to ‘remember that God’s love is being felt in Iraq because Southern Baptists cared enough to collect food for hungry Iraqi families’. No mention, of course, is made anywhere of the enormous destruction that the Americans have wrought that has created a situation of mass hunger in the first place, first with the years of sanctions and now the invasion. It is, perhaps, seen as thoroughly excusable, an inevitable price that hapless Iraqis have to pay in order to hear the ‘good news’ of Christianity.

The SBC’s sudden __expression of concern for the Iraqi people takes the form of distribution of food boxes, which are intended to smoothen the way for the penetration of Christianity. Each box contains 70 pounds of staple food, such as rice, flour, sugar, lentils, salt, tea and powdered milk, and can feed a family of five for a month. In order to get the message across every box bears a label quoting from the New Testament in Arabic: ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ’. And just to make sure that the Iraqis should remember where these goodies the label also adds, ‘A gift from the Southern Baptist churches in America’. Tens of thousands of such boxes have already been distributed in different parts of the country. Starving Iraqis who receive these handouts are said to ‘appreciate’ them as ‘a demonstration of God’s love’, which, in turn, makes them ‘open to the gospel’. ‘Providing food aid to hungry Iraqi families is a privilege because it helps Iraqis understand how much God loves them’, an SBC worker is quoted as saying. ‘Iraqis Cheer as Southern Baptist Volunteers Distribute Food’, screams a headline in a report posted on the SBC website. ‘Food Boxes “Show God’s Love” to Hungry Iraqis’ another article announces.

Along with the boxes of food have come in vast quantities of Christian literature, which SBC and other Christian outfits are distributing with the missionary zeal.. ‘It breaks my heart to think about them staying behind in their poverty. These kids are starved for attention […] But their greatest need is to know the love of Jesus Christ’, an SBC volunteer professes. Statements by other do-gooder SBC missionaries echoing the same view are repeatedly highlighted in numerous other SBC reports. No one in the SBC seems to be asking where God’s ‘love for the Iraqis’ was when the American-imposed sanctions on the country led to the death of hundreds of thousands of starving Iraqis or when American bombs continue to snuff out innocent civilians.

SBC missionaries are of course making it clear that they aren’t in Iraq just for feeding hungry Iraqis. Promoting American designs in the region is clearly on the agenda. An SBC report quotes one American volunteer as saying that one of his most memorable moments of his trip to Iraq was when a young Iraqi lad grabbed his hand and said, ‘Please tell Mr. Bush. Please give him my warmest regards’. Bush and Bible go together in the SBC campaign. SBC reports tell of hungry Iraqis lining up for food dished out by American missionaries, and this, in the words of one SBC volunteer, is said to be reminiscent of ‘kids coming up to Jesus’. At food distribution centres SBC workers hand out Bibles in Arabic, and one report excitedly speaks of Iraqis ‘valu[ing] the Injil (Bible) even more than food’. The SBC claims to have already made numerous conversions and baptisms among the Iraqis. To coordinate its missionary activities and to push them further it has helped the formation of a Baptist Union in Iraq, headed by an Arab Baptist, who is quoted as saying, ‘I am hoping God’s message will penetrate not only Iraq, but the whole Middle East’.

And that is what the SBC, along with fellow evangelicals, is precisely trying to do. Following the attacks of September 2001, evangelical groups in America have taken on the task of converting Muslims on a war footing, and today numbers of such groups are active among different Muslim communities. Shortly after the attacks the SBC’s International Mission Board announced the setting up of a special project called ‘Beyond the Wall’ in order to ‘help Muslims find freedom in Christ’. The project goes beyond Iraq, ‘penetrating’, as the Board’s website puts it, ‘the Muslim world’ in order to ‘share the God of love’ and ‘the hope of the gospel’ with them.

South Asia, home to the largest concentration of Muslims in the world, is of particular concern to the SBC. As the SBC sees it, over 1.3 billion South Asians—Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and other non-Christians—are ‘blindly groping’ around in the darkness and doomed to hell if they refuse to accept Jesus as their personal saviour. The SBC describes South Asia as a ‘dark land’ that urgently craves for missionaries of Christ to deliver its people ‘the abundant life and salvation that Jesus offers’. Apparently, the SBC has already established a presence for itself in the countries of South Asia, working particularly among poor and ‘low’ caste Hindus and Muslims, although its website does not provide any detailed information on this.

It’s no one’s case that we in South Asia do not already have more than our share of war-mongering, bloodthirsty Muslim and Hindu outfits that threaten eternal fire and brimstone for ‘unbelievers’. We do, and we could certainly do without them. But what makes groups like the SBC particularly menacing is that they come flush with funds and do-gooder western missionaries whose work is calculated to promote American interests that can only make the problem of strained inter-community relations in the region even more intractable, while further paving the way for the penetration of global imperialism. For South Asian Christians belonging to non-evangelical groups the growing presence in the region of outfits like the SBC also poses a major threat, playing into the hands of Muslim and Hindu militant outfits that wrongly see all Christians as engaged in a sinister ploy to win South Asia for Christ.

The missionary labours of the likes of the SBC are infinitely more urgently needed in their own home countries, where churches are now almost completely abandoned. But considering the fact that groups such as the SBC function as little more than appendages of the American state abroad it seems unlikely that they are going to wind up their operations in our part of the world in a tearing hurry.


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