"The Chicago Declaration on Religious Freedom," issued last Friday, states: "Misguided or false notions of pluralism must not be allowedto jeopardize anyone's constitutional right to evangelize or promoteone's faith."
The 21 signers and 63 initial endorsers of the two-page statementdescribed evangelism as a "basic liberty."
"Yet confusion has arisen over the efforts of some Christianbelievers, ministries and denominations to make Christ known to membersof other faith communities," they wrote. "Some contend that theseefforts undermine a peaceful, pluralistic society and may lead tointolerance, bigotry and even violence."
Several signers said the statement was sparked in part by a letterwritten last November by an interfaith group of Chicago religiousleaders who asked the Southern Baptist Convention to modify plans for anevangelical mission campaign in their city this summer. Those leaders wereconcerned that Southern Baptists might seek Muslims and Jews as their"primary targets" and the campaign "could contribute to a climateconducive to hate crimes."
That language, said Richard Land, an official of the SouthernBaptist Convention and a signatory, was "the straw that broke thecamel's back."
The statement, though initiated by agencies of the Southern BaptistConvention, became a broader declaration by the addition of an interdenominational andinterracial group of evangelical leaders from across the country, saidLand, president of the denomination's Ethics & Religious LibertyCommission.
"It's a leap across the Grand Canyon to argue that the sharing ofone's faith, which is the gospel of love, could lead to hate crimes,"said Land, who is also a Beliefnet.com columnist.
Evangelical leaders met over the last several months at a Chicagoairport hotel to tweak the wording of the document.
Although the declaration focuses on the right to evangelize, it alsomakes some clear statements about the supporters' beliefs aboutappropriate ways to evangelize.
"As followers of Jesus, we pledge to respect the value, dignity andhuman rights of all with whom we speak," the statement reads. "We rejectthe use of coercive techniques, dishonest appeals or any form ofdeception in our evangelistic outreach. We acknowledge with shame thatsome Christian churches have failed to exercise proper respect for therights and dignity of others."
The statement adds that Christians "have betrayed the high ideals ofthe Declaration of Independence" when they defended slavery, fosteredprejudice and exploited the poor.
Bill Bright, president of the Orlando, Fla.-based Campus Crusade forChrist and a signatory, said even though he may not agree theologicallywith non-Christians, he respects their rights.
"I do believe that Christ is the only way to God, but I don'tbelieve that I, as one of his followers, should bludgeon people withthat emphasis," he said. "I should tell them, but not in a way that isgoing to put them in a pressure box where they feel intimidated."
The Rev. Paul Rutgers, executive director of the Council ofReligious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, said his organization neverintended to suggest Southern Baptists and others should not evangelize.
The council, in a November open letter to Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson, expressed fear that an announced plan to send 100,000 Southern Baptist evangelists to the city might undo progress made in interfaith dialogue or even encourage extremists to commit violence by fomenting religious differences.
"The council's concern was really quite limited to the issue oftargeting of specific religious groups in evangelistic campaigns," said Rutgers. "And there was never and would never be a question about religiousliberty or the freedom to witness to one's faith. I think that's a givenamong us."
In fact, now that the Baptists have assured them no targeting isplanned during their July 8 "SearchLight" event and other evangelisticefforts this summer, the Baptists' plans are no longer a major agendaitem of the council, he said..
"The gates of the city are open and we expect this campaign tohappen with grace and peace," Rutgers said.
In general, Rutgers said he also could personally affirm the evangelicals' statement. He did note, however, that he wished it had specifically addressed discriminationagainst Jews in its list of shameful activities.
"If Christians are going to confess their own faults, historicfaults together with exploitation of the poor and slavery, I thinkanti-Semitism...is one that ought to be included," he said.