Column: Crusaders who scream fire and brimstone leave a bad taste

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Last week some so-called &uot;evangelists&uot; paid a visit to Minnesota State University-Mankato (one of the schools where I teach). Their visit was not unexpected, even if I have come to dread it. Ever since I’ve been associated with university communities, I have seen these people show up on campuses. Often, the ones I see now are the same ones I saw when I was a freshman at the University of Arizona.

The ones at MSU last week followed the usual routine, standing in a public, outdoor place where students congregate, yelling a lot, waving their big old floppy Bibles, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Their strategy never seems to vary much; the focus seems more on yelling and screaming about damnation than anything else. But the students on campus also seemed to follow their usual routines, either giving the &uot;evangelists&uot; a quick glance and then ignoring them completely or allowing themselves to be sucked into the presentation and joining the big circle of those who are heckling and jeering at the speakers.

This time the ire of the crowd was partly aroused by the presence of placards displaying images of aborted fetuses (otherwise known as dead babies). At least one of the speakers started to hit one of the hecklers, who was trying to cover the picture, resulting in that student being taken away by campus security (it apparently being politically incorrect to interfere with the free speech rights of aggressive &uot;evangelists&uot; at MSU).

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Year after year they come and year after year I scratch my head and wonder what the point of it all is supposed to be. The faith that I hear proclaimed by these fiery speakers has very little in common with my own, that is, if I’m supposed to judge their faith by their words and actions. It’s all about &uot;Satan&uot; and &uot;hell&uot; and &uot;damnation&uot; for those who are out of favor, for whichever group is the target that week. Lately it’s been homosexuals and anyone who is pro-choice when it comes to abortion (last year it was Muslims and a few years before that it was members of fraternities and other non-virgins). Unless the listeners repent, the speakers shout, they are doomed for eternity.

It’s always amazed me how these &uot;evangelists&uot; can claim to tell anyone whether they are saved or damned. I thought that was God’s role. But far be it from me to get in the way of their crusade.

The yellers and screamers will be gone after a few days, but the rest of us, the people of faith who study and work on campus, will still be around for the rest of the year. And we are the ones who have to live with the fallout that comes from another botched attempt to witness to the power of faith in human life. Because they seem more interested in getting attention than in the content of the message, I think there is more harm than good done in the work of these traveling speakers.

For those who do not believe that faith in God is important and worth investing in, the overriding image that is left behind by &uot;evangelists&uot; like the kind I saw last week is of self-righteous fanatics who are interested in sorting people into the right groups. It isn’t about forgiveness or mercy or service to others. Once again, the picture is one where Christians are noisily calling down the wrath of God on the unrighteous. Surely there must be a better way to serve as evangelists on a university campus.

And there’s one more thing: The placards being carried around by this year’s crop of &uot;evangelists&uot; were certainly eye-catching, but at least for me, the result was not &uot;repentance&uot; but &uot;repugnance&uot;. Although I do have to admit their presentation of the &uot;facts&uot; about the Christian faith, salvation and morality convinced me to jump off the fence about one issue. As I walked back through the Student Center I stopped to pick up a bumper sticker for Paul Wellstone. In other words, they helped me decide whether I was confident enough about my choice for U.S. Senator to actually make it public.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.