Summer 2003, Vol. 6, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2003

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor
St. Francis to the Rescue

Keeping the Shi'ites Straight

Masses of Torts

The Trouble with Missionaries

Jihad for Journalists

The Smart Saga

Ghosts of New York

Santorum v. Sodomy

The Irreverent Eagle

The Latest Japanese Cult Panic

Israel's Tele-Rabbi

Letters to the Editor


The Trouble with Missionaries
y Andrew Walsh

Like his father, evangelist Franklin Graham has a way with words. Unlike Billy Graham, the 50-year-old son and heir is, in the words of a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial “a bit of a thrill seeker.” His sound bites really chomp, and he rarely flinches when others denounce him as a Christian chauvinist.

One month after the terrorist bombings of 9/11, at the dedication of a Wilkesboro, N.C. chapel, Graham entered the lively debate about whether Islam is a religion of peace or war. “We’re not attacking Islam, but Islam has attacked us,” Graham asserted. “The God of Islam is not the same God…. It’s a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.”

That characteristic gem appeared almost immediately on NBC’s “Nightly News” and has since bounced around the world more or less continuously, usually condensed to the phrase “a very wicked and evil religion.” This spring, it appeared in scores of newspaper articles and broadcast pieces about Christian missionaries and the war in Iraq.

Accorded innumerable opportunities to retract or modify his comments, Graham—unlike Jerry Falwell and some other conservative Protestant leaders who have attacked Islam—has consistently declined to do so. Indeed, he has progressively upped the rhetorical ante. “How come the Muslim clerics haven’t gone to Ground Zero and had a prayer vigil and apologized to the nation in the name of Islam?” Graham was quoted in a news analysis by Robert Stacy McClain in the April 16 Washington Times. “When people say (Islam) is a peaceful religion, don’t tell me that. When a suicide bomber straps on a bomb, that’s not a peaceful person. The Baptists are not doing that. Neither are the Pentecostals.”

Assertive evangelism when it comes to other faiths is nothing new for Graham. In 1999, for example, he won few friends among non-evangelicals when he used the forum of a state-sponsored memorial service for those slain at Columbine High School to ask the 70,000 gathered whether each of them had “trusted in Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”

During the first Gulf War, Graham infuriated Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf with a project called “Operation Desert Save,” in which his Christian relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse, “arranged for the shipment of thousands of Arabic-language New Testaments to the troops in Saudi Arabia to be passed along the locals,” Michelle Cottle wrote in the April 21 New Republic. “The project was in direct violation of Saudi law and flew in the face of an understanding between the United States and Saudi governments to eschew proselytizing.”

Schwarzkopf ordered an Army chaplain to tell Graham that the project was causing diplomatic problems. Graham responded: “Sir, I understand that, and I appreciate that, but I’m also under orders, and that’s from the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” At least that’s what Graham told Newsweek.

Over the course of this spring, Graham was at the center of at least three significant stories covered by American journalists. In April, he announced that Samaritan’s Purse had positioned $500,000 worth of relief supplies and several staff members in Jordan waiting to enter Iraq after the fighting ended. “We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ,” he told the website Beliefnet. The Southern Baptist Convention’s relief arm also said it was ready to go into Iraq with a similar mixture of aid and Good News.

That provoked an instant reaction from American Muslims, as well as from many Christians who were unhappy to see relief and evangelism tied so closely together. “Groups like Franklin Graham’s go in and exploit vulnerable people under the guise of humanitarian relief,” Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations told Carol Eisenberg of Newsday on April 27. “It will be perceived as the U.S. government endorsing this activity, whether or not that’s the case. And it will confirm suspicions in the Muslim world that this is really a war against Islam.”

A second wave of stories focused on the ruckus over an invitation to Graham to be the main preacher at a Good Friday observance at the Pentagon. Muslim groups attempted, unsuccessfully, to get the invitation revoked and Muslims working at the Pentagon protested Graham’s planned appearance.

“You can’t say that Franklin Graham is a nut case on the fringes of America when he’s the personal pastor of the president of the United States and delivers Easter services at the Pentagon,” Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at Adrian College in Michigan told Newsday’s Eisenberg in a story published May 13.

The Baltimore Sun covered the Good Friday sermon with a story by Jean Marbella that emphasized the danger of Graham stirring up trouble for the United States in the Muslim world. “He’s basically a red flag,” said Louis Cantori, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County political scientist and Middle East expert, “He is personally provocative.”

“It should be obvious to a worldly man like Franklin Graham that his aggressive, proselytizing relief work would only fan the flames of suspicion among those in the Muslim world all too eager to twist this conflict into a crusade,” Jane Eisner complained in a Philadelphia Inquirer column on April 24.

Many newspapers editorialized along the lines laid down by the Washington Post on April 15. “If the Rev. Franklin Graham wanted to play to role of Mother Theresa in Iraq, ministering ‘quietly’ to a suffering people, as he wrote in a recent op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times, he should have thought through the operation a little more carefully. It’s hard to slip into a mostly Muslim country unnoticed when you are the son of America’s most famous Christian evangelist, a friend of the president—and, most to the point, a public figure who has called Islam a ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’ religion, a ‘greater threat than anyone’s willing to speak.’”

It’s no surprise that Graham has few fans on the Washington Post editorial board, but the third cluster of stories arose from a more intriguing source. On May 8, the leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Protestant public advocacy group based in Washington, condemned assaults on Islam and said that they were drafting guidelines for interfaith dialogue with Islamic leaders.

“We must temper our speech,” said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which represents more than 43,000 congregations, in an Associated Press story by Rachel Zoll. “There has to be a way to do good works without raising alarms.”

“As evangelical Christians, we disagree with Islam and we are allowed to disagree, but how we disagree is important,” Clive Calver, president of World Relief, the National Association of Evangelical’s relief arm told a press conference.

As Zoll and others noted, this statement revealed, for the first time, high-level disagreement among evangelicals about how to address what is for them an absolutely fundamental question about how the balance between relieving human needs and the Christian obligation to spread the Gospel.

Graham has plenty of company among hardliners. “Jesus didn’t say ‘Go into all the world where it is safe,” Newsday’s Eisenberg quoted Fred Markert, executive director of Strategic Frontiers, a Colorado Springs-based mission group. “He didn’t say ‘Go into all the world where the food is good,’ He didn’t say ‘Go into all the world where they invite you.’ He told his followers to go into all the world and share his message.”

“Doesn’t the NAE have it backward?” snapped columnist Cal Thomas on May 14. “The most incendiary language is not coming from Christian leaders in this country, but from Muslim clergy overseas and occasionally from Muslim pulpits and schools in the United States.”

But many mission-minded folk are worried that Graham and other evangelical and fundamentalist hard chargers are generating backlash against mission work, especially among Muslims. Calver of World Relief, for example, told AP’s Zoll that superheated mission rhetoric has “placed lives and livelihoods are risk.” In the past year, evangelical mission workers have been assassinated in Yemen, Lebanon, and the Philippines and churches attacked in Pakistan.

On January 30, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story (“Young Missionaries Worry Intemperate Words Can Hurt Them”) reported that “27 student missionaries serving in 10 Muslim-dominated countries” had signed a letter urging fellow Southern Baptists to “moderate their criticisms of Islam and its founder because it hurts Christian evangelism and endangers missionaries.”

As became clear this spring, over the past decade there has been a massive resurgence in interest in mission to the Muslim world in conservative Christian circles. Excellent pieces have been published in recent months on this trend, including a June 30 cover story in Time, and page-one analytical pieces by Newsday’s Eisenberg, Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times, and John Rivera in the Baltimore Sun.

Several trends seem to be converging. Along with a strong reaction to 9/11, one of the most important is that the Muslim world has replaced the fallen Communist block as the part of the globe perceived as most hostile to Christian missionaries. That alone has made it the target of extremely dedicated and zealous missionaries who are determined to develop methods to circumvent the draconian prohibitions against Christian missions common in most of the Muslim countries.

For example, the Indianapolis-based Arab International Ministry is one of a large number of evangelical mission groups that has been training thousands of American Christians over the past six years in methods of proselytizing Muslims, Goodstein reported in an article headlined “Seeing Islam as ‘Evil’ Faith: Evangelicals Seek Converts” in the Times on May 27. In the same article she noted that Ergun and Emir Caner, Turkish converts from Islam to evangelical Protestantism, have published books like “Unveiling Islam: An Insider Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs,” which has sold 100,000 copies among evangelicals.

Time’s David van Biema profiled “Josh,” a 24-year-old Assemblies of God missionary who works along in an Arab capital. His evangelism is based on developing personal relationships with people and providing personal assistance: “I would never do anything stupid like blatant preaching on the street or going up to somebody I don’t know and handing out literature.”

But the world is also full of virtually untrained young Americans like the Texans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry,” who became a cause célèbre after they were arrested by the Taliban government in August 2001 in Afghanistan. (See Dennis Hoover’s Spring 2002 Religion in the News article “Missionaries or Not?” www.crspl@trincoll.depts/csrpl) The women, who described themselves as “humanitarian workers” were “unpopular with a spectrum of Kabul aid groups running from secular agencies to fellow Evangelicals,” Time’s cover story reported. “In their book Prisoners of Hope, Mercer and Curry wrote of initiating Christian prayer with Muslims, urging them to listen to evangelical broadcasts (in one case providing the radio) and showing at least two families a film on Jesus.”

Most of this wave of articles reported that mission-oriented Protestants have been increasingly preoccupied with the “10/40 Window,” a slice of the northern hemisphere between the 10th and the 40th degrees of latitude. The phrase was coined in 1989 by Luis Bush, an Argentine evangelist who, according to Newsday’s Eisenberg, wanted to bring the light of Christ to “‘billions of impoverished souls’ who lived in a part of the world that had been largely impervious to Christianity.”

Indeed, for many evangelicals, the Muslim world is a wildly frustrating and exciting challenge. “Over the past decade,” Laura Secord wrote in an excellent Boston Globe survey published April 20, “Christian missionaries have converted millions of African animists, some Buddhists in Asia, even Hindus in India. But Muslim communities have proved notoriously resistant.”

“Christian missions have not impacted the Muslim world since Islam began,” George Braswell, a former Baptist missionary in Iran and professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, told her.

“When people like Franklin Graham publicly insult Islam this really hurts missionaries on the ground,” said Jonathan Bonk of the Overseas Mission Studies Center in New Haven, Connecticut (which is aligned more with mainline than evangelical Protestantism). “It’s not how they see Islam. It’s a caricature, a parody designed to justify what political leaders want to do.”

Like it or not, American evangelicals of the 21st century must recognize that their religion is perceived as political, at home and abroad. They’re like the British missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries, who suffered and profited from the fact that Britannia ruled the waves.





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