With rich social networks and broadcast ministries, the evangelical world has no match in the capacity to mobilize grassroots pressure. From the mid-1990s onward born-again Protestants have provided the groundswell for initiatives against religious persecution, trafficking, and other abuses. This achievement is a testament to the growing reach and sophistication of evangelical leaders, but it did not come easy and is not necessarily sustainable. Despite the popular media image of a disciplined "Christian Right" drawing millions of evangelicals into its fold, Bible-believers have competing impulses toward politics in general and international engagement in particular. These tendencies had to be overcome during the antipersecution campaign and remain obstacles to sustained pressure for continued action.
One impulse in the evangelical community is to withdraw into personal piety or communal devotions detached from the wider world. Many evangelicals remain focused on the individual dimension of the faith, and their churches respond with spiritual succor, therapeutic ministries, and family support, and in some cases even promise personal prosperity. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam contends that evangelical congregations produce strong bonds among members but do less "bridging" outward.
Contrary to their "fundamentalist" image, most evangelicals are neither militant nor overly focused on politics. Indeed, overt political action often carries the taint of worldly preoccupation, which can distract the faithful from spreading the good news of salvation. Evangelicals can also be hesitant to appear too self-interested in their political efforts. Michael Horowitz found evangelicals apologetic about the past sins of Christendom and sheepish about advocating for their fellow believers abroad.
A second impulse for evangelicals, when they do engage in politics, is to focus on domestic issues. Thus the issue of persecution abroad does not always hit people where they live. Intensely concerned about their children, civic evangelicals invest heavily in battles over education, trash television, or religious rights at home. With popular culture seemingly inhospitable to "people of faith," enormous energies are spent either fighting rearguard actions against degradation of the moral ecology or carving out space for religiously grounded education. At the same time that evangelical leaders were mobilizing for international religious freedom legislation, for example, others were mounting campaigns for a "school prayer" amendment to the Constitution and legislation to broaden the judicial protection of the "free exercise" of faith.
Awareness of persecution against Christians abroad does not necessarily result in political action because a third impulse sees persecution and martyrdom as biblically foretold and even necessary for the faith. Tertullian's famous dictum"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church"is often quoted by evangelicals and can be used to justify political quiescence. One can pray for the persecuted, feel inspired by their stories, even prepare for a similar fate. But to expect politics to ameliorate this situation may be fruitless or even counterproductive to God's plan of using martyrdom to build the global Church. This theological justification to eschew political action, in fact, was expressed by some evangelical leaders at the first strategy meetings convened by Freedom House in 1996.
One practical problem with this theological view is that it is naive to think that persecution always results in the growth of the Church. Sometimes the opposite is the case. Thus, the pressure on Christians in the Middle East has resulted in a dramatic decline in their population since the early part of the century. Since the early part of the twentieth century the Christian population declined from 35 percent to 5 percent in Iraq, 15 percent to 2 percent in Iran, 40 percent to 10 percent in Syria, and 32 percent to less than 1 percent in Turkey.
Christian activist Gary Bauer takes issue with the "bizarre theological concept that we are promised persecution and thus should not resist it." To him this is a "strange" notion because "you can believe that we are going to be persecuted and still believe that good and decent people should still stand in defense of those being persecuted. Charles Colson also disputes the theological justification for acquiescence. Believers are called to protect fellow members of the "body of Christ," and justice demands that the vulnerable be defended, whatever their faith. The fact that Colson had to assert this theological insight frequently in his lectures and writings testifies to the salience of the other impulse.
A related obstacle to political activation is, in spite of formidable efforts by "Christian Right" leaders, a general reticence in the evangelical camp about engaging in "grubby" political controversy, out of fear that it is too worldly. Prominent evangelical figures, such as Cal Thomas, express the nagging suspicion that the blandishments of power will corrupt the faithful and detract them from the central task of saving souls.
One intimation of this tendency came out in deep disputes over the timing of an event called the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The most visible effort by the evangelical community to raise awareness in the pews about persecution abroad, the Day of Prayer seemed ideally suited to providing grassroots support for the policy initiatives of movement activists. But leaders of the Day of Prayer resisted any discussion of political aims in the packets sent to participating churches. Not only that, they decided to schedule the event in mid-November of each year, ensuring that biennial elections would not contaminate worship activities. For strategists this was a huge squandered opportunity because an event before elections would capture huge publicity as presidential and congressional candidates competed to demonstrate commitment to the cause. But to those who believe deeply in the power of prayer, such strategic calculations threaten to sully worshipful endeavors around the nation. Whatever one's view about this controversy, it illustrates a resistance to maximizing strategic clout among pietists whose kingdom is not of this world.
Spirited disagreements also exist among evangelicals about how best to approach international engagement. One view, reminiscent of "Fortress America;" would eschew international entanglements entirely in the interest of maintaining national sovereignty. Driven by fear of the "new world order," this more "paranoid" branch often suspects that international engagement will end up ceding American sovereignty to the United Nations and, ultimately, to a world government inevitably hostile to Christianity. Several notable Christian Right leaders, such as Phyllis Schaffly, withheld support for the International Religious Freedom Act precisely because it invoked United Nations covenants.
If the above view tends toward paranoia, another civic impulse errs on the side of hope. It engages in quieter negotiation with foreign governments abroad, to create space for Christian witness, to free particular prisoners, and ultimately to change the hearts of leaders. Those who counsel quieter approaches fear unintended consequences, such as reprisals against vulnerable believers, which might flow from confrontation or sanctions. But part of the rationale involves a pragmatic calculus: the need for workable relations with nondemocratic governments to keep avenues of ministry open. Though acknowledging China's record of persecution, for example, Evangelist Billy Graham wrote to members of Congress in the summer of 1997 urging support for granting Most Favorable Nation (MFN) status with China, arguing that open trade would tend to keep missionary lines open. Other advocates go farther to suggest that liberalized trade relations will help ameliorate persecution itself.
But there is also an Augustinian theological perspective that justifies nonconfrontational engagement. Governments, in this view, are instituted by God. Who are we to claim that God is not working, say, through Chinese leaders as they struggle to maintain stability amidst forces that could plunge their nation into chaos? The Bible is also replete with stories of the faithful working through kings and princes blissfully unaware of their providential role. Thus some evangelicals counsel humility, oppose "demonizing" countries, and work to develop relationships that may bear fruit decades hence in God's enfolding plan.
This approach is exemplified by Advocates International, founded and headed by Sam Ericsson, former director of the Christian Legal Society. Contrary to some groups, Advocates International does not expose or criticize but rather seeks to nurture relationships with foreign leaders to help build infrastructures in various countries that will protect religious freedom. It also tries to foster trust with leaders abroad by appeals to common moral principles, especially the Golden Rule. The organization achieves noteworthy results in foreign countries by training local lawyers and judges and pressing for changes in laws or practices that harass religious minorities.
The philosophy undergirding this approach is remarkably optimistic. However, Ericsson draws authority from the Bible, especially from Old Testament figuressuch as Esther, Daniel, Joseph, Nehemiah, and Obadiahwhose faithful service to worldly leaders built a relationship that enabled them at critical junctures to advance justice for God's people.
Here we can echo Lincoln: evangelicals read the same Bible and pray to the same God, but come to different conclusions about what this means in concrete political terms. The debate over China provides a vivid illustration. Ericsson touted his cordial personal relationship with Ye Xiaowen, head of China's Religious Affairs Bureau, for why China made a key policy clarification in 1997 regarding the legality of Bible studies in homes. In stunning contrast, Voice of the Martyrs Director Tom White castigated Ye Xiaowen as "China's Caiaphas," a reference to the high priest who brought charges against Jesus.
This narrative alludes to an enduring divide in the evangelical camp between those who endorse "quiet diplomacy" to ameliorate persecution versus those who favor tougher public initiatives. Not only was this a crucial difference among partisans in the congressional battle to enact religious freedom legislation, it remains a bone of contention over implementation. In the evangelical flagship publication, Christianity Today, Robert Seiple, former Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, contrasted an approach "based on quiet diplomacy" (which he favored) with "public finger pointing:" In stark terms he said that one approach "works with governments" while "the other castigates governments from afar: One "lights candles;" while the other "feels obligated to curse the darkness" with condemnations or sanctions. So many readers objected to Seiple's characterization of those who favor tough approaches as "cursing the darkness;" that the magazine ran a succession of responses. The debate within the evangelical world continues.
The entrepreneurial character of American evangelism presents another "source of babel" that challenges unified or credible engagement. Having founded ministries on their own vision and charisma, some religious entrepreneurs feel free to say and do things that undermine the collective efforts of others. There was nothing to prevent religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, for example, from capturing media attention as an "evangelical spokesman" with his outrageous claim in 2003 that Liberian dictator Charles Taylor "is a Christian statesman" being attacked by Muslims. Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land depicted Robertson as "way out on his own, in a leaking life raft "on the issue." But the incident still played into negative stereotypes of evangelicals as simplistic, naive, and only concerned for their coreligionists.
In a similar vein, the relentless need for money to sustain their organizations tempts some leaders to exploit the plight of persecuted believers in blatant fund-raising appeals. James Kennedy used the Sudan tragedy in a rather unseemly effort to support his Coral Ridge Ministries. "Stop the brutal persecution of Christians," its banner headline said. In bold red letters, the letter began: "Kill the Christians. Enslave their children. How can we tolerate such an appalling agenda?" The answer was to contribute to Coral Ridge so that the ministry could "continue exposing this nightmare of Christian persecution on nationwide television, radio, and the printed page." Because evangelical leaders must fight hard to maintain their credibility in elite circles, such seemingly self-serving appeals can hurt.
The babel of competing evangelical impulses has been overcome to a considerable degree through the leadership of such widely respected figures as Charles Colson. But there is a revealing irony here, as a number of evangelical leaders will acknowledge. It took the prodding of Jews, the buoying alliances with Catholics, and the support of other religious minorities, such as Tibetan Buddhists, to help some evangelicals overcome their ambivalent or splintered responses toward the nascent political movement.
Excerpted from Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights by Allen D. Hertzke. Copyright 2004 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Read an extended review of Freeing God's Children.
Read an extended interview with Allen D. Hertzke.
Order the book online from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers has more information about the book. The University of Oklahoma has more information about Hertzke.
Christianity Today sponsored a debate about how best to stop persecution: quiet diplomacy or public campaigns. Below is the conversation which prompted the debate, followed by the debate itself.
The USCIRF Is Only Cursing the Darkness | The increasingly irrelevant U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom seems intent on attacking even those countries making improvements. (Oct. 16, 2002)
USCIRF's Concern Is To Help All Religious Freedom Victims | The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom responds to Robert Seiple's claims that it is "only cursing the darkness." (Nov. 07, 2002)
Cry Freedom | Forget 'quiet diplomacy'it doesn't work. (Feb. 26, 2003)
Full of Sound & Fury | Polemics at home and abroad does not prevent religious persecution. (Feb. 27, 2003)
We Must Never Be Silent About Suffering | The CT religious rights debate continues. (April 07, 2003)
Diplomacy, Not Denunciation, Saves Lives | The CT religious rights debate concludes. (April 08, 2003)
Christianity Today recently published a story on another human rights issue, sex trafficking.
Earlier Editor's Bookshelf columns include:
Da Vinci Code Rebuttals
Da Vinci Dissenters | Four books try to break, crack, or decode the deception. (June 15, 2004)
Speaking in Code | A roundup of the many anti-Da Vinci Code books from Christian publishers. (June 15, 2004)
Parody: Da Vinci Rejects | What other publishers could have done to respond to Dan Brown's bestseller. (June 15, 2004)
Does Christianity Teach Male Headship?
Creating Husbands and Fathers | The discussion of gender roles moves beyond 'proof-text poker.' (July 19, 2004)
Raising Up Fathers | An interview with Maggie Gallagher
One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus
Discovering Unity | Two theologians are bullish on evangelical futures. (Jan. 20, 2004)
Mission-Driven Faith | An interview with Thomas Oden and J.I. Packer (Jan. 20, 2004)
A Season in Bethlehem
Thugs in Jesus' Hometown | A Season in Bethlehem shows how the city lost its historic harmony. (Nov. 17, 2003)
The Erosion Continues | Joshua Hammer talks about the implications of Christians' Holy Land exodus. (Nov. 17, 2003)
Ground Rules | The Creed defines the game of faith without exhausting its excitement. (Oct. 22, 2003)
'We Live What We Believe' | Luke Timothy Johnson talks about the importance of the creedeven for non-creedal Christians. (Oct. 22, 2003)
Excerpt: The Countercultural Creed | What are Christians really doing when they stand up and say "I believe"? (Oct. 22, 2003)
In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity
The Church's Hidden Jewishness | Hebrew thinking in a Greek world. (Sept. 15, 2003)
'Normalizing' Jewish Believers | How should Christianity's Jewish heritage change how Gentiles relate to their faith? An interview with Oskar Skarsaune (Sept. 15, 2003)
Sing Me to Heaven and My God And I
Thanks for the Memoirs | Two authors write about pain and God's elusive presence. (Aug. 19, 2003)
Choosing a Partner, Not a Future | Margaret Kim Peterson, author of Sing Me to Heaven, discusses her marriage to a man dying of AIDS and the theological lessons she learned. (Aug. 19, 2003)
Excerpt: A Green and Dying Tree | I saw the fruit of healing prayer even as AIDS was taking my husband's life. From Sing Me to Heaven. (Aug. 19, 2003)
Excerpt: The Unintentional Ethicist | How three assumptions about God can shape the moral choices we are called to make. From My God and I. (Aug. 19, 2003)
For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery
Getting Western Civ Right | Christian theology is the catalyst, not the brake, for progress in Western history. (July 18, 2003)
Progress Through Theology | An interview with Rodney Stark, author of For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery. (July 18, 2003)
The Truth About the Catholic Church and Slavery | The problem wasn't that the leadership was silent. It was that almost nobody listened. (July 18, 2003)
Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies
American (and Un-American) Idols | Sacrificing community at the altar of freedom. (June 16, 2003)
Avoiding Rights Talk | An interview with David Koyzis, author of Political Visions & Illusions. (June 16, 2003)
Being the Body
Connecting Colson's Dots | Being the Body ties together Charles Colson's varied strands of advocacy. (May 19, 2003)
Survival Through Community | An interview with Charles Colson, author of Being the Body. (May 19, 2003)
The Resurrection of the Son of God
Life After Life After Death | The Resurrection of the Son of God is a "ground-clearing exercise" of historiographical obstacles. (April 17, 2003)
You Can't Keep a Justified Man Down | An interview with N. T. Wright, author of The Resurrection of the Son of God. (April 17, 2003)
Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song
Converting 'Amazing Grace' | The story behind America's most beloved song shows the God-centered vision with which it was written. (March 31, 2003)
Amazing Myths, How Strange the Sound | An interview with Steve Turner, the author of Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song. (March 31, 2003)
Blessed Are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America A Better Place
Paradox Lost | Blessed Are the Cynical shows what happened to sin. (Feb. 17, 2003)
Getting Cynical About Ourselves | An interview with Mark Ellingsen, the author of Blessed Are the Cynical. (Feb. 17, 2003)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more