Religious recruitment on campus generally falls into one of three categories: street preaching, handing out literature or simply asking passersby if they have a free minute to talk. Since I have been in college, I have come close to mastering the techniques to avoid these displays: headphones on, hands in pockets and eyes on the ground. Once in a while, though, one of them still gets to me.
I was approached by a campus evangelist abruptly on my way to class last week. Before I had time to comprehend the nature of the leaflet he was distributing, it was in my hand and I was going on my way.
Many UA students have been cornered on their way to class at some point by a tiny Bible, leaflet or hand-written sign.
The literature I received this time was divided into two sections: advice for those with a Christian background and advice for those from non-Christian families. Falling into the latter, I humored my new friend and read the first paragraph as I continued to walk. What I read was disturbing – the literature urged me to “break the cycle” and become the first pure person in my family who would not burn eternally in Hell. Thinking of my late grandparents, who were Jewish, I felt sickened by what I read. Those words sat with me and made me uneasy as I struggled to focus through the rest of the day’s lectures.
Freedom of religious expression is a cornerstone of the American philosophy – but when does evangelism turn to insult?
The use of the trigger warning and safe space have grown exponentially in this decade on the social plane, generally referring to speech or imagery that can emotionally trigger certain groups, and the places on campus students can be where they may focus on their studies without fear of being triggered. A UA handout discussing the implementation of safe spaces details the actions and language that are disallowed, including “threatening ideas or conversations.” Telling students they are doomed to burn in Hell with their families could be considered a threatening idea.
These materials, of course, are not supposed to be benign. The online Christian newsboard GotQuestions published an article about the effectiveness of public recruitment methods, saying, “Since when are Christians to reach the lost in only ‘inoffensive’ ways? … The goal is not to avoid offense.”
Even the Christian and Conservative Huffington Post writer Neal Wooten wrote, “I have never seen or heard any street preacher claim that they reached people with their message.” He called the motives of public evangelism into question, especially those that use offensive content in their recruitment strategies.
The first amendment tells us that public displays of religion are a keystone of our freedom in the U.S. But perhaps it is time to question the motives of these displays on campus. UA officials should vet campus evangelists’ material more carefully and approve whether their literature is void of threatening language. Off campus, free speech reigns with virtually no limitations. However, the UofA has promised to protect its students from threatening speech, and they need to live up to that promise across the board.