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Christian Proselytizing: A Form of Oppression? 'Only Death Will Tell!'

From some perspectives, that sharing the word of Jesus is an act of bestowing a great gift on the "unbeliever," while for others, rather than experiencing this as a gift, some of us perceive this as an imposition, an annoyance, an insensitivity, a provocation, or worse, a form of oppression.
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Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Iowa, David Young, who hopes to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, spoke on Monday, July 15 to a group of Christian conservatives at a campaign event in Cedar Rapids sponsored by the state's Faith and Freedom Coalition. During his remarks, Young reaffirmed the depth and strength of his Christian faith, and asserted that if elected, "I would invite New York Senator Chuck Schumer to lunch so that I could share the good news of Jesus Christ" with him. Schumer, by the way, is Jewish.

Two days following his remarks, his campaign spokesperson, Heather Swift, attempted to clarify the candidate's remarks by assuring that "The sharing of faith isn't solely for the purpose of conversion; it is also a tool for understanding one's colleagues and building deeper relationships," and that Young specifically chose Schumer since he is a leader in the Democratic party.

Young's comments appear somewhat milder following the clarification than that of the current Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, who, during his January 2011 inaugural address offensively warned: "So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother!," or the hateful tirade political pundit Ann Coulter made on a 2007 CNBC show "The Big Idea," to the show's Jewish host Donny Deutsch that everyone on earth should be Christian and that Jews needed to be "perfected... It is better if we were all Christians."

Critical questions of David Young, nonetheless, beg to be addressed: Why would David Young automatically assume it acceptable to "share the good news of Jesus Christ" with a Jew, especially within a political context? Does he think that with the pervasiveness of Christianity, with all its denominations, national holidays, proliferation of churches, proselytizing evangelists walking door to door and missionaries journeying throughout the planet, with the extreme visibility within the media and society at large, does Young truly believe that Senator Schumer has not yet heard of the figure of Jesus, or Jesus' tenets and those his followers espouse?

As a resident of Iowa for the past nine years, though I found Young's comments insensitive at best, I was not particularly surprised. Before moving to Iowa, I lived in relatively diverse areas of the United States in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, sexual and gender identity, and other demographic markers. I accepted a faculty position in Iowa in 2004.

I understood not very long into my work that this position would pose a number of challenges that seemed less overt or apparent in my other teaching experiences in the Northeast. The writings of two undergraduate students, though in different classes during different semesters, came virtually to the same conclusion.

On a final course paper, one student wrote that while she enjoyed the course and she felt that both I and my graduate assistant were very knowledgeable and good educators with great senses of humor, nonetheless, she felt obliged to inform us that we will spend eternity in Hell for being so-called "practicing homosexuals." Another student wrote on her course paper during a subsequent semester that homosexuality and gender non-conformity are sins in the same category as stealing and murder. This student not only strongly implied that I will travel to Hell if I continued to act on my same-sex desires, but she went further by amplifying the first student's proclamations by self-righteously insisting that I will not receive an invitation to enter Heaven, regardless of my sexual identity and behavior, if I do not accept Jesus as my personal savior since I am Jewish. Anyone who doubts this, she said, "Only death will tell!"

In a private meeting in my university office, a student expressed to me that while she would like very much to speak during our class discussions, she feels "unsafe" to do so because she identifies as Wiccan, and if word got out about her religious beliefs, in all likelihood, schools would immediately disqualify her for employment as a teacher in the state of Iowa. When she said this to me, an expression of both anger and sadness overtook her face as tears welled and streamed down her cheeks. I tried to comfort her and to reassure her that she has legal protections in our state on the basis of religion and employment, though I fully understood her fear knowing the social realities of not only our state or the Midwest generally, but the pervasiveness of Christian assumptions and Christian privilege of our country.

A Jewish student expressed to me in private that since he came to our campus, he has gone into a "religious closet." To avoid marginalization by his peers, he tells them that he was raised Methodist because he has often heard other students express cruel anti-Jewish sentiments regarding Hitler and the German Holocaust as well as every-day expressions such as "Don't Jew me down" (translated as "Don't cheat me like a Jew") and "That's so Jewish" (like "That's so gay"; both intense put-downs).

A Muslim student on our campus felt marginalized and silenced when he engaged in online campus discussions around issues of religion. "Our campus atmosphere often stifles the discussion of such issues because of these personal attacks. Now that my time at Iowa State University is complete, I cannot help but sympathize with the students who feel isolated for their ideas because I, too, have felt this way." This student discussed how he resents the numerous times Christian evangelists entered his dorm room in their attempts to convert him to Protestant Christianity.

A number of the students in my course, a significant percentage, have asserted that we are now and that we were always meant to have been "a Christian nation." One student articulated this view best:

[A]s a Christian I am called to not be tolerant. I am not called to be violent, but am called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28). When I look through all of the information I have been given in my life... I come to the conclusion that America was founded as a Christian nation... Separation of church and state was created to keep the state out of changing the church, not to keep the church out of the state (undergraduate male pre-service teacher education student).

In June this year, Texas Governor Rick Perry mirrored this student's interpretation of our Constitution's First Amendment when he signed into law HB 308, nicknamed the "Merry Christmas Law," which allows public schools to display scenes and symbols of "traditional winter holidays" (read as "religious observances") provided that schools represents at least two religions. During the signing ceremony, Perry declared that "[r]eligious freedom does not mean freedom from religion."

What we are experiencing in the political realm, in our classrooms, and within the larger society is the notion of "culture clash," in this instance the opposing beliefs, from some perspectives, that sharing the word of Jesus is an act of bestowing a great gift on the "unbeliever," while for others, rather than experiencing this as a gift, some of us perceive this as an imposition, an annoyance, an insensitivity, a provocation, or worse, a form of oppression. Many of us understand Christian proselytizing as resting upon a foundation of Christian privilege in the United States, a privilege that grants unearned benefits, which exerts a degree of power and control not granted to members of non-Christian denominations and non-believers.

The notion of "culture clash" reminds me of the Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen, who coined the term "cultural pluralism" c. 1915 to challenge the image of the so-called "melting pot," which he considered as inherently undemocratic.

Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the "melting pot"), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures and religions and world viewpoints play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres without attempting to eclipse, overpower, or drown out all the other beautiful sounds of the great orchestra we call "society."

So, rather than inviting Senator Chuck Schumer to lunch to "share the good news of Jesus Christ," whether David Young actually becomes the next senator from the great state of Iowa, maybe he could lunch with the New York senator instead to investigate ways to work toward true bipartisanism to end the political gridlock that has gripped the Congress.

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