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Evangelicals give U.S. foreign policy an activist tinge

Michael Horowitz was named one of the 10 most influential Christians of the year in 1997 by a Southern Baptist magazine. The only catch: He's Jewish.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Michael Horowitz was named one of the 10 most influential Christians of the year in 1997 by a Southern Baptist magazine. The only catch: He's Jewish.

The former Reagan administration official earned the accolade, on a top-10 list with Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, for rallying American evangelicals to the plight of persecuted Christians abroad.

The grass-roots movement Mr. Horowitz founded, inspired by the specter of Western passivity during the Holocaust, has galvanized interest in global issues among America's growing ranks of evangelical Christians. Their rising involvement is being felt from the pews to the White House, where evangelicals' influence has helped shape a series of legislative and policy moves, including the invasion of Iraq.

Led in part by the irrepressible Mr. Horowitz, a neoconservative at the Hudson Institute think tank, evangelicals are embracing international causes with the same moral fervor they have long brought to domestic matters. Since 1998, they have helped win federal laws to fight religious persecution overseas, to crack down on international sex trafficking and to help resolve one of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil wars, in southern Sudan.

In so doing, evangelical groups, once among America's staunchest isolationists, are making a mark on U.S. foreign policy. They have tipped the balance, at least for the moment, in the perennial rivalry in Washington between "realists," who believe the U.S. has limited capacity to change the world and shouldn't try, and "idealists," who strive to give U.S. conduct a moral purpose.

"This community is saying, 'We're the most dominant country in the history of humanity. We must move humbly and wisely, not just for our own economic and strategic interests but for what is morally right,' " says Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a champion of evangelical causes on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

For all its power, America cannot simply impose its will on other nations. In some cases, the values it seeks to propagate _ democracy and free markets _ boomerang, empowering enemies and enriching potential rivals. These adversaries exploit the nation's abiding contradiction: a dependence on the wider world for oil, trade and credit, set against a widespread and deep-seated desire to be left alone.

In a series of articles this year, The Wall Street Journal has explored challenges America faces, some of them inherent in its unique status as a democratically governed superpower. Reluctant conquerors, Americans have mounted a risky strike, in the name of the war on terrorism, at the political and cultural roots of zealotry in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet in seeking to democratize ancient tribal societies through force, the U.S. has found that the process can be as troublesome for the invader as for the invaded. The traumatic occupation in Iraq raises a question heard in some other places that have tried U.S.-style political or economic reforms: How transferrable are American values outside America?

To one potent segment of U.S. society, the evangelical Christians, values such as religious, political and economic freedom aren't just America's norms but God's. The evangelicals' growing involvement in foreign affairs creates a new constituency for intervention abroad.

An April Gallup Poll found that among Americans who go to church at least once a week, 56 percent agreed that the "situation in Iraq was worth going to war over." Fewer than 45 percent of those who seldom attend church thought so. Evangelicals' diehard support for Israel helped coax President Bush last month to support Israel's right to keep settlements in parts of the occupied West Bank, the first time a U.S. president has extended such a blessing.

A Gallup Poll also shows the evangelicals' growing numbers, placing them at no less than 43 percent of the U.S. population.

Organized, motivated and self-confident, evangelicals are girding for two more foreign-policy battles. They seek freedom to proselytize in the Muslim lands of Iraq and Afghanistan. And they want to link any future U.S. aid for North Korea, in case of a nuclear accord, to progress there on human rights.

"The policies are up for grabs," says Mr. Horowitz, 66 years old, a lawyer by training who served as general counsel to the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan administration.

Christian activism in America's foreign affairs dates back to the early 20th century, and included strong backing among establishment Protestant churches for the foreign-policy idealism of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the support from these sects, such as Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tended to be "top-down" and "elitist," generating little passion in the pews, says Christianity scholar Martin Marty of the University of Chicago. By contrast, "the genius of the evangelical movement today, in domestic and foreign affairs, is its grass-roots appeal," he says. "Evangelicals are much more ready to claim God's purposes as their own. If God calls us to be the 'righteous nation,' they act."

This activism harks back to another world power that struggled to balance ambitions for gold and God: the British Empire. Though driven in its early years by slave traders and other rogues, the British Empire later was increasingly influenced by evangelicals _ who in 1807 succeeded in abolishing the global slave trade. Fifty years later, the "Christian element" was hotly debated in London, when some critics blamed a mutiny by colonial Indian troops on heavy-handed Christian moralizing. Religion played a role in Britain's push into the Mideast later in the 19th century, too, after William Gladstone, a deeply Christian prime minister, railed against a massacre of Bulgarian Christians by Ottoman Turks.

As in today's Washington, Britain's imperial evangelicals made common cause with the neoconservatives of their era, known as liberals. The liberals' mission was spreading representative government and free trade. ("The two pioneers of civilization, Christianity and commerce, should be inseparable," said David Livingstone, the famous explorer of Africa, in 1857.) Mr. Horowitz says U.S. evangelicals are driven by the same "tough-minded Christianity" that propelled Britain's empire.

His critics reply that America, by melding morality with foreign policy, is courting the same sort of backlashes the British faced. "By emphasizing one set of values _ that of evangelical Christians _ you alienate yourselves from the multi-religious, multi-civilizational world," argues David Little, a professor of religion and international affairs at Harvard Divinity School.

Another concern is that if overseas religious conflicts arise, a U.S. president could face pressure to come to the aid of Christians at the expense of America's strategic interests, says Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, author of a book on global Christianity. He cites the example of Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims warred in the 1960s. If their conflict again flared into widespread fighting, he says, an administration would face overwhelming pressure at home to help the embattled Christians, although Muslim-majority Nigeria is an important U.S. ally and oil supplier.

Mr. Jenkins says the same issues could arise over Indonesia, where Muslim militants have brutalized Christians for years, and even over China, whose leadership is believed to view with alarm the growth of organized religion, including Christianity. "It's only a matter of time," Mr. Jenkins predicts, "until persecution and religious conflict become hot-button issues in the U.S."

As for U.S. policy in Iraq, President Bush, himself a born-again Christian, has sometimes invoked a notion of America's latter-day manifest destiny. "I believe freedom is the almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world," Mr. Bush said at his news conference last month. According to Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack," Mr. Bush, when asked if he consulted his father, said, "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."

More born-again Christians work in this administration than in any other in modern history, says Richard Land, a top executive with the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant church. They include National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose denomination, the Assemblies of God, is especially active overseas.

Mr. Horowitz experienced his own Christian awakening of sorts in 1994. He befriended a household laborer from Ethiopia who said that nation's former socialist regime, and later militant Muslims, had persecuted him for preaching Christianity. Mr. Horowitz says he consulted a lawyer but was told the man wasn't eligible for U.S. asylum. "Radical Muslim? Ex-communist? OK. But a Christian, forget about it," Mr. Horowitz says.

He wrote a stinging commentary on the policy, and on the plight of Christian minorities in several Muslim countries, which ran in The Wall Street Journal's opinion pages in 1995. It drew little reaction, he says, and some Christian leaders told him raising a fuss could only make matters worse for the persecuted. That logic, Mr. Horowitz says, reminded him of when the late New York Times publisher A.H. Sulzberger, in 1938, led a group of prominent Jews in urging President Roosevelt not to name a Jew to the Supreme Court for fear of exacerbating anti-Semitism.

"The Christian community could not make the same mistake that American Jews made" in neglecting signs of the Holocaust, Mr. Horowitz says.

He wrote to 140 evangelical groups saying he was "pained and puzzled" by their silence. Then he organized a conference on religious persecution, sparing none of the gruesome detail of torture, rape and church burnings from around the globe. After that, the largest evangelical organizations adopted a "Statement of Conscience," which Mr. Horowitz drafted, expressing outrage. Persecution abroad became a hot topic on Christian radio and television.

"Before I met Michael seven years ago, I had no idea it was so bad," says Mr. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. "He's a provocateur, a real voice of conscience."

Mr. Horowitz helped launch an annual day of prayer for persecuted Christians. One Sunday each November, organizers say, some 100,000 churches hold events with slides, speakers and, if possible, witnesses to Christian suffering abroad.

At the latest "national service" for the persecuted church in November, held at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., a missionary recounted the story of Pindongo, a young Indonesian who lost both arms when Muslims bombed his church. Slides showed verdant rice paddies, burning churches and an oddly happy man with stubs instead of elbows. "Pindongo has forgiven his attackers," the missionary explained. Another speaker told of meeting a woman named Han in China, who related that her husband, Lee, was in prison for preaching Christianity, yet remained "quite happy" because his jailers let him keep his Bible.

Next up was a bony teenager from southern Sudan named Jacob Ray, who told of surviving on crumbs after troops from the Muslim-run government ransacked his Christian village. "Today, I'm full of life, can't you see?" he beamed, to wild applause.

"Thank the Lord for this lost young man who is found in Jesus!" exclaimed day-of-prayer leader Luis Bush, a distant cousin of President Bush who has spent years charting "unreached" peoples for evangelization.

In recent years, record numbers of evangelicals have fanned out across the globe on short-term missions to proselytize and bear witness, often returning acutely aware of oppression and poverty. Nearly 350,000 Americans undertook such missions through major Protestant missionary agencies in 2001, eight times the number in 1996, says Scott Moreau, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. That doesn't include uncounted missionaries sponsored by individual churches, especially Pentecostal congregations, the U.S.'s fastest-growing Christian sect. Many churches have become strong advocates for international human rights.

For example, Cornerstone University, a Baptist college in Grand Rapids, dispatches a dozen missions a year overseas _ to help the deaf in Jamaica, care for orphans in Romania and Mexico and sing gospel music in Italy. Donations to major Protestant missionary agencies totaled $3.75 billion in 2001, up 44 percent in five years, according to Mr. Moreau.

Mr. Horowitz initially faced stiff opposition to the evangelical coalition's legislative agenda. Business groups and the Clinton State Department opposed the proposed International Religious Freedom Act because it threatened economic sanctions against some big U.S. trading partners, such as China and Saudi Arabia. A compromise weakened the bill's punitive powers but beefed up its fact-finding and reporting requirements. President Clinton signed it into law in 1998.

Mr. Horowitz found his next cause, fighting global trafficking in sex slaves, in an article he read about Russian women forced to work as prostitutes in Israel. He cobbled together a coalition of evangelical groups, feminists and human-rights advocates to win passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which obliges governments to crack down or face a cutoff of U.S. aid.

To push for the Sudan Peace Act, Mr. Horowitz linked evangelical campaigners with African-American groups. The law, passed in 2002, threatens a series of diplomatic actions against Sudan's Islamist regime if it doesn't end its civil war against Christian and animist tribes in the country's south.

Mr. Horowitz persuaded churches in Mr. Bush's hometown of Midland, Texas, to lead the grass-roots drive. Protesting the war in Sudan, he got himself arrested by handcuffing himself to the country's embassy (after notifying police). Eventually, President Bush took up the cause, assigning a personal envoy to the conflict. The warring parties are negotiating a peace treaty in Kenya.

The views of evangelicals and neoconservatives, long aligned in some ways, grew more so after Sept. 11, 2001. Spreading democracy and religious freedom became not just a moral cause but a national-security one. In some Christian circles, evangelizing to Muslims acquired a higher priority, even though strict Islamic law provides that a Muslim's conversion to another faith is punishable by death. "A lot of evangelicals perceive Islam, in its militant forms, as the new antichrist," says Mr. Marty of the University of Chicago.

First Baptist Church of Rome, Ga., besides sending medical missionaries to Honduras, dispatches undercover evangelists to Muslim North Africa. Calvary Church in Grand Rapids targets heavily Muslim Uzbekistan for evangelization. And some Christian groups have their eye on Iraq, though U.S. authorities have discouraged evangelizing there. Iraqi gunmen murdered a Baptist missionary from Rhode Island on Valentine's Day.

At their pastor's suggestion, Seattle residents Craig Johnson and Michael Jones went to Iraq last June to explore business opportunities "and see how we could help rebuild," says Mr. Johnson, a manager for a natural gas utility. They don't proselytize. Rather, they typify a new breed of global evangelical religiously motivated to spread America's good fortune to other lands.

"Someday, I'm going to stand before God and he's going to say, 'What did you do to help my people?'" says Mr. Jones, a technology consultant. "If I just sit here in Seattle earning lots of money ... , how am I going to answer that?" Messrs. Jones and Johnson, who returned to the U.S., are planning to lead a group of 10 other professionals back to Baghdad as soon as they get clearance to travel from the Southern Baptists' International Missions Board.

Other evangelicals plan a much more controversial battle to enshrine religious freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, "including the right to change religions," says the Southern Baptists' Mr. Land. He contends that U.S. public support for rebuilding those invaded nations will ebb without guarantees of religious liberty.

North Korean oppression, particularly of Christians, is also a hot issue among evangelicals. The U.S. is committed to multilateral talks with Pyongyang aimed at opening its nuclear sites to inspection. Sen. Brownback is pushing a bill that would bar U.S. funds for any nuclear-inspections agreement the U.S. might reach with North Korea if it doesn't ensure progress on human rights. He says Secretary of State Colin Powell has expressed reservations about the bill because it limits U.S. options. But Mr. Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, says President Bush is "right there with us." The State Department and White House declined to comment.

Mr. Horowitz likens the campaign for human rights and democracy abroad to the work of William Wilberforce, an evangelical British politician of two centuries ago who spent decades shaming Parliament into outlawing the slave trade.

Wilberforce drew scorn from pragmatists who felt his moralism would weaken the British Empire. Instead, Mr. Horowitz maintains, its power and prestige surged after it abolished the slave trade. His coalition is working on legislation to make promoting democracy and "the implosion of dictatorships" core elements of U.S. foreign policy. "The impulse for human freedom is not some mushy thing _ it's a shrewd view of how to protect American interests," he argues.

In 1997, Mr. Horowitz became the only non-Christian given the annual William Wilberforce prize awarded by Prison Fellowship, an evangelical group founded by Watergate felon Charles Colson. At the ceremony, Mr. Colson, now a Christian radio broadcaster, paid Mr. Horowitz a lofty compliment. "God sent a Jew into the world for the Gentiles to know God and be at peace with God," Mr. Colson said, referring to Jesus. "He sent a Jew into our midst in 1996 to awaken us, a sleeping church."

Whether this awakening propels the U.S. on further moral crusades in coming years, or Americans recoil from foreign adventures after Iraq, remains to be seen. America's global ascendancy, unassailable since the collapse of the Soviet Union, faces no serious national rival and probably won't for years. No matter how severe the problems in Iraq, the war there _ unlike earlier conflicts in Vietnam or Korea _ seems unlikely to boost any alternative global power.

All the same, America still struggles with a host of threats and dependencies. Many are generated by its own unique status: a nation singularly powerful yet inescapably reliant on other countries for energy and commerce; a nation able to conquer with ease but hard put to cope with the tasks that follow conquest; a nation, in short, that has the power and idealism to lead the world but, as a democracy ultimately focused on its own affairs within its own borders, one that has neither the inclination nor the capability to rule it.


Power and Peril

Articles in this series have explored America's dominant place in the world and the limits to it:

_ Democracy abroad, a key American goal, can give voice to extremists as well as curtail them, the case of Morocco shows. (Jan. 29)

_ China, even as it competes economically with the U.S., helps to quench America's huge thirst for capital and low-cost goods. (Jan. 30)

_ Washington sometimes subcontracts to corporations the job of policing foreign lands where the U.S. has gotten militarily involved. (Feb. 2)

_ Historian Bernard Lewis helped to inspire a U.S. commitment to more-open Arab societies as a way to combat terrorism. (Feb. 3)

_ America's decades-long quest for reliable energy partners in the Middle East has taken a new turn. (Feb. 4)

_ A difficult U.S. effort to repave a highway in Afghanistan is a study in the promise and perils of nation-building. (Feb. 6)

_ Corporate involvement in Indonesia after Suharto's fall shows how U.S. foreign policy can be swayed by a determined interest group. (Feb. 11)

_ Former Cold War foe Russia takes to market economics but is lukewarm to democracy. (May 24)


Spreading the Faith

Overseas activities of four major Christian organizations.

GROUP: Southern Baptist Convention

MISSION: To endeavor to make Christian disciples of all nations

RECENT RESULTS (As described by the groups): Established 8,369 churches and baptized 421,436 members overseas in 2002. (Special target this year: Muslims of Arabian peninsula.)

OVERSEAS BUDGET(1): $290.1 million

BELIEF: "All people without personal faith in (Jesus) are lost and will spend eternity in hell."

GROUP: Assemblies of God

MISSION: To seek and save all who are lost in sin

RECENT RESULTS (As described by the groups): Baptized 618,000 people overseas in 2002. Had nearly 2,000 missionaries in 198 countries and territories, with some 200,000 affiliated churches.

OVERSEAS BUDGET(1): $176 million

BELIEF: "We are living in the last days of the present age; the next major fulfillment of Bible prophecy will be the Rapture, or physical removal, of the Church from the earth."

GROUP: International Justice Mission

MISSION: To rescue enslaved and bonded laborers and prostitutes

RECENT RESULTS (As described by the groups): Rescued 37 girls in a single brothel raid in Cambodia, some as young as 5. Freed 136 brick-kiln slaves in India, including entire families, and 63 quarry slaves. Trained 1,400 police

to protect children.

OVERSEAS BUDGET(1): $4.5 million

BELIEF: "God commands us to be salt and light in the midst of this world's darkness and corruption (to) preach the Good News of salvation (and) demonstrate God's love and mercy toward those who suffer."

GROUP: World Vision

MISSION: To enable "the world's children to realize their God-given potential by tackling the root cause of poverty."

RECENT RESULTS (As described by the groups): Arranged U.S. sponsorships of 733,000 kids in developing nations, and 156,677 orphans and vulnerable children in countries devastated by AIDS. Created 410,758 jobs through small loans.

OVERSEAS BUDGET(1): $686 million

BELIEF: "By our consistent demonstration of God's love through our work, we hope that people will experience life in all its fullness."

(1) Budget figures are the latest provided by the organizations.

Source: the groups