Last night our interfaith group had a conversation about conversion. That is, we talked about whether it is appropriate for a person of one faith group to convert another to their religion. It's a fascinating conversation that will be ongoing, because it's a complex topic. At the heart of the question are competing realities when it comes to religion in the United States (and for this posting I'm going to stick to our context).
In the United States religions are essentially free agents. Legally, if not always culturally, we are on an even plane. Although Christianity has a cultural dominance, the Constitution treats it the same way it treats every other religion. It doesn't matter whether James Madison had in mind the current religious pluralism or not. Madison could only deal with what he had in front of him, but the wording of the Constitution provides religious freedom for everyone, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, or . . . Everyone of us is free to practice our faith as we so desire as long as it does not pose a danger to another person or commits an act that is considered illegal by the government. That is, it must have a compelling interest to forbid something.
Another way to look at this is to see each faith tradition, including all the varieties of Christianity, living in a marketplace. To put it crudely, we're all different brands competing for the same people. Now, there are faith traditions that are deeply rooted in a particular culture/ethnic reality. Thus, Hindus are, by and large, of Indian descent, many being immigrants. But, other faith traditions including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have a fairly broad ethnic/cultural base. In fact, most of the Buddhists I have met look a lot like me -- their Euro-American religious seekers who have found a home in Buddhism. Thus, they have converted -- of their own free will. There are people of Indian or Chinese descent who are Christian or they are Muslim. That reality may have come after their arrival in America or may go back to their homeland.
So, is conversion a bad thing? In my mind, no. Especially here in the United States we have the freedom to choose which religion will guide our lives. Some will choose to be an evangelical Christian, others to be a Muslim. Some will choose a Mainline Christian church like mine while others will choose Buddhism or Baha'i. I like this freedom.
But, can the desire to encourage conversion become a problem? I wound answer yes.
I would make a personal distinction between evangelism (telling the good news that emerges from my faith in Jesus Christ) and proselytism (seeking converts in a coercive manner).
As for the evangel (good news), I have found the way of Jesus to be the most compelling understanding of God and reality itself. It makes sense to me and makes sense of life. I have learned much from other faith traditions, but I've found none of them to offer what I've found in Jesus. Now, I expect my Muslim friends to say the same about Islam. So, I'm not ashamed to share my faith. In fact, I find it to be good enough news to share with others.
But, if I were to use coercive or seductive measures to get converts. That is, I either created a hostile environment for someone that would end only when they converted or offered them some material incentive to join my group (an I-Pad for everyone who joins the church) that's a different story. My Hindu friend calls these Rice Christians -- Christians who offer rice or medical care in exchange for conversion. I would say that for me to offer friendship in exchange for conversion is also coercive.
I have made friends with Jews and Muslims and Hindus, just to name a few over the years. My faith tradition is different, but I don't condition my friendship on the basis of faith. We're friends. We share common values, many of which emerge from our very different religions. But I don't condition my friendship by whether they convert. That's not the point of the friendship.
Conversion is a tricky issue, especially in our context. But I think we need to have a conversation about it! If we're to "coexist" with each other, we must learn to respect each other. That means learning to respect the differences in religion that are part of our realities.