Guest Columnists

Are Outward Signs of Faith Offensive?

I AM SETTLING into my cramped seat in a small aircraft when I smell it: the nauseating odor of fried food in close quarters. I turn, ready to glare, when I see that the culprit, a middle-aged man, is bowed in prayer over his meal with his hands folded, eyes closed.

All is forgiven. I am a pushover for religious witness. As a person of faith, I welcome the expressions of others on their faith journey, whether my own tradition or another. I like to see people seeking God.

On a recent drive home, it was a Jewish man and his young son I spotted walking from the synagogue, dressed in matching black pants, jackets and black hats, sporting the traditional Jewish side curls.

Another day, it is my friends who work in refugee resettlement, who are converts to Islam, wearing their tight-fitting head coverings.

I love Ash Wednesday’s dark smudges, Good Friday’s public processions.

Offending Nonbelievers

However, in our pluralistic society, some take offense at outward signs of faith.

What is offensive to others?

The writer Leah Libresco was curious about that so she commissioned a survey of two groups, one Christian and the other agnostic and atheist. She asked the Christian group if they would expect someone to be uncomfortable by certain actions, and she asked the nonbelievers if they are uncomfortable by those actions.

For example, “pray with physical object.” I envision someone silently praying with her rosary.

Of the Christian group, 23 percent thought this might make others uncomfortable, but only 12 percent of the agnostics and atheists replied they would be uncomfortable. Good news so far.

Likewise, only 5 percent of nonbelievers reported discomfort if you decline food or beverage for religious reasons, while 15 percent of Christians expected they might be uncomfortable. So maybe saying no to that hamburger because it’s a Lenten Friday isn’t offensive.

But here’s a kicker: What made the nonbelievers uncomfortable, way more than the Christians expected, was someone saying, “I’ll pray for you,” or asking to pray with you.

I thought of Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant writer and outspoken atheist. When he was dying of cancer, he was offended by those who told him they were praying for him.

I didn’t blame him, even though I prayed for him myself. But writing to him and waving that in his face? That’s like saying, “I know what’s best for you, like it or not.”

Truly, that’s not the purpose of prayer.

Smug Righteousness

We offer to pray for people who share our convictions regarding prayer. But to impose my prayer verbally upon another who may not believe in prayer is wielding my certainty of truth like a bludgeon. That’s not kindness, but a smug expression of rightness.

So, in this era of political correctness, where do you stand on the issue of offensiveness?

If someone is uncomfortable with my Lenten ashes, too bad. I don’t want to give offense, but I feel assured that the majority of people will see my actions as my private witness. I’m not trying to be “in your face.” I’m trying to be in solidarity with people of faith, and that’s my right.

But if I cross that line that separates my behavior from an attempt to change others’ behavior, I may become legitimately offensive.

Effective Witness

But aren’t we supposed to evangelize?

St. Francis of Assisi is thought to have said, “Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words.”

The most effective witness we give is our lives, lives of mercy and compassion. That makes any outward sign of our faith impressive and legitimate. That kind of evangelization is rarely offensive and often powerful.

Editor’s Note: Find Libresco’s survey at

Caldarola writes a syndicated column for Catholic News Service.