In some countries, proselytizing a religion other than the religion of that land is illegal. Many countries in the Arab world prohibit the proselytizing of any religion but Islam (and whether being an Iranian Christian is really all that difficult, I wouldn’t know). Nepal is considering adding proselytizing to its criminal code, and as the Justice Minister there puts it: “The law is not against Christians who do great work in the service of the country, but is against the imposition of Christianity.” Nepal is Hindu and Buddhist, two faiths that don’t really proselytize. The Dalai Lama, in fact, has argued that attempts to convert people is not only non-Buddhist, but is abusive (he’s not the one making Nepalese law, btw).
Historically, proselytizing does not have that great of a history. Oftentimes what has happened is that a war occurs, and the winners will set up camp in an occupied territory, profit from the land and the people, and send out missionaries to convert to bring the “natives” into “lightness.” This is the story of Hawaii, the Philippines, and any number of islands in the Pacific in which the wealthiest parts of the islands are where the white people live and where the religions seeking to convert set up camp. It’s also the story of many African tribes that may have started out matrilineal, but through the imposition of Christianity (and slavery) found their kinship structures stripped away, to replaced with “the family” (where men are in charge).
The left tends to view proselytizing as hand in hand with colonialism and racism, seeing how religion, capital and ethnocentrism work together. One has to admit that if they think their faith is “the one and only truth,” then they’re probably ethnocentric. The right tends to view any restrictions on proselytizing as a quashing of “religious freedom” or “freedom of speech.” The far right has also linked financial wealth as a “blessing,” lending to the “responsibility” to proselyte as expressed in many sects of Christianity.
Here is a list of possibilities when it comes to thinking about a middle-ground for “respectful” proselytizing (grabbed from Wikipedia):
- No attempt to convert others unless they specifically ask about one’s religion
- No preaching
- No providing physical benefits in hopes that recipients will be open to listening
- No providing physical benefits only to those willing to listen
- No providing physical benefits only to proselytes
- Don’t force people to become proselytes
Admittedly, when I read Seth’s account of his missionary experience in Japan, I thought about how many of these rules were broken. Free English lessons aren’t exactly “free”; they come with the understanding of being inundated with the Gospel.
The whole LDS knocking on people’s doors bit altogether breaks the rule of “don’t attempt to convert unless people ask.”
The Mormon.org campaign raises the question of how much advertizing a religion is an attempt to convert, or if it’s really as the Church describes: a campaign to break down stereotypes.