Missionary work, common ground, ethics, and deception

March 17, 2010 | 29 comments
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A fascinating New York Times article and follow up blog post discuss negative reactions to a build-on-common-ground Christian missionary initiative among Muslims.

The blog post details:

An outreach technique that some Baptist missionaries use with Muslims. It involves stressing commonalities between the Koran and the Bible and affirming that the Allah of the Koran and the God of the Bible are one and the same. . . . The “overture” — the missionary’s initial bonding with Muslims via discussion of the Koran — is precision-engineered to undermine their allegiance to Islam.

This approach is quite similar to what I learned in the Missionary Training Center: Find common ground. Build relationships of trust. A great way to reach out to people. Or is it?

What are the ethics of this approach? Is this two step approach a legitimate way to reach out to other faith communities? Is there something problematic about finding common ground as an opening step in undermining the rest of a person’s belief system?

(On the other hand, as the NYT blog also mentions, it seems at least as bad to take the opposite tack that there is no common ground between religions. )

If the open-with-common-ground approach is acceptable, then is it equally legitimate if outsiders approach one’s own community in the same way? The NYT article wonders what Evangelical missionaries would think if Muslims put the shoe on the other foot. My own observation suggests that Evangelicals are not at all pleased when LDS missionaries use this approach. But then, I can’t blame them. I don’t think that mainstream LDS folks would be pleased if, say, FLDS missionaries took this approach — find common ground, build on relationships of trust — to convert mainstream Mormons to the FLDS faith. What seems like a great idea if framed as a way to reach outsiders can be perceived as much more insidious if it’s being used to undermine one’s own community.

What are the ethics of proselytizing?

29 Responses to Missionary work, common ground, ethics, and deception

  1. Ben on March 17, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    I think one of the objections has to do with boundary maintenance, which relies on keeping brightly definable lines between Us and Them. Emphasizing similarities dims those lines somewhat, perhaps encouraging someone to cross them.

  2. Sean on March 17, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    I think that it is good. I do not lie when speaking about the gospel and making comparisons. How can you expect to get people to listen to you if you are constantly speaking of differences.

  3. James Olsen on March 17, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Very interesting, Kaimi. Bro. Brigham didn’t take it too kindly when Utah was the main mission for the RLDS, nor did Pres. McKay when he thought the Catholics were taken direct aim at us in the mid-20th century. One approach might be to take seriously our claim that we can add to the good you’ve already got (which relates to your other post about proselytizing to heathens vs. heretics); in order for it to work as a solution to the moral problem you’re posing, however, I think we’d need to be a lot less crestfallen when people decide our extra goods just aren’t worth it.

  4. Ardis E. Parshall on March 17, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    How is what you learned as a missionary any different from what Ammon did when he established common ground with King Lamoni by identifying Lamoni’s “Great Spirit” as being Ammon’s “God”? As long as a person is completely honest and expressing genuine belief in what he claims is common ground without the intent to deceive, it is a fair and good thing to do. You can’t establish any form of communication, religious or otherwise, without at least a few common understandings.

    But this, from the linked article: “At the extreme,” Dr. Reynolds said, “these Christian missionaries will grow beards like Muslims, give up pork, even say that they are ‘muslims’ — lower-case ‘m’ — in the Arab-adjective sense of ‘submissive to God.’ ” is wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s dishonest and deceptive. It’s pretending to be one thing on the surface, hoping that nobody will look deeper, with the intent to deceive others with a false commonality that doesn’t in fact exist. (Exception: Some external practices — like giving up pork or growing a beard — would be ethical if they’re done for the sake of courtesy — akin to a smoker refraining from tobacco when he’s with a group of Mormons, or a western woman dressing modestly when she is in the Middle East — as long as it isn’t done to deceive.)

    I realize a lot of people think we claim to be lower-case ‘c’ christians in order to deceive, but that’s their ignorance and often their bigotry. We genuinely are upper-case ‘C’ Christians; we don’t claim to be Christian to infiltrate a society and dupe others, as seems to be the case with some of the proselytizing of Muslims described in the linked article.

  5. Lon on March 17, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Agreed. It’s hard to say a young missionary wearing a white shirt and suit with a nametag clearly stating who he is and who he represents could be accused of deception. Building on common ground isn’t deception. Presenting yourself as something you are not is deception.

  6. Kevin Barney on March 17, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    The article reminded me of Jews for Jesus, which use similar types of techniques in outreach to Jews.

    BTW, Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. It’s a contraction of al-Ilah “the God,” and is cognate to Hebrew Eloah, the singular form of Elohim. The term is used in Arabic Bibles, and, I assume (correct me if I’m wrong), the Arabic BoM.

  7. Dan on March 17, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    I have no problem with BROTing. It’s not deceptive and it works. I don’t care if other religions do it as well. I’d rather have other religions try and build relationships of trust than tear down my religion.

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 17, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Yes, I recall from a CD lecture by Daniel Peterson on Islam that “Allah” (The God) is the word used for “God” in the Arabic language Book of Mormon, too. A Muslim professor commenting on the silly controversy in Malaysia notes that “Allah” is a name that existed before Islam did, and comes from the same Semitic roots as the Hebrew Elohim.

    Starting a conversation about what I believe by understanding what the other person believes, and identifying those things we believe in common, is how ANY civil conversation starts with ANY stranger. Being neighbors or new co-workers or fellow soldiers or on a date means that you NEED to establish points of common understanding. I have done that in conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses visiting my house, with Jewish co-workers, and with the Japanese people I met going door-to-door on my mission. We have to talk about commonalities when we teach children about unfamiliar concepts like repentance and the Atonement.

    The key point is that you not be deceptive about what YOU believe when you talk about common views or similar views.

    Pointing out to a Muslim that Jesus was recognized as a prophet by Mohammad (who lived in the 7th Century AD) is something that many Muslims don’t apparently think about. On the other hand, other Muslims (as Daniel Peterson points out in his lecture) will observe that they think it is silly for an omnipotent God to have to make His Son suffer and die in order for God to show mercy to men.

    A Mormon who was teaching a Muslim about our faith could point out “commonalities” like the belief in angels speaking to prophets (though most Muslims are as closed-minded about any new prophets in the modern era as any Southern Baptist), or the fact that the Book of Mormon begins as the narrative of Semitic people traveling in the Arabian Peninsula, with some little known facts about the geography of that region (Nahom and the “Bountiful” coast of Oman). Hugh Nibley wrote about how Arab exchange students he had in his Book of Mormon class at BYU thought it the most natural thing in the world for Nephi to behead Laban, under the circumstances. (No indication that this led any of them to convert.)

    On the other hand, basic marketing principles that I was taught in college emphasize the need to differentiate one’s “product” from competing products, so the last thing you want to do in persuading someone to choose your belief system is to spend all the time talking about features of their belief system.

    I think that missionaries generally find their success in opening doors is based on much more fundamental commonalities, concerns like love of family, and a desire to know the purpose of life, and what evidence we have for God in the modern world. The next step is bearing a testimony, and giving people an opportunity to sense the Holy Ghost as they hear you, establishing a new commonality of experience that invites them out of their familiar frame of reference and into yours. That kind of communication is not only not false, it is the truest communication one can have.

  9. Eric Russell on March 17, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Kaimi, I fail to see an ethical dilemma.

    I didn’t read Raymond’s whole comment, so I may or may not be repeating what he just said, but there’s nothing inherently immoral about seeking to change another person’s belief system and there’s nothing insidious about finding common ground in order to do so.

  10. Clair on March 17, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Paul’s words seem relevant here:

    “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” 1 Cor 9

    I can imagine Paul doing that without a trace of dishonesty. That seems to be the key. A 19-year old missionary would have to stay within his own experience to be authentic.

  11. Alex T. Valencic on March 17, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with proselyting by building on common ground. It was how I had the most success as a missionary, and it is how I have the most success sharing the Gospel with my non-LDS friends now.

    Of course,the flip side is that I need to be okay with others doing the same thing. And I am. When my non-LDS friends seek to share their religious views with me by building on commonalities, I respect that and I appreciate it. It is so much more pleasant than when someone tries to tear me down.

  12. Paul on March 18, 2010 at 1:42 am

    Ardis’ clarification is helpful. Like others, I don’t see any ethical issue with honesty. Pretending to be something we’re not, on the other hand, would be an issue.

    Seems to me with their white shirts and ties and conservative haircuts, Mormon missionaries are pretty clear about who they are.

    When someone else finds commonalities with me and tries, though those commonalities to sway me from my position (whether it be religion or politics or any other subject), I then have a choice to make.

    Generally, a missionary will not sway an investigator without the help of the spirit. Certainly not in a lasting way.

  13. Non-Arab Arab on March 18, 2010 at 6:50 am

    I think Ardis’ comment hits the nail on the head and is worthy of being re-read repeatedly. Common ground is a postive thing, deception is condemnable.

    Likewise I appreciated Paul’s comment about being open to other’s proselyting. I think the lack of ability to proselytize in many countries today often relates to political-economic weakness, which frequently was the result of a history of colonialism where religion, coercion, and violence mingled and left a justifiable bad taste in many societies. Overcoming that is partially one of economic and good governance developing so these societies do not fear other religions as a neo-imperialist Trojan Horse as they sometimes were in the past. But I also think that if we can honestly say that our ideal (telestial anyway) world is one in which our society is full of converts to their faith, and make it a reality, then it becomes much easier to say that out desire to proselyte in their societies will put us both on equal ground rather than in a strong-weak power relationship.

  14. Edje Jeter on March 18, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Ditto Ardis.

    RTS (8): “Pointing out to a Muslim that Jesus was recognized as a prophet by Mohammad (who lived in the 7th Century AD) is something that many Muslims don’t apparently think about.”

    Maybe we hang out in different crowds, but… present-day Islam goes much further than acknowledging a historic recognition: Isa/Jesus figures non-trivially in the Quran and is venerated as one of the major prophets. In my experience (in the US and the Middle East), Jesus’s canonical role in Islam is one of the first things Muslims bring up when they are BRT-ing with me.

  15. Ms. Jack Meyers on March 18, 2010 at 8:29 am

    For once, I agree with Ardis. How about that.

    But let me stir the pot a little bit. No, I don’t think Mormons are being deceptive in claiming to be Christians. But how about, say, “the Millet doctrine” (paraphrase): “If someone asks you a difficult question about the LDS church, don’t answer the question that was asked. Instead, answer the question that they should have asked.”

    Is that deceptive? Discuss.

    (There is a polemical, critical clip of Millet discussing this approach on YouTube here.)

  16. Ardis E. Parshall on March 18, 2010 at 10:23 am

    I’m not sure we have ever directly spoken in a comment thread, Jack, so it’s interesting to me to know that you generally find my comments as wrong-headed as I always find yours. Including this one.

    If you had ever worked in customer service in any field, you would understand that people generally don’t ask the question they needed to ask to elicit the information they’re really seeking. An LDS Archives patron, for instance, will ask “do you keep a list of everybody who has ever been excommunicated from the church?” (the answer is “no”) instead of asking “What records should I search to find out whether it’s true that great-grandpa was excommunicated” (which can be answered with several suggested searches).

    Other times questions have to be reframed because they are asked in a “have you stopped beating your wife?” rhetoric. When an evangelical asked me long ago “How did it feel to have sex with the bishop in front of all those people when you went to the temple?” how should I have responded? Was it deceptive of me to reframe the question to one that could have been answered, one of several that *should* have been asked instead of the one that *was* asked?

  17. aquinas on March 18, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Millet: “For example, if a person out of the blue that I don’t know from Adam walks up to me and says, ‘So you are a Latter-day Saint? Tell me, you folks believe that man can become like God huh?’ How do I respond? This a total stranger. I don’t know what he knows about the Church.”

    There is a context here. There is absolutely no prior dialogue or relationship with the person. They are approaching you and you don’t know why they are asking the question or what they know. In addition, you are not likely to have another conversation with this person. They might be seeing a Mormon missionary for the first time and just making small talk based on something they heard. Having listened to several interviews and dialogues with Millet on radio programs and elsewhere, I think his point is that providing a larger background or a context is more useful and informative than not doing so.

    If a stranger asks whether Mormons can become like God, and a Latter-day Saint only responds “Yes” I think Millet is asking, how useful was that exchange? The Latter-day Saint has no knowledge of what “become like God” even means in the mind of the other person, and they cannot assume to know. Certainly, the stranger in Millet’s hypothetical, who is not even described as Evangelical or Christian, may have a completely different understanding, and therefore a Latter-day Saint only answering “Yes. What other questions do you have?” only serves to confirm an understanding that the Latter-day Saint may not agree with because she hasn’t yet elicited this information from the other person.

    Millet used the same approach when asked whether Mormons are Christians on the Drew Marshall Show. “Would Mormons consider themselves Christian?” There, Millet didn’t just say “Yes. Next question.” Rather, he elaborated on the merits of the question for the radio broadcast listeners and offered examples that illustrate how the question can often be misleading and uninformative. In essence he answered the question “Describe for us some limitations of the labeling Mormons as either Christian or not?” In the context of speaking with strangers for the first time, such an approach is much more useful than just saying, yes, no, next question, yes, no, next question.

  18. Alex T. Valencic on March 18, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Jack, I have heard of the “Millet doctrine” but I don’t know much about it. And, unfortunately, I don’t have the time today to go into an in-depth study to see what is meant by this term.

    However, if someone asked me a “difficult” question about the Church, and my response, following Millet’s suggestion, is to answer the question that “should have been asked”, I would only do so in such a way that my answer does answer the initial question, as well.

    I’m not sure if that actually makes sense, though, so let me apply this in a non-theological framework. When I am teaching fifth graders, I am asked all sorts of questions. A lot of them come in response to questions I ask my students. When I answer them, I have to try to read their minds and understand what it is they are really asking.

    As an example, earlier this week I was teaching a math lesson about the volume of three-dimensional objects. In starting the lesson, I asked the students to tell me what they knew about volume. One girl said that volume is what you get when put volumizing shampoo and conditioner in your hair. Another student asked, “Mr. V [which is what they all call me], is that right?” Now, I could have answered the question in two ways. First, I could have said, “In terms of hair care products, yes.” Second, I could have said, “We are talking about math, so no.” Both answers would be technically correct, but neither would help in answering the questions they should have asked. So I asked the questions, and led the class in a discussion about why the term “volume” is used in hair care products. This, in turn, led to a discussion about how volumizing products allow your hair to take up more space, and, when we are talking about measuring volume in math, we are talking about how much space is being taken up by a three-dimensional object.

    To turn this back to Jack’s question about the “Millet doctrine” then, I would say there is no deception in answering the question that should have been asked. There is deception in answering an unrelated question, and pretending it is the question that should have been asked.

  19. Course Correction on March 18, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Trying to convince someone that their religious beliefs are wrong and yours are right is inhrently wrong. The only ethical way to proslytize is to live your beliefs in a way that others will want to know the secret of your goodness and happiness.

  20. Ardis E. Parshall on March 18, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Would you say the same about other areas of life, CC? The only ethical way to prevent disease is to eat right, exercise, and stay clean yourself, and not share those secrets with someone until he wants to know why you’re healthy and his kids died? Or the only ethical way to promote employment is not to tell your kids to shower regularly, show up on time and do the work expected, but wait until they ask why you can hold down a job and they always get fired in a week? The only ethical way to champion consumer safety is to keep quiet about your knowledge of unsafe products until your neighbor asks why your baby is alive and hers is dead after strangling in an unsafe crib?

    I reject your notions of ethics.

  21. DavidH on March 18, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I believe in finding common ground for the sake of . . . finding common ground. Not to change anyone. But to strengthen one another in our common beliefs. The Church’s statement on other faiths states: “members of the Church do not view fellow believers around the world as adversaries or competitors, but as partners in the many causes for good in the world.” http://www.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/respect-for-diversity-of-faiths What better way to be partners with our fellow human beings of good will than to understand the commonalities of our beliefs.

  22. Canadian_ on March 18, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I think that the premise of the article is wrong.

    None are out to decieve, all are out to bring good to others that they feel don’t have what they need to in order to gain salvation. This is a noble desire. Many people go about doing that work in different ways. Ultimately the person being taught has the agency to agree or to disagree, to listen or to walk away. The common ground to find is to be found between both parties by definition.

    The only way to do missionary work is to teach the gospel by:
    1 – teaching the truth
    2 – sharing testimony
    3 – waiting for the other person to gain a personal witness through the spirit.

    All other methods are “fluff” IMO.

    LDS would be well advised to find common ground with other faiths for our own edification. We are woefully ignorant of the faith and doctrine of others, especially those of us that have been a member since birth.

  23. Mark D. on March 18, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    All I can say is that there is nothing more offensive than for evangelicals to say that we believe in a “different God”. We believe different things about God, but the idea that the two conceptions refer to hypothetically distinct individuals (existent or not) is pure sophistry.

  24. Ms. Jack Meyers on March 18, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    #16 Ardis ~ I’m not sure we have ever directly spoken in a comment thread, Jack,

    We have, at least twice.

    it’s interesting to me to know that you generally find my comments as wrong-headed as I always find yours.

    I’m not sure “wrong-headed” is the adjective that I would use to describe your comments. I generally find you thoughtful and informed even when I disagree with you, which is admittedly often.

    Including this one.

    Labeling an open-ended question that directly relates to the OP as “wrong-headed” comes off to me as rather defensive, Ardis.

    In any case, I’m not sure that your examples really have much bearing on what Millet is saying (I have worked plenty of customer service jobs and I have also worked for both the BYU and TIU archives). I agree that people sometimes ask the wrong questions and that the discussion needs to be re-framed, but that means re-framing the discussion within the chosen topic. For example, people sometimes ask me whether or not evangelicals believe baptism is necessary for salvation. That’s the wrong question. The right question is, if you consider yourself a disciple of Christ and you understand that baptism was commanded by him, why wouldn’t you do it? The redirected question has obvious connection to the first question.

    In the clip, Millet suggests redirecting a question about the LDS doctrine of deification to a discussion of the First Vision. Arguably not in the same ballpark (that is, assuming that the video was edited correctly and he doesn’t eventually show how his question relates to deification–and given the polemical use of the video, I have my suspicions).

    I think that we can all agree that loaded questions are no-nos.

    #17 aquinas ~ I think that in the case Millet proposed in the clip, asking the fictional inquisitor some counter-questions to understand where he was going with the question would have been the most productive solution. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to establish some context around a question, but I don’t think a question about LDS deification should be re-directed into the first missionary discussion just because this might be the only contact with Mormonism the person has ever had. That would be like me trying to teach someone the Four Spiritual Laws when they asked me whether or not I think baptism is required for salvation.

    But if I eventually use the Four Spiritual Laws to get back to the question of baptism and salvation, that’s another matter.

    #18 Alex ~ To turn this back to Jack’s question about the “Millet doctrine” then, I would say there is no deception in answering the question that should have been asked. There is deception in answering an unrelated question, and pretending it is the question that should have been asked.

    We are completely on the same page with this.

  25. Cameron Nielsen on March 18, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Well, going back to Ammon, he obviously was not in the wrong using ‘guile’ to help the king receive the Gospel. He did this, used common ground, AND answered the questions the king should have asked. =)

  26. Ardis E. Parshall on March 18, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Regarding defensiveness and loaded questions, Jack: Calling something a “doctrine” when it is not (admittedly, I don’t know whether that was an original label or one that is current elsewhere – I am hardly ever in an environment where it is possible to watch youtube clips) is a loaded term, implying that faithful Mormons are bound to believe an idea and follow it religiously; at the same time, you say that there is enough deception in whatever he recommends to be worth a discussion. I only know Millett from bloggy writing and the occasional newspaper item. All I know of him is that he’s a BYU guy who seems to like to play ball with his neighbors more than his brothers. Nothing that originates with him is “doctrine” or is in any more binding on me than the pet practices of the stranger who just walked up to the library information desk.

    You may find me defensive; I’m not sure you understand what I’m defending.

  27. Ms. Jack Meyers on March 18, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Ardis, I put the term “Millet doctrine” in quotation marks both to indicate that the expression did not originate with me and because I think that implies that the words therein aren’t being used literally. As far as actual LDS doctrine goes, I agree with Blake Ostler: there is no such thing.

    I never said Millet was deceptive; I asked the readers of this thread whether or not they found his suggested tactic deceptive as others have made that charge. No intended judgment on my part.

    I’m not sure you understand what I’m defending.

    You got me there. I certainly don’t.

  28. aquinas on March 18, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    #24. In the clip, Millet is discussing “how best to begin” a conversation with a complete stranger, one that begins with an “antagonistic question.” In your response you’ve rephrased the question in an arguably non-antagonistic and using more sophisticated term “LDS Deification” and rephrased the response as “re-directed into the first missionary discussion.” (I might point out that by so doing you have artfully employed Millet’s approach by essentially answering the question I didn’t ask which is “Should a missionary just launch into the first discussion when directly asked a question about LDS Deification?” Of course, with the caveat that Millet’s example was more geared towards strangers, and we are not.)

    In response, I might point out that the question “you folks believe that man can become like God, huh?” isn’t exactly the same as someone asking “Would you please explain LDS Deification?”

    Now, I don’t think that asking whether man can become like God is itself necessarily antagonistic, however, it certainly could be depending on the situation and the tone of voice, etc. At any rate, and for whatever reason, that’s the example that Millet chose of an antagonistic question. However, I don’t think there is anything deceptive by counseling new missionaries that when approached out of the blue with an antagonistic question that they do have the choice to respond “Well, that’s an interesting question, it is asked frequently, but let me begin this way…” Now, depending on the particular missionary or the stranger, that approach may be ineffective, completely unnecessary, unsatisfying, etc., but not deceptive. I’m not a fan of describing the approach as “asking the question they should have asked” (not the language I would choose) because that phrase itself does invite the charge of being deceptive, but I can see that in context it can have pedagogical value in explaining the concept of choosing the best way to begin.

    I agree that counter-questions are a very useful approach and that’s the approach I myself prefer and advocate. However, I do recognize that not everyone is proficient or comfortable using counter-questions; doing so requires that one know the kinds of questions to ask to elicit further information, which is not as easy as it sounds. I’ve see that go terribly wrong as well. As people gain experience conversing with others that kind of judgment and proficiency will come.

    The clip has obviously been chosen to illustrate how the LDS Church teaches it’s members to “lie for the Lord.” (the title of the clip). However, in my view, the best way to examine the merits of Millet’s approach is to look at how he fields questions in his several interviews and dialogues.

    I’ve probably listened to more of his interviews and dialogues than most (both in the US and UK), and while I may have answered a question differently (and I’ve offered critique of his writings), I don’t recall ever feeling that he was deceptively evading a question or performing a slight of hand to change topics without answering the question at all.

    Lastly, someone may wonder why I’m “defending” Millet, but as many Latter-day Saints are not aware of his writings, interviews, or dialogues, I think it would be extremely unfortunate for Millet to only be known by an approach named after him that essentially claims he is suggesting that people be deceptive. He has done a tremendous amount of good and has bridged understanding and facilitated healing between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals, and furthered interfaith dialogue in ways that are probably unparalleled.

  29. Mark D. on March 19, 2010 at 5:11 am

    There is deception in answering an unrelated question, and pretending it is the question that should have been asked.

    How is non-responsiveness a form of deception? If you ask me “Are you married?” and I say “I like football”, have I deceived you?