The Southern Baptists expanded an aggressive new proselytizing campaign this week, publishing a short prayer book aimed at converting Hindus to Christianity.
The prayer book is the second published by the Southern Baptists' International Mission Board this year, and has again provoked charges of arrogance and religious insensitivity. Last month, leaders of the nation's second-largest denomination offended Jewish leaders by distributing a book urging its members to evangelize Jews during their 10 holy days.
Like the previous pamphlet, the latest one asks Southern Baptists to pray for the conversion of Hindus during their holiest week, Divali, a festival of lights commemorating the god Rama's return from exile. The board plans to distribute the guide to its 40,000 churches beginning Friday, in time for the celebrations in late October.
Compared with the Jewish guide, this one uses far less tactful tones to describe Hindus, beginning with its very first sentence: "More than 900 million people are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism."
"Pray that Hindus who celebrate the festival of lights would become aware of the darkness in their hearts that no lamp can dispel," the guide continues.
Hindu leaders reacted angrily to these depictions, describing them as relics of an ugly colonial age.
"Darkness! This is really offensive," said Suresh Gupta, president of the Durga Temple in Fairfax. "Why should they try to change us? We have a value system people crave in this country. We teach respect for others, for marriage vows, for elders. It's what every religion should teach."
The book is a kind of cultural anthropology written from a missionary perspective. Each page shows a snapshot of life in India described through a Christian lens:
"Mumbai is a city of spiritual darkness. Eight out of every 10 people are Hindu, slaves bound by fear and tradition to false gods," it reads. Or: "Satan has retained his hold on Calcutta through Kali and other gods and goddesses of Hinduism. It's time for Christ's salvation to come to Calcutta."
Southern Baptists defended the proselytizing campaign. "If I had a Hindu sitting right here at my desk I would apologize if I had been offensive," said Randy Sprinkle, who oversaw the book's publication. "Certainly God's love is not meant to be offensive."
"Some people accused us of being arrogant when we were praying for the Jews of the world," he continues. "I would acknowledge that there is an element of arrogance. But it's the arrogance of truth."
Gupta was unmoved. "If I had you sitting here, I would not want to convert you to be a Hindu," he responded. "I would want you to live a good life."