As students walked between Cross Campus and Beinecke Plaza Monday and Tuesday, they were greeted with the all-too-familiar sight of Brother Stephen White surrounded by a crowd of argumentative undergraduates. White has made regular appearances along Wall Street for the last few years, preaching a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity that condemns a broad spectrum of “sinners,” including Muslims, homosexuals and environmentalists.
White is an extremist who is trying to spread a hateful message, and he appears to be incorrigible. Indeed, there is probably nothing we could write in this space that would convince him to stop. But his presence on campus also provides an opportunity for debate on evangelism at Yale.
While White sentences students to damnation for not accepting his God, a coalition of Christian student groups is making a more nuanced argument through a campaign of its own. On posters and table tents, they ask, “If we’re just matter, do we really matter?” and “Is this really as good as it gets?”
Without a doubt, evangelism can at times be invasive, patronizing and downright irritating, and many Yale students have complained that they are intelligent enough to make decisions about faith without needing to be egged on by peer saviors.
From a legal standpoint, such evangelical movements are well within the confines of protected speech. But to an extent, those arguing against aggressive evangelists have a point.
Evangelists — whether student groups or outside speakers — should respect the right of students to walk across campus without being harassed. Once a student indicates that he is not interested in the message being pitched, the evangelist should leave the passer-by alone.
Though they are far less aggressive, Yale’s numerous Christian organizations should be constrained by a similar set of reasonable standards. They should refrain from covering blackboards and lecture halls with their postings — students should also be able to attend their classes without being the target of any extracurricular group’s marketing campaign.
But as long as they stay within such bounds, Brother Stephen and student-run campaigns like the currently inchoate “Do we matter?” movement, or last year’s “I agree with Dave” crusade, deserve a place on the Yale campus.
The campaigns by Yale Christian groups can often lead to forthright discussions about religion that might not otherwise occur. Even if a majority of students are uninterested in religious discussions, the minority deserves the chance to air their agenda. The others may simply ignore the posters and choose not to attend the meetings.
And as for Brother Stephen, whose flailing style and equal opportunity offensiveness seems increasingly easy to laugh off, a yearly bit of comic relief on such a serious subject might even help everyone gain a little perspective.