A New York Timesop-ed piece last week by columnist Nicholas D. Kristof argued that the "destructive" religious right of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, which sought to "battle Satan with school prayers and right-to-life amendments, is on the ropes." In its place, he says, a new school of evangelicals is saving lives and reshaping American foreign policy. Kristof calls these American evangelicals the "new internationals."

Kristof begins by noting the January/February issue of Worldwide Challenge, a magazine published by Campus Crusade for Christ. The cover story focused on the poverty of rural Cameroon.

Kristof says the magazine's focus illustrates what he calls "a broad new trend": activism by American evangelicals in fighting sex trafficking, slavery, AIDS and religious persecution in forgotten parts of the globe.

But is evangelical international activism really a new trend?

"Evangelicals have been active in foreign policy really since the beginning of the Christian right," says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "The development activities that he rightly praises have been going on a long, long time. My response to this piece was, 'Where have you been?'"

Various scholars told Christianity Today that although the umbrella observation that evangelicals are internationally minded may not be breaking news, Kristof's article does provide insight for evangelicals to consider.

"This is a new recognition of something we've been aware of for a while," says Dwight Gibson, North American director for World Evangelical Alliance. "But it tells me how much of a ghetto we as evangelicals have put ourselves in for a key journal like The New York Times to print this and for it to be news to many."

Edith Blumhofer, director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, says that the interest in foreign policy may be news to those outside evangelicalism because it has only recently been communicated.

"This interest is characteristic of evangelicalism at least since American foreign policy went international, and probably even before," she told Christianity Today. "But it used to circulate more in the churches and in the subculture. Now it is out there. It is up on the Web. It is in glossy formats like a Campus Crusade magazine cover. It is more accessible to other people."

Cultural factors also contribute to this evangelical interest becoming more noticeable, Blumhofer says. For example, modern travel and prosperity have made it easier for evangelicals to do work abroad.

Article continues below

She says that missionary and church denomination publications from the 19th century show an interest in learning about and addressing problems such as poverty, weak agriculture, and cost of living in other countries. But it was harder then to act on this impulse, Blumhofer says. Now churches often send members overseas for short-term missions trips.

In addition to an interest in the conditions of people around the world, Robert Seiple, president and founder of the Institute for Global Engagement and former U.S. ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, says that evangelicals have long influenced American foreign policy.

"Nongovernment organizations have always had substantial amounts of influence in the world and substantial amounts of power in terms of leveraging policy back in the states towards that world," he told CT. "It might very well be true that when the history books of the evangelical movement are written, the greatest contribution is the engagement of people to be involved outside our borders, and then reporting back on the situations we find in those most difficult parts of the world."

He said that when he was president of World Vision, senators often came to the organization for information on foreign issues.

"When it came to work being done outside the United States, the very best information was coming from those best integrated in the grassroots of the country—not from people watching C-SPAN inside the beltway," Seiple says.

Evolving strategies
Richard Cizik, vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), agrees that an evangelical interest in world affairs is not new. "But the folks at The New York Times are not dumb either," he says. "What is news is our capacity to shape public policy. That makes this a story. Absent our ability to transform our concerns into actual policy, I don't think the media nor the policy people in Washington would be as interested in what we are doing."

Cizik said that there has been a gradual evolution in evangelicals' activity and influence in foreign affairs since the 1980s that has led to more influence in public policy. Defining moments in this growth, he said, were NAE's co-sponsoring of a push for religion to be included in the annual State Department human rights report in 1984 and the 1996 "Statement of Conscience" against religious persecution. By 1998, evangelicals had convinced Congress to pass—and Clinton to sign—the International Freedom of Religion Act.

Article continues below

"If people's reaction to this [article] is simply, 'Well, we have been doing this all along,' they missed the point," Cizik told CT. "No, we have not been doing what we started in 1996 all along. We are not new internationalists to the missions cause, we are not new internationalists to the humanitarian cause, but we are the new internationalists in our capacity to affect congressional legislation."

Changes in evangelicals' political capacity also came with changes in their political tactics, says the Bliss Institute's Green This shift perhaps explains why Kristof says that the battles of the "old religious right" against concerns such as abortion and school prayer are no longer fought.

"He is mistaken if he thinks evangelicals aren't still trying to battle Satan," Green says. "Evangelicals and prolife Christians are working just as hard on the abortion issues and gay-rights issue as they have. So I think there is a misunderstanding of what is happening here. Having said that, I think [Kristof] is on to something, but he doesn't quite grasp it. There has been a change."

Green says evangelical activists have learned to become more pragmatic. For instance, activists now work to limit late-term abortions instead of fighting for a right-to-life amendment.

"People are saying, 'What can I accomplish?' instead of 'How do I proclaim my values?'" Green told Christianity Today. "They are realizing that to get things done, you have to form coalitions and work on achievable ends."

This maturation of pragmatism, he says, may be why Kristof writes that old ways are "on the ropes." Such pragmatic efforts generate fewer headlines, Green says. Without the media attention, it may seem as if evangelical activism has faded.

The situation may be the reverse in foreign affairs. While evangelicals have long worked in foreign countries and have been internationally minded, their recent pragmatic approach has garnered successes like the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. "What Kristof sees as a new interest in foreign policy is really a more pragmatic and effective interest in foreign policy," Green says.

Seiple says that an interest in foreign affairs is mandated by what evangelicals believe. "Christians began to understand globalization when a Nazareth carpenter said 'Go ye into all the world," he told CT. "That was the start of globalization, and there has been no let-up in the last 2,000 years. It is global engagement with a world that God continues to love and it is a natural place for us to be: in the difficult areas."

Todd Hertz is online assistant editor for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

The New York Times has published two letters written in response to Kristof's op-ed piece: "Dangers of Proselytism" and "Evangelical `Missions'".