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The Problem of Proselytism – Theos

November 13, 2015

TPOPIn January 2015, the Department of Communities and Local Government stated that its “Money cannot be used for capital expenditure or proselytising”.

This report argues that, while there is a diversity of approaches in amongst faith-based organisations, there is little evidence of widespread abuse. Why, then, are concerns about proselytism so persistent? How should faith-based agencies respond?

Critics of religion argue that the threat of proselytism is one of the key reasons why faith-based organisations should not have a greater role in providing public services, or receive any public money.

The word, which traditionally simply meant the attempt to persuade someone to change their religion, now implies using power and position or taking advantage of the vulnerable to recruit new adherents. However, there’s confusion about the boundaries between what is and isn’t legitimate when it comes to the public articulation of faith.

The Report explores three areas where faith-based organisations do need to exercise caution: prioritising the public good, respecting the dignity of religious and other minorities and protecting vulnerable service users. It argues that faith-based organisations don’t need to secularise in order to head off these concerns. Indeed, they should be transparent and consistent in setting out how what they do is different to purely secular providers, particularly when it comes to offering spiritual care. The report offers a rigorous analysis of the debate around proselytism today, drawing on the findings of a range of interviews. It describes ‘full fat’, ‘half fat’ and ‘low fat’ approaches to faith-based social action, arguing that each will and should have a different kind of relationship with statutory providers or funding.

The report calls for open-mindedness from decision makers, with responsible and reflective social action on the part of faith-based organisations. It reckons that there is little abuse. It also points out that many faith-based services witness by heir acions and don’t seek to use words.


What a person can or ought to say on Speaker’s Corner is different to what she can or ought to say if she’s a chaplain, or a doctor. This is not that she stops believing these things when at work, but that she recognises she’s performing a different function in those different contexts. We hear a lot about cases where that distinction seems to have broken down to a greater or lesser degree, but little about how those distinctions are understood or maintained by the religious.

Pope Francis declared during an annual week of prayer for Christian unity that “our shared commitment to proclaiming the Gospel enables us to overcome proselytism and competition in all their forms”. He has also called proselytism “solemn nonsense”, while also maintaining that “missionary outreach is paradigmatic

for all the Church’s activity”. He clearly means something very different to those who use the word proselytism to denote any and every form of religious communication.

The European Court of Human Rights Article 9 includes the right to share one’s faith

2005 Papal Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. Those who practice charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others.

The pluralist situation is, above all, a market situation. In it, the religious institutions become marketing agencies and the religious traditions become consumer commodities. In public perception, this places religious leaders and religious institutions on a par with salesman – always having to persuade potential customers of the benefits of their product, and even adjusting their ‘services’ to cater for perceived religious needs. And each salesman is competing with all the others, looking for competitive advantage or ways to get at potential customers.

Religion, we know, is not to be discussed in polite company – there is no quicker way to divide a room. As with the dinner table, so with the public square. Those who go about seeking to proselytise, even to evangelise, are at risk of contravening long-standing principles of non-interference: ‘Live and let live’, and ‘I don’t care if you’re religious, as long as you don’t push it on me’. They intrude on the day-to-day rubbing along of common life. People want to get on with their day, with their work or their shopping, without being preached at through megaphones for whatever cause.

Secularist campaigners argue people are either put-off using a service with a strong faith identity for fear of being ‘bible-bashed’ or have to put-up with a service that they’re unhappy with.

when FBOs are in receipt of public funds, they are acting on behalf of the state. Like the state they are mandated to prioritise the public good. But isn’t it the case that when a public service is being delivered by a religious provider there will necessarily be some other motivation, even if subtly hidden? An analogy could be drawn with public service reforms which include for-profit providers – isn’t the public service ethos compromised by a profit motive? In the same way, the integrity of a service might be compromised by evangelistic religious agendas. Ipso facto …In fact, we would contest the premise. Faith-based charities should, by their own lights,

work to reach members of the community who do not necessarily share their faith, or even those who may share their faith but feel in other ways that they might be discriminated against (e.g., the LGBTQ community). In other words, they are to serve the common good, but that is not because they have been funded by the state – they are, state funded or not, under an obligation to serve the common good, and many things that promote the common good have nothing to do with the state. Public funding of such activities is the state acting to support the work of independent providers, not to turn them into its own organs or representatives. The state doesn’t support FBOs because they can deliver public goods, but because they already do and already should.

At the end of a visit with a client I will normally say, “you know we’re from a Christian agency. I would like to offer prayer for you – if you would like it. You don’t have to have it, it’s not something that will affect how we treat you, if you say no then that’s fine… but if you would like I would love to pray for you”. I always explain that I will pray in the name of Jesus, because we have a lot of Muslim clients, and Hindu and Sikh. The people that turn me down tend to be ex-Catholics. The Muslims, the Hindus, the Sikhs love it that we pray for them.

The rapidity and patterns of religious changes have resulted in new stresses and pressures on public services (as seen in the so-called Trojan Horse scandal). In the last decade or so, governments have recently become more interventionist, seeking to legislatively manage this ‘superdiversity’ (e.g., the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2010). Some of these measures have had direct bearing on questions around proselytism. Following a campaign involving both religious and non-religious critics, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was amended with a declamatory clause clarifying that the Act should not be “read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts…proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system”.

As St Francis of Assisi probably didn’t say, “preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”

You can read the report online here

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