"The Chicago Declaration on Religious Freedom," issued last Friday, states: "Misguided or false notions of pluralism must not be allowed to jeopardize anyone's constitutional right to evangelize or promote one's faith."
The 21 signers and 63 initial endorsers of the two-page statement described evangelism as a "basic liberty."
"Yet confusion has arisen over the efforts of some Christian believers, ministries and denominations to make Christ known to members of other faith communities," they wrote. "Some contend that these efforts undermine a peaceful, pluralistic society and may lead to intolerance, bigotry and even violence."
Several signers said the statement was sparked in part by a letter written last November by an interfaith group of Chicago religious leaders who asked the Southern Baptist Convention to modify plans for an evangelical mission campaign in their city this summer. Those leaders were concerned that Southern Baptists might seek Muslims and Jews as their "primary targets" and the campaign "could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes."
That language, said Richard Land, an official of the Southern Baptist Convention and a signatory, was "the straw that broke the camel's back."
The statement, though initiated by agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention, became a broader declaration by the addition of an interdenominational and interracial group of evangelical leaders from across the country, said Land, president of the denomination's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"It's a leap across the Grand Canyon to argue that the sharing of one'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 Chicago airport hotel to tweak the wording of the document.
Although the declaration focuses on the right to evangelize, it also makes some clear statements about the supporters' beliefs about appropriate ways to evangelize.
"As followers of Jesus, we pledge to respect the value, dignity and human rights of all with whom we speak," the statement reads. "We reject the use of coercive techniques, dishonest appeals or any form of deception in our evangelistic outreach. We acknowledge with shame that some Christian churches have failed to exercise proper respect for the rights and dignity of others."
The statement adds that Christians "have betrayed the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence" when they defended slavery, fostered prejudice and exploited the poor.
Bill Bright, president of the Orlando, Fla.-based Campus Crusade for Christ and a signatory, said even though he may not agree theologically with non-Christians, he respects their rights.
"I do believe that Christ is the only way to God, but I don't believe that I, as one of his followers, should bludgeon people with that emphasis," he said. "I should tell them, but not in a way that is going to put them in a pressure box where they feel intimidated."
The Rev. Paul Rutgers, executive director of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, said his organization never intended 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 of targeting of specific religious groups in evangelistic campaigns," said Rutgers. "And there was never and would never be a question about religious liberty or the freedom to witness to one's faith. I think that's a given among us."
In fact, now that the Baptists have assured them no targeting is planned during their July 8 "SearchLight" event and other evangelistic efforts this summer, the Baptists' plans are no longer a major agenda item of the council, he said..
"The gates of the city are open and we expect this campaign to happen 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 discrimination against Jews in its list of shameful activities.
"If Christians are going to confess their own faults, historic faults together with exploitation of the poor and slavery, I think anti-Semitism...is one that ought to be included," he said.
Sanford Cloud, president of the National Conference for Community and Justice, said he hopes the supporters of the statement will use it to encourage respectful evangelism as the nation's religious diversity continues to expand. He said his organization also had been concerned about Southern Baptists' plans for evangelizing Chicago.
"As one goes about the business of evangelizing, one has to be very careful of respecting where other people are with respect to their own traditions and faith," said Cloud, whose New York-based human relations organization works to foster tolerance and understanding among racial and religious groups.
David Neff, executive editor of Christianity Today and another signatory, said there have been cases where evangelism has been misleading.
"We read stories from time to time of youth ministries that attract young people in one way and get them baptized and converted and they go home and their parents say, 'You did what?'" said Neff. "Maybe that's not showing respect."
But he said others known for evangelism are more above-board.
"When Billy Graham holds one of his meetings...nobody who walks in there has any misperception about what's going on."
Statement signers, in addition to Land, Bright and Neff, include some of the nation's most influential evangelical leaders. They included Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary, Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice and evangelist Billy Graham's son, Franklin Graham.