Spreading the Word
Saturday, July 21, 2007
A new anti-proselytizing policy at Georgetown University has spurred debate about where the line is between vigorous faith-sharing and intolerance.
In adopting the policy, the Jesuit school joined a growing number of colleges and universities trying to spell out what constitutes acceptable evangelism in an America that is increasingly religiously diverse and less comfortable with absolutes.
Major denominational groups have made similar efforts over the years, and employment lawyers say cases about evangelizing in the workplace are becoming more common as well.
The trend in the new rules is to equate proselytizing, a neutral word in the dictionary for the act of trying to convert or convince someone, with badly intentioned or harmful evangelizing. But the lines aren't always so neat for evangelical Americans, who say evangelism -- at Georgetown and elsewhere -- seems to have entered a new zone.
John Borelli, special assistant for interreligious initiatives in the Georgetown president's office, was the main driver behind the new policy's language, which was announced in May. The difference is clear, he said, between evangelizing and banned actions, which include "moral constraint," and depriving people "of their inherent value as persons."
"It's not about the conversation being uncomfortable, it's about tearing down another person's church in order to show how superior yours is," he said.
Stephanie Brown, 22, who graduated from Georgetown in the spring, embraces the gist of the new edict: Respect other people's religious beliefs. The Kansas City, Mo., native takes seriously the Bible's edict to personally represent Jesus, so she doesn't want to offend anyone.
But as soon as she starts talking about the policy, which forbids "any effort to influence people in ways that depersonalize," the words seem to defy obvious translation. How do you express that Jesus is the only way to salvation without sounding judgmental? How do you deal with the question of what happens to a nonbeliever in eternity?
"I'd probably be like, 'Wow, I don't want to answer that,' " Brown said. "How do you communicate what you believe to be true without offending people?"
The Georgetown policy replaces a much more general statement about ecumenism. The policy is the product of months of dialogue with six private evangelical Protestant campus ministry groups the school expelled last August amid finger-pointing about poor communication and evangelizing. It is part of a broader "covenant" that restored the groups' status as recognized Georgetown organizations in May.
The groups, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which Brown belonged to, applauded the deal; InterVarsity issued a statement on its Web site saying the policy "does not restrict InterVarsity's witness."
Terrence Reynolds, a Georgetown theology professor who chaired the advisory committee overseeing the development of the covenant, said the precise line between acceptable and unacceptable practices is not clear. For example, he said, what's the difference between saying that "Christ is the only way to salvation," and saying, "I believe if you don't accept Christ as the way to salvation, you will go to hell"?