When is evangelism intolerance? A dilemma for some Christians

I have a great deal of sympathy with the article by Deborah Orr in the weekend’s Guardian: Whether you are religious or secular imposing your views on others is foolish.  Ms Orr complains about strident campaigning from Christians against abortion and gay rights, as well as secularists complaining about the mention of God in the Boy Scouts’ oath.  I disapprove of these strident attitudes too, and it doesn’t make me feel better about those who advance them.  But I fear the distinction between free speech and imposing views isn’t as sharp as she implies.

Ms Orr praises the “live and let live” Christians she knows, who don’t seek to impose their views on others.  This sounds perilously close to not wishing to convert others to their faith.   I don’t think that is necessarily wrong, but many Christians feel that it is their duty to spread the faith – to evangelise.  Now I have enough of a Christian education to enjoy picking holes in what many practising Christians say, in spite of my having lapsed from the faith.  But in this case I find the duty to evangelise a difficult idea to challenge – it’s solidly grounded in scripture both in  letter and spirit (unlike, I would argue, many Christians’ views on gays, and, indeed, abortion).  The Christian and Islamic faiths differ from others, like Judaism and Hinduism, in this.  You are not meant to keep your light under bushel.

So I quite understand the Christian need to proselytise – and probably that is what many Christians think they are doing when advancing their views militantly on gay rights and abortion.  It mystifies me why so many Christians think these things are so central to their faith – but clearly many do.  Ms Orr, of course, is quite happy about the idea of free speech.  she is happy enough for Christians to publicise their views, provided they show equivalent tolerance when people who disagree with them publicise theirs.  She is objecting to two things.  First the idea that conflicting views should be suppressed because they are insulting to those of faith – part of a process of secular persecution.  I have almost no sympathy for Christians (or Muslims) on that score – surely the duty to bear insults with good grace is the flipside of the duty to evangelise?  But she also objects to attempts to “impose” their views on others, by, for example, Christian registrars refusing to conduct civil partnerships between gays – or the Christian landlord refusing to accommodate a gay couple in a bed and breakfast.  Also, of course, the use of violence to stop people using abortion services – and the attempt to advertise “gay cures” on London’s buses.

Ms Orr doesn’t talk about Christian surgeons refusing to conduct abortions – but isn’t that similar?  I don’t think many people would object to that, though this clearly creates problems and may restrict freedom of choice.  This at least shows that there is some grey amid the black and white.

But, to be fair, Ms Orr uses the word “foolish” rather than “wrong” to describe this behaviour – and this is much nearer to the mark.  This behaviour seems to be much more about a rather modern habit of wallowing in victimhood to attract attention from others.  Christians should have the teaching and spiritual resources to rise above that kind of behaviour, even if atheists do not.  Many do of course, so it is does the churches no good when leading figures like George Carey and Cardinal O’Brien pander to the victim culture rather than showing spiritual leadership.