In today’s world of many faiths and creeds, believers should never actually take their religion seriously enough to try to convert others to it. That, at least, has become the message of the politically correct international powers that be.
For many supposedly open-minded individuals, freedom of religion has been shrunk to freedom of worship. In other words, believers should have the right to read their holy texts, observe their high festivals, and participate in their worship services. Before going on, let me make clear that the battle even for this basic freedom of worship in the world has not been won yet, and it remains important.
Stopping at freedom of worship, though, ignores the freedoms of individuals to convert to another faith and try to convert others. Unfortunately, many “tolerant” people don’t support the freedom to proselytize. Proselytizing simply means actively working to convert others to your religion. For example, the West often heralds Morocco as one of the most religiously tolerant Islamic states, which it certainly is. However, Article 220 of the Moroccan penal code prescribes up to a six-month imprisonment for anyone who “employs incitements to shake the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion.” The Moroccan government continues to arrest foreigners suspected of proselytizing and bans all formal missionary activity.
In its best form, proselytizing marks a decisive turn to non-violence. Throughout human history, plenty of religious leaders have advocated the use of force to spread their gospels, and wars of religion have killed countless people. Although the proselytizers may use offensive or ineffective methods, such as haranguing passersby on the street, the important thing is that they are trying to persuade and are not brandishing guns and shipping people off to reeducation camps. Any criticism of proselytizing should start with praise of its nonviolent nature.
Proselytizing is a cornerstone of our civil liberties, the intersection of free speech and freedom of religion. A society where individuals are free to try to convert others to their beliefs is a society that respects open dialogue and freedom. Proselytizing in many ways represents the ultimate in unpopular speech because it often involves people telling me my core beliefs about meaning and morality are wrong and that I need to adopt theirs. In some ways, we are no freer than the most unpopular proselytizer, whether he is the Jehovah’s Witness knocking on our door or the driver of the Jesus-mobile rolling down Wisconsin Avenue.
Marquette University officially bans proselytizing in the official religious activities policy. This policy provides defines proselytizing first as coercion and misrepresentation and then later as making converts to another religious affiliation or group and only reinforces the negative societal perception of proselytizing. We can all agree with the administration’s decision that “no individual or organization can coerce or pressure others or misrepresent themselves,” but, with all due respect, that is not proselytizing. That is simply coercion, and classifying it as proselytizing simply confuses things and makes it harder to have a rational discussion about proselytizing.
Marquette does not engage in proselytizing nor does it let any other group do so. The college years compose some of the most dynamic years in many people’s lives when they confront life’s hard questions. Campus Ministry, student religious organizations, and many professors work hard to bring religious concerns and perspectives into the campus dialogue. Their activities have greatly impacted my life and challenged my Christian faith. So, what is wrong with taking campus religious activity to the next level and allowing students to not just share their faith but seek to convert others? Are we students so easily manipulated that we need the loving umbrella of our university to protect us from this apparently grave threat?
In a response to Dr. Christopher Wolfe’s 1988 criticism of the ban, Father David Haschka, then head of Campus Ministry, defended the ban as a decision by Marquette to forego Catholic proselytizing as trade-off to create an environment more friendly to non-Catholics. He then added, “It seems to me totally unacceptable for non-Catholics to be confronted, on this campus, with deliberate efforts to persuade them away from their faith, whether such efforts are decent or not.” As a non-denominational Christian considering which college to attend, I would have been attracted to any university confident enough to appropriately seek converts to its faith and allow other traditions to do the same.
For the administration to dismiss all proselytizing, even if done respectfully without coercion, as unacceptable reinforces the view that proselytizing is always inappropriate. This contributes to the public opinion which allows oppressive governments to jail and punish people who want nothing more than to convert their neighbors.
Marquette University has a unique opportunity to defend proselytizing and contribute towards its legitimacy around the world. As a private university, Marquette can legally ban proselytizing, but, as a Jesuit university named after one of history’s great proselytizers, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. As Dr. Wolfe proposed in 1988, the administration could ban coercive activities and lift the general ban. Marquette could become the catalyst for a rethinking of proselytizing within higher education. Although this is not always the operative question given his historical context, perhaps in this case we should look at our namesake’s disproportionately cerebral statue in front of Wehr Chemistry and ask ourselves, “What would Father Marquette do?”