When I was in youth group, we were subject to any number of demonstrations and techniques to give us easy to remember lessons about various issues within the faith. The sticky tape that demonstrated we wouldn’t bond as well if we had sex outside of marriage. The broken and shattered rose.
One image that stuck with me after all these years is a demonstration about being “yoked” with unbelievers. One person stood on a chair, symbolizing the Christian. Another stood next to the chair, solidly on the floor. In turns, they would try to pull the other into their position. Inevitably, the person on the floor would win, and the Christian would topple from their chair, usually with a loud bang and the occasional injury. This is what it’s like being friends with non-believers, we were told. They will pull you down and away from Christ quicker than you can pull them up. And chances are, you’ll get hurt in the process.
In other words, we shouldn’t be friends with atheists because sharing our lives with them makes us vulnerable to spiritual attack.
At the same time, we need to be doing our best to witness to these heathens. We are bad at being Christians if we are not preaching the gospel and telling everyone about the glory of Jesus’ death. “Witnessing” to the gospel is done so often that an evangelical can immediately recognize when it’s happening, even if the person is trying to be sneaky about it.
So when one of my atheist friends played a video of Presidential candidate Marco Rubio at a recent Q&A, answering a question from an atheist constituent concerned about what policy decisions Rubio would make to protect people of non-faith, it was obvious immediately what was going on. Rubio doesn’t answer the person’s question—not even remotely. Instead, he goes on a seeming tangent that looks like rambling to most, but once he hits his stride, becomes apparent as a presentation of the gospel message. He talks about the difference God’s gift has made in his life, that Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed him for the good and that he’s motivated by his faith, and that gift is available to all.
It’s unmistakable: a current government official and hopeful leader of the country spent valuable time at a podium trying to convert an atheist instead of answering substantive policy questions. The question of whether or not Rubio would be a Pastor in Chief is apparently answered in these two minutes.
Now, there’s a lot to be said about what Rubio’s actions here mean for his Presidential run or whatever. I’m not particularly interested in him, despite the fact that Rubio seems to be the darling of a lot of evangelicals right now. Notoriously anti-gay people actively run his faith committee, so I already know how I feel about Rubio’s politics.
But I would like to point to the other important part of Rubio’s remarks here: his complete lack of awareness of how just how wrong his remarks are for this setting. It is beyond the pale for a Presidential hopeful to use his platform to witness to a constituent. But it would still be bad if this were two men having a casual conversation in a coffee shop.
It’s bad because it ignores the needs and wants of one person is order that another may achieve their goal of “sharing their faith.”
It’s bad because it signifies that evangelism is not about making meaningful connections with other human beings but instead about numbers and converting.
It’s bad because it focuses the spiritual practice on winning souls and not on cultivating a heart for justice.
It’s bad because it’s not of Christ. It’s a bastardized version of the Gospel, wherein accepting Jesus’ “gifts” for the afterlife is the most important thing, rather than a challenge and experience of a pursuit of justice and love and mercy above all. Dr. Nicole Flores, speaking at the WX conference this last fall, commented: “Ignoring the theological primacy of human dignity is its own heresy.”
This is what drive-by evangelism does. This is what evangelicalism as a whole is built around: the lie that all you need to do for Jesus is to get people to convert to Christianity, as though the primary goal is growing in numbers rather than inviting justice and mercy from God’s kingdom into ours.
When Jesus called upon his followers to pray, he didn’t ask that we multiply our numbers, that we pray that more would come to him. He asked that we pray for sustenance, for remembrance of our creator, and that The Parent’s ultimately just Will be done on earth as in heaven, that our reaches for justice now reflect the kingdom of our Creator.
In a way, steam roll witnessing is a deeply unchristian act. It ignores the dignity and humanity of a fellow human being. It depends attention not to earthly problems, but to a specific set of spiritual ones. It creates a divide where there should be a bridge. And this is a problem, not just for Rubio, but for evangelicalism as a whole.