Sharing the Message: Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies

March 4, 2015

In March 2015 the Religious Freedom Project, in partnership with Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, convened a group of scholars, religious leaders, and development practitioners for a day-long dialogue on the effects of proselytism and development in pluralistic societies. These experts addressed a series of urgent concerns involving the role of religion in the alleviation of poverty around the world.

The relationship between religious proselytism and development is important—and controversial. International covenants recognize that religious freedom includes rights to personal religious conversion and public religious witness. But critics claim that proselytism can violate the rights of affected communities to maintain their traditions and can sow division in fragile societies. There is wide agreement that development aid should never be conditioned on religious conversion. Disagreement centers on whether, when, and how a vigorous religious marketplace, including the freedom to proselytize, fosters social dynamism and development or, on the contrary, social division that undercuts development goals.

After welcoming remarks from Berkley Center Director Thomas Banchoff, the conference began with the first panel, entitled “Historical Perspectives on Proselytism, Humanitarianism, and Development.” Speakers Michael Barnett, professor at George Washington University, Rebecca Samuel Shah, research fellow at the Religious Freedom Project, and Robert Woodberry, professor at the National University of Singapore, produced a lively conversation about the definition of proselytism and the complex legacies of aid organizations.

The second panel of the day, “Proselytism, Poverty, and Development,” featured Asoka Bandarage, member of the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, Kent Hill, vice president of World Vision United States, and Katherine Marshall, director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. These experts examined the unusual capacity exhibited by faith-based development organizations in alleviating poverty in third-world countries.

The keynote conversation followed, featuring Pastor Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church in California, and Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service. Drawing from their many years of experience in humanitarian work and philanthropy, Warren and Messinger debated the proper role of religious witness in relief and development work, the balance of power between aid workers and indigenous peoples, and the advantages and disadvantages of government-imposed regulations.

The event closed with a final panel on “Proselytism, Social Stability, and Political Development.” Brian Grim, founder of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, Ani Sarkissian, professor at Michigan State University, and Hans Ucko, former president of Religions for Peace International, addressed the political and social consequences of proselytism, the effectiveness of government and self-imposed regulations, and proselytism’s relationship to the Christian call to evangelization. RFP Associate Scholar Allen Hertzke moderated the discussion.  

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