Exporting Evangelism

In the packed stadium, people stood in the summer heat, craning their necks for a view of the stage. Evangelist preacher Benny Hinn, dressed head to toe in white, paced and preached, backed by a choir singing gospel hymns. Audience members whose pain had disappeared after Hinn's healing prayer came to the stage to testify. Abandoned crutches and wheelchairs lined the platform.

This scene could have taken place in Louisiana or Texas, Minnesota or California, but in fact occurred in Suva, the capital of the Fiji Islands, a few weeks ago. The Benny Hinn Miracle Crusade lasted three days and drew an estimated 180,000 people on the final day, an impressive feat in a nation where the population hovers just under 1 million. The Fiji national television news showed the prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, and the acting president, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, as well as other parliamentarians, in attendance.

Progressives in the United States are increasingly concerned with the influence of evangelical Christianity in American politics. They may not realize, however, to what extent American-style evangelism and conservative Christianity is spreading, particularly to developing nations. Nor are they aware how this may affect politics in these countries.

Of course, American evangelists and missionaries traveling to developing nations to proselytize is not new. My father used to regale me with his imitations of evangelists who came to the Costa Rican town where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s. Holding a Bible in one hand and the other hand aloft, my dad would lower his eyebrows and proclaim in gringo-accented Spanish, "Cristo … es la ultima … esperanzaaaa." (Christ is the final hope.) When we returned to his town 20 years later, many families had nailed plaques above their doors identifying their faith and asking that all visitors respect their beliefs.

What is new is the scale of evangelist enterprises, from Christian television channels broadcasting evangelical programming (Fiji has one channel devoted to such programming) to huge, stadium-sized revivals. Such events require a working relationship with the government. Hinn requested and received F$80,000 (nearly U.S.$46,000) for security for himself and his entourage.

In exchange for taxpayer dollars, Hinn's Miracle Crusade offered economic incentives to the Fiji government in the form of increased sales for local businesses as well as long-term gains from Christians in the United States and other developed nations who may seek "Christian destinations" for their next vacation. (Ironically, one of the businesses that benefited the most from Hinn's crusade was McDonald's, located a few blocks from the stadium.) Before the crusade began, Prime Minister Qarase met privately with Hinn, and one rival politician hinted that Qarase may have asked for divine assistance with elections later this year. Hinn was so pleased with the success of the crusade that he promised the audience to return in June.

Hinn is not actively political in the way that Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) are, but as fundamentalist Christians, they share -- and promulgate -- a conservative agenda. Hinn's ministry offers for sale books and videos by Robertson and other Christian conservatives. As their words travel through the internet, television broadcasts and stadium revivals, their views may have a direct influence on Fijian public policy.

One of the questions before the government is whether or not to criminalize sodomy and remove a clause in the constitution that protects gay people from discrimination in Fiji. The debate has been heated, with the Methodist church (the largest Christian denomination in Fiji) coming out strongly in favor of criminalization. The Catholic Church has opposed calls to criminalize homosexuality, and other Christian theologians have criticized the Methodist church's anti-gay campaign. Even the Fiji Times newspaper ran an editorial urging the Methodists to give up their fight to hold an anti-gay march.

On Jan. 8, the Fiji Times published a two-page spread entitled "Human shortcomings of God's perfect standards" in order to "revisit the discussion of homosexuality from the perspective of the meaning of Christmas." In it, the newspaper presented views from Fijian religious leaders, including Terry Bates, a missionary from Texas (no denomination specified), and all concurred that homosexuality goes against God's will. In a featured pull quote, Bates stated that "[in] the Bible … homosexuality … is mentioned along with sexual immorality, idolatry, prostitution, thievery, greediness, drunkenness, slanderers (gossiping), swindlers and many other behaviours that are displeasing to God."

Bates and other clergy decried the language of "rights" that currently shields homosexuals from discrimination, arguing that "individual rights" should not supercede the good of the community (which presumably requires a homosexual-free environment). Their words echo the arguments of Christian conservatives in the United States, who attack gay rights as "special rights." Bates suggested that Fiji citizens "compare themselves realistically with countries that have released their traditional perspectives of moral and ethical behavior" and have gone "down the road … toward their own destruction." He offered East Los Angeles as an example of moral destruction and individual rights gone amok.

Fortunately, Fiji citizens do not passively accept these views as the last word on Christian morals but engage in active dialogue about them. In the wake of Hinn's Miracle Crusade, they questioned every aspect, from the legitimacy of Hinn's healing powers to the legitimacy of his claim on their tax dollars. Likewise, letter writers to the Fiji Times have countered religious arguments against homosexuality on both scriptural and secular, civic grounds.

Nevertheless, the international market for evangelism is booming. Regarding a crusade in Manila, Hinn asserted, "It's a new day for evangelism! God is doing a new work. More than ever before, international crusades such as this one in the Philippines are becoming a major focus as our ministry and our precious partners join together to fulfill the Great Commission during these historic days."

As progressives consider ways to counter the messages of the Christian right, we need to widen our lens. Their ambitions reach far beyond our nation's borders.

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