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May 19, 2005

Evangelism, the Left, and the Air Force Academy

From time to time it seems as though there can be no meaningful discourse in American public life, particularly between those of diverse philosophies, faiths, or worldviews. It is easy to diagnose this as an inability of the Red States and Blue States to communicate, because red values and blue values are so drastically different. And there is some truth to that.

But perhaps more accurately, we are many red and blue islands, not necessarily geographic, but spiritual, economic, racial, and social. The islands have their own communications channels; their own books, magazines, and newspapers; their own churches, social gatherings, television shows, and political parties.

I’ve seen this kind of an island for many years in the evangelical Christian community. Having been raised in a Christian home, educated in a Christian college, and working much of my career in Christian organizations, I have met many, many believers who cannot identify one non-Christian friend. Or even a non-Christian acquaintance with whom they’ve had a meaningful conversation. In fact, many conservative Christians have never knowingly had a conversation with a homosexual person.

I confess all of this because I know that the flip side is also true—secular elites and many unchurched folks don’t have an evangelical friend or acquaintance. They’ve never met a authentic evangelical person. Most have never had a decent conversation with a serious Christian believer.

This all came to mind when I wrote a post on the criticism of Air Force Academy Christians. Seeing some of the visceral reaction on liberal blogs, I wondered who these bloggers were describing when they wrote about evangelical Christians.

The aggressive, take-no-prisoners evangelical zealots described in media coverage of the Air Force controversy bear no resemblance to 90 percent of the evangelicals I have met and played with, learned with, worked with, and worshipped with. I have been an evangelical Christian for 36 years. And since I have been working in what we call the evangelical cocoon, I have not been isolated from the trends and teachings of the evangelical community.

There are at least three things that we are taught within the evangelical cocoon about evangelism, or sharing your faith. (Never once have I ever heard it called prosyletizing by the church. It’s a word critics use to make it sound scary). First, in order to be obedient to instructions from Jesus Christ, we are taught, we must be a witness of our Christianity to others who are outside the faith. And it’s a joy—although most of us are uncomfortable with intruding on others’ personal privacy—because we believe we have the best news in the world.

Second, we are taught that individuals come to faith in Christ as a result of the moving of the Holy Spirit in them and it is our task only to present the good news with logic, emotion, anecdote, or personal reflection. We don’t bring anyone to faith in Christ. God does that.

Third, we learn that people who are turned off by us personally are not going to be receptive to what we are presenting. Converts at the edge of the sword are converts in name or number only. No one teaches us to badger seekers or use threats or intimidation. That’s a crazy evangelistic strategy.

Because the message of Jesus Christ is unwavering—“no one comes to the Father but by Me”—the Christian message is often characterized as arrogant. The message is clear and unchanging, but not boastful. When Christian believers are arrogant in their manner or words, they do damage to that faith. At those moments, they are an embarrassment to the Kingdom.

All that said, what is it that Americans for the Separation of Church and State, the New York Times and other MSM, and Yale Divinity School are talking about when they describe the activities of Christians at the Air Force Academy?

The NY Times describes what it sees at the Academy as “unconstitutional proselytizing of academy students by evangelists whose efforts were blessed by authority figures in the chain of command.” What is that? Is proselytizing unconstitutional? No, in fact it is unconstitutional to be” prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Is it unconstitutional for the leaders of a military academy to bless the efforts of those who share their faith on campus? It would be only to the extent that it established one religion as the official religion of the academy or the military.

To avoid the appearance of the establishment of evangelical Christianity as the religion of the Academy there are legitimate lines that should not be crossed. No one should have their rights abridged because they are not adherents to a particular faith or if they have no faith at all.

But the free expression of faith, the open dialogue of all faiths, is not what is at stake here. My hunch is that Christian witnessing—Christians explaining the truths and benefits of trusting Jesus Christ—just grates on those who detest Christianity, or are repulsed by certainty.

The critics have mentioned several incidents:

In its analysis of the Academy’s actions, the Los Angeles Times quotes the Yale report: “During Protestant worship services, cadets were encouraged to proselytize to others and ‘remind them of the consequences of apostasy.’”

Wait. This is during the Protestant worship services! Is Yale suggesting that the administration of the Academy control the worship services? And look at their incendiary message: Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is Lord and that rejecting Him will have negative consequences.

We are in trouble as a nation if Christians cannot share that message everywhere and anywhere. The report continues: “Protestant Cadets were regularly encouraged to witness to fellow Basic Cadets.” Welcome to Evangelism 101. What a threat to the Republic. As I said earlier, this is what we are taught from our earliest days as Christians. Why did it become so shocking just because the men and women are wearing uniforms?

Passion of the Christ
The Times says there were flyers on dining hall chairs inviting cadets to view The Passion of the Christ. What strong arm tactics! How could these impressionable, vulnerable airmen resist such pressure?

Name Calling
Evidently, a Jewish cadet was called a “filthy Jew” by someone. That’s stupid and childish. But if it was an evangelical Christian, denigrating the Jewish people is totally out of line with the teachings of the church. There isn’t a faith group that has more respect for Jews and for Israel than evangelicals. Anyone who would take a little time to learn about evangelicals would know this. To include this in an analysis of the lines between church and state indicates the bias of the reporter.

Christians are not the persecuted minority in America and we shouldn’t act like it. But Christians are, interestingly, the constantly belittled and criticized majority.

When it comes to matters of faith, there is too much whining on the left and too much hand wringing on the right.

Frankly, if we—-as evangelicals—-took all of the opportunities presented to us each day to authentically and sensitively communicate our faith and our concern for others, the rapid expansion of the Christian community might scare the daylights out of those who think the armed forces that we rely on to defend our nation can’t possibly resist the spiritual entreaties of their colleagues.

Posted by Jim at May 19, 2005 08:44 AM

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Good thoughts, Jim. People will always be offended by the Gospel to one degree or another. I may work on a longer post later. I think the ACLU and others are just plain wrong in this case but as a Christian, I wonder if sometimes our "controversies" are the result of well-meaning believers acting overzealous and overbearing.

Posted by: Matt at May 19, 2005 10:43 AM

Our new favorite verse, used in a message on evangelism a couple weeks ago, is 1 Peter 3:15:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

Like Matt said, some people will be offended no matter what, but acting like an obnoxious used car salesman can potentially make a person less receptive to the message forever, which would be a real tragedy.

Great post Jim.

Posted by: The Editors at May 19, 2005 04:03 PM

That's true. We have our zealots; well meaning, but bulls in the china shop.

And I don't doubt that there are a few at a military academy. Honestly, there are a lot of military leaders who are not particularly subtle about anything. We probably don't want them to be. Subtle military may be a oxymoron. Or Vietnam.

Posted by: Jim Jewell at May 19, 2005 05:40 PM

Good comments and I believe you are right about witness in daily life - with respect for others if they ask you not to use words - Daily deeds speak much more effectively than sermonizing to those who do not wish to listen!

Posted by: PJ Jenkins at May 23, 2005 02:01 PM

I would like to respond to Jim’s post. I agree with his central premise, that Americans are polarized into two camps right now, and that neither seems to be able to talk to the other. Howard Dean comes to mind. But in reading this essay, I find myslef torn between Jim’s plain spoken honesty and insightful analysis, and his rigid and sometimes dogmatic evangelical point of view.
I think his conjecture in the second paragraph, about how we live within islands of subculture within the greater American cultural sphere, is probably true to one degree or another. It’s a very interesting point, and it kept me reading. I say that ‘it kept me reading’ because – in my cultural ‘island’ – I normally wouldn’t read an article by an evangelical apparently written for evangelicals. But I sense real intellectual honesty here, in and amongst all that I disagree with, and I can relate to Jim through that.
Jim mentions three central tenets taught to evangelicals about sharing their faith, and I wonder, who could have a problem with that? It seems perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, it seems that Jim is blind to the fact that what’s happening at the Air Force academy has crossed the boundary between evangelism and proselytizing. Proselytizing is illegal if it involves improper use of official power. How long do you think parents in Colorado Springs would tolerate an elementary school teacher preaching to the children that Islam was the one true faith of God, and that Mohammad was his prophet? Are you kidding? Nobody would tolerate that. They certainly wouldn’t tolerate it at any of the military academies. If the head coach at Navy put up an “Allah is the One True God!” banner up in the locker room, he’d be sacked on the spot. So why is it ok for evangelical Christians to do it?
Why is it ok for the command structure to permit what is reported to be an environment where people feel pressured to conform to evangelicalism? If the events at the Air Force Academy were simply the free expression of faith, why was it necessary for Air Force to release a policy statement in advance of the Academy investigation report stating, “Senior leaders, commanders and supervisors at every level must be particularly sensitive to the fact that subordinates can consider your public expressions of belief systems coercive… Using your place at the podium as a platform for your personal beliefs can be perceived as misuse of office."
But more than that, many local organizations in Colorado Springs are actively working to turn the academy into an evangelical organization. This is typified by a group called The Navigators. Their mission statement includes the directive “to help reach the nations of the world by multiplying disciples of Jesus Christ in the military.” How can anyone deny that this is a clearly stated intent to proselytize?
If you reject the perception of non-evangelicals, that what many evangelical do crosses the line between proselytizing and evangelizing, then you might end up with the ridiculous notion that the country is full of Christian haters. But if evangelicals can get far enough beyond their subjective point of view, they might see that many of their actions appear to others like an infringement of their own spiritual rights. For example, fifty or so years ago when the words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, to many, that seemed an infringement. That the defenders of that change protect it by claiming the words are simply a historical legacy seems underhanded and disingenuous (and a denial of God, by the way).
As for Jim’s claim that many evangelicals and non-evangelicals know little about each other because we don’t interact with one another very much, that’s probably so. But it’s untrue to say that non-evangelicals don’t know evangelicals. We know you guys, you’re everywhere. The problem with many non-evangelicals is that they often come into contact with the outspoken children of God on their doorstep in the form of a Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh Day Adventist, or in an airport with an orange robe and a shaved head. It sets a bad precedence, such that in most work environments religion is just as taboo as sex and more so than politics. My mother bans talk of religion during holidays because she doesn’t want to hear the debate. That’s at the heart of this disagreement between evangelicals and non-evangelicals; for many people, God’s just too personal to talk about lightly, at any given time in any given place. Just like talking about sex, for some people it’s just not appropriate or respectful.
If it’s true that evangelicals and non-evangelicals don’t know each other very well, then I would suggest part of the problem lies within the way we define ‘our own group’ and that of the ‘other’. In the third paragraph, Jim refers to his life in terms of a Christian experience. But in the very next paragraph he offers definitions that make it clear what he means by “Christian”; he means evangelicals. I can only deduce that Jim includes non-evangelical Christians amongst the “unchurched folks” (and Christians are offended by this), which he lumps in with the “secular elite” (who these secular elite are will have to wait for another conversation; I tend to see them as the super-wealthy corporate types, but I imagine Jim might mean someone else). Whatever the case, it seems clear that the two camps described are evangelicals and non-evangelicals, in which case Jim should have included the subtype ‘otherchurched folk’. On the other side of the coin, it is very easy to rope all evangelicals off into the fundamentalist Christian camp, or Jesus Freaks, or some other denigrating categorization. If we are to push things forward as a whole society rather than forcing our will upon one another, our islands will have to be bridged.
If people want to act like good Christians, I’m not one to quibble. If people want to treat others with compassion, respect and charity, I couldn’t care less how they define their spiritual experience and/or allegiance. But the way to bring God into the political sphere is to introduce religious values like charity into our political policies (we are sadly lacking), not through using one’s political power or military authority to pressure people into orthodoxy (i.e., posting the Ten Commandments everywhere is not an effective means of spreading the Word). The way to bring God into politics is to find politicians who engender His values of peace, compassion and unconditional, bottomless love (and I don’t mean fakers, like Tom Delay, who offer a public face of piety while working for personal gain), not to enforce public worship upon Americans at large.

I appreciate the forum to discuss these important issues with you and share my opinion. I hope I can persuade you to consider a broader perspective. Thanks.

Dan Skaluba

Posted by: Dan Skaluba at June 11, 2005 09:22 PM

Many of us don't want what you're selling. And name calling only invites retaliation. Unless you want to identify yourself as a member of the archreactionary "right" - labeling your "opponents" the "left" is meaningless babble.

The GOSPELS offends many. The events surrounding "Jesus" were supposed to have taken place within a certain time in history, normally taken to be around 4 BCE to 33 CE. A rudimentary knowledge of the history during that period is needed. The main information sources of "Jesus'" life are from the documents known as the GOSPELS. It is important to note that there is no independent contemporaneous source, external to the GOSPELS, that gives any reliable information about Jesus. Thus it becomes very important to know as much as we can about the background of these gospels: namely the authorship, date of composition and general reliability. Next we ask ourselves the obvious question, could documents written at least close to half a century after the death of its main character, by non-eyewitnesses, give reliable testimonies of that person's life. We ask whether the oral tradition gives us confidence in the GOSPELS? The answer is a resounding "No."

I could go on but it's clear you've no idea what coercion is or means to young people. People don't need Christianity to be ethical. Bet you the "torturers" we finding out about in our military all consider themselves "good Christians."

Posted by: A Sinder at June 13, 2005 12:33 PM

I am currently reading Mike Weinstein's book on the evangelical pressures in the US Air Force Academy. I came across your blog entry on the scandal.
It makes me furious to read what happened there. That is not the way we do things in this country, at least not when its house is in order.

You are also correct, Jim, you live in an evangelical "cocoon". And you know what, that's fine by me. Many people live in their self chosen cocoons.

I do have issues with some of your comments on the Air Force Academy scandal and would like to set some things straight.
You wrote: "I have met many, many believers who cannot identify one non-Christian friend. Or even a non-Christian acquaintance with whom they’ve had a meaningful conversation."
Part one of the statement doesn't surprise me. You live in a cocoon. You don't mix with non-Christians, hence the lack of conversations. However it depends on the meaning of "meaningful" (to paraphrase a recent US president). I can tell you in the reverse that many Christians and other believers don't like to get into really meaningful discussions about their faiths, particularly when it is a little critical, as I can tell you from my own experience of living in a bible belt state. It confuses them or makes them afraid to face the fact that one can look at life, the universe and everything in very different ways than what you hear in Christian or otherwise faithful circles.

On to the next:
"They (non-believers) never met a authentic evangelical person. Most have never had a decent conversation with a serious Christian believer."
That takes the cake. According to statistics (that Christians and other believers love to state), this country here consists of 90 to 99% of people who believe in some kind of god or divine being. [That is depending on whose statistics you believe. I think the number is vastly overblown]. Point is: any nonbeliever/atheist/ agnostic living in this country is surrounded by the faithful. It's oppressive to tell the truth -my truth of course. Unless you live in your basement apartment all your life, you are bound to run into believers left, right and center, day in, day out. I can attest to that. Not surprisingly a good number of my friends participate in churches of various denominations, and we have absolutely meaningful and interesting conversations, yes, about faith, spirituality, beliefs and so on.

Here is the big difference: we respect each others' decisions about faith or no faith in our lives.

This is where your faithful communities of worshippers don't get the message:
You do NOT have the right to share "that message everywhere and anywhere." This nation is in trouble [in some respects] because evangelical Christians are constantly "sharing" their message. Politicians "sharing their faiths" when they should be dealing with oil prices, education and health care. My community of free thinkers, non-believers, agnostics and spiritual souls do not want to hear it. I am polite the first couple of times when people come to my house trying to proselytize, but after that it's "gloves off". Who do Christians think they are? That they could invade my privacy and waste my time? Don't you think that is arrogant? I grew up catholic [don't tell me it's not a religion… I have heard that one before]. Nobody in my community thought it was their job to "share the message" with non-believers and the un-evangelized. Faith is a private matter. As long as it is handled that way I can respect anyone's honest faith.
But you have to respect my belief system too!
When the treshhold is crossed and we are bombarded with your particular version of faith and salvation, it's time to speak up. I make my own choices. Those old Puritan forefathers came here for religious "freedom" not for religious indoctrination.

And please don't give me that lame story that " to be obedient to instructions from Jesus Christ, we are taught, we must be a witness of our Christianity to others who are outside the faith." Do you know how to spell "No"? Next thing you know the Hare Krishnas, the Mormons and god knows who is standing by my door, trying to share their good news.

I have no problem with your religion as long as you keep it within your community of faith. When you step outside and impose it on others then you are infringing on my rights, as it happened at the USAFA. And that's not very Christian, is it?

Posted by: Tom Thor at June 6, 2007 03:46 PM