Evangelicals and U.S. foreign policy
Esther Kaplan printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon May 15, 2006 at 08:48:40 PM EST
I had the chance last Thursday to publicly debate Richard Cizik, vice-president of the 30-million National Association of Evangelicals, about whether evangelicals have too much influence over U.S. foreign policy, part of a series of debates organized by Bard College. Cizik is an interesting figure--a bit of a maverick on the Christian right, who has tried, in the face of tremendous bullying from his colleagues, to push the evangelical movement to confront global warming. He's also sought to quiet some of the Christian right's more inflammatory language toward Islam. But he nevertheless came to the defense of the likes of Franklin Graham, who has called Islam an "evil and wicked" religion, saying Graham was only speaking theologically. And he insisted that the most significant role American evangelicals play in foreign policy is to draw attention to human rights abuses across the globe.

Here are my opening remarks:

Let me begin by conceding the question at hand. I don't think conservative evangelicals have too much influence over U.S. foreign policy. In general, it's a good thing when people in this country get engaged in public policy and get organized to have an impact. It's far better than our foreign policy being guided entirely by, say, powerful oil and energy corporations. (In fact, I suspect that if the evangelical agenda weren't so often constrained by corporate interests, it would be far more progressive.)

The problem, and I think it's a profound one today, is the nature of that influence, which often works against some of this country's foundational principles: democracy, pluralism, and reason. As leaders of an influential evangelical ministry in Washington once told journalist Jeff Sharlet, "Christ's kingdom is not a democracy." This is where our problem begins.

I'd like to share some sentiments expressed by a couple of influential world leaders during the past week.

The first: "There is a divine plan that stands above all human plans....We surrender our will to God's will, and we learn to serve his eternal purposes. By opening ourselves to God's priorities, our hearts are stirred and we are inspired to action...We humbly recognize our continued dependence on divine providence."

The second:  "The day will come when all of us will gather before the court of the Almighty, so that our deeds may be examined. The good will go to Heaven, and the evildoers will meet divine retribution...The Almighty has not left the universe and humanity to our own devices. ...There is a higher power at work and all events are determined by Him."

The first quotation was from President Bush's National Day of Prayer address on May 4.

The second was from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in a letter to George Bush on May 8. Throughout his letter, Ahmadinejad scatters references to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

To me, it's troubling that we've reached a point where our President's rhetoric is so steeped in religion that he sounds remarkably like the president of a Muslim theocracy. And where Bush has been so overt about his Christian beliefs that Ahmadinejad felt the need to couch a historic diplomatic communication (the first in 27 years) in terms of "the teachings of Jesus Christ." And then there Ahmadinejad's closing lines, where he refers to "the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of liberal democratic systems" as "people around the world flock towards Almighty God," which so perfectly  echo comments by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who two days after Muslim extremists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, blamed the attacks on secularism and called for "a real revival in the Church where we really turn back toward God." Here's what's really troubling: How, if Bush, and his most loyal constituency, evangelical conservatives, view our nation's actions in the world as part of a divine plan, can we have honest, open, democratic debate about whether those policies make sense at all? How can we hold our leaders accountable for the policies they pursue if they're merely humble servants of God?

On human rights issues, such as the genocide in Darfur, it's true that evangelicals have played a salutary role by joining with other people of faith to form a united front in calling for stronger international intervention. That said, I'd like to point to a few key areas where the conservative evangelical influence on U.S. foreign policy has been particularly toxic. In each case this is due both to the President and Congressional Republicans responding to pressure from this constituency and to the fact that these politicians have themselves absorbed the conservative evangelical worldview.

These are the war on terror, U.S. policy toward Israel, and U.S. policy on AIDS.

1. The war on terror

As I alluded to earlier, evangelical conservatives are a constituency among whom the belief is widespread that God put Bush in the presidency for "such a time as this." And Bush has projected this idea of a divine presidency onto the war on terror, talking about a "crusade" against "evildoers," and refusing to distance himself from comments by evangelical leaders he's extremely close to such as Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham who set off international incidents by calling Mohammed a terrorist and Islam an "evil, wicked religion." He went so far as to tell Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, that God told him to strike down Saddam Hussein. He stood in the Rose Garden and announced that one of the reasons he went to war on the Taliban was to rescue two Christian missionaries who'd been jailed there for proselytizing. As all of the official justifications for the war in Iraq have fallen away, the WMDs and the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection, as even the fantasy of establishing a democracy there fades, all that's left are Bush's metaphysical justifications. The problem is, while Bush may have cultivated the idea of a Holy War against Islam because it played so well among evangelicals at home--and it has--that message has been absorbed all too well by Muslims abroad. We see it in the Ahmadinejad letter. We see it in the recorded messages from Osama bin Laden. Bush's evangelical rhetoric is not only providing an alibi for an increasingly unjustifiable war, it is also, in effect, helping to mobilize attacks on the United States.

Even more disturbing, this evangelical view of the war has filtered into the conduct of the war itself. Inside military academies we have evangelical commanding officers forcibly proselytizing cadets. We have military chaplains in Iraq forcing soldiers to get baptized if they want a bath. We have missionaries such as Franklin Graham coming in behind the barrel of a gun and distributing Christianity with food aid. American evangelicals have already set up at least seven new evangelical churches in Iraq, whose proselytizing has inflamed tensions between Iraqi Christians and Muslims. We have a general, Gerry Boykin, overseeing intelligence-collecting operations in the war on terror, who has said publicly and repeatedly that the war on terror is a war against Satan--a war being fought by a Christian army. And given all this, not so surprisingly, we have military police torturing detainees not only with electroshock, stress positions, and waterboarding, but by using Christianity as a weapon against Islam, forcing devout Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol, or in the words of one Abu Ghraib detainee, "They ordered me to curse Islam, and because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion. They ordered me to thank Jesus I'm alive. And I did what they ordered me."

I, for one, don't believe we should be in Iraq, but we certainly should not be conducting the war in this way.

2. U.S. policy toward Israel

While surveys show that most Americans generally support Israel, they show that evangelical interest in Israel is guided by the Bible.

For some, it is belief in an End Times theology with roots in the Book of Revelation, a vision in which Christ can only return to Earth after all Jews return to Biblical Israel. It's an anti-Semitic vision in which Jews will then either accept Christ or die horrible deaths, but in the current, pre-millenial moment, it translates into a commitment to Israel as a Jewish state and support for Jewish settlers in greater Israel, including the Occupied Territories.

For others, it is simply a belief that God granted the Holy Land to the Jewish people, and that God blesses those who bless his Chosen People. But even without the End Times factor, this translates into a commitment to supporting Jewish ownership of all of Biblical Israel, again, including much of the West Bank.

In policy terms, this means that a growing Christian Zionist lobby - whose major players are meeting in July to launch a new national organization that may soon eclipse the power of AIPAC on Capitol Hill - a growing conservative evangelical lobby, with enormous influence on Capitol Hill and in the White House, is lobbying for positions that are far to the right of the Israeli government itself. While the majority of American Jews and the majority of Israelis support some kind of land-for-peace deal, conservative evangelicals have, on the whole, fought tooth and nail against Palestinian control over any portion of what they call Judea and Samaria. It is fair to call this influence disastrously obstructionist of any possibility for Israeli/Palestinian peace.

3. U.S. global AIDS policy

One of the starkest examples of evangelical influence over U.S. foreign policy is in the arena of HIV/AIDS. Because at the start of his tenure, President Bush was ready to shelve the issue: he had shuttered the White House Office on AIDS; he'd neglected to convene a board of AIDS advisors. It was only after intense evangelical political pressure that he began to take up the issue, ultimately marshalling billions of dollars and making AIDS a cornerstone of what he likes to call his agenda of compassionate conservatism. The Christian right can take tremendous credit for Bush's global AIDS initiative. But of course their pressure also dictated the direction his initiative took.

In an aggressive rewriting of history, evangelicals had singled out Uganda as a successful example of morality-based AIDS program. They claimed that a message emphasizing abstinence until marriage and monogamy in marriage had reversed climbing HIV infection rates there during the 1990s. The spin was patently false - Uganda's success leaned heavily on a massive condom education and distribution program that brought condom use from negligible levels up to nearly 50 percent. But by cultivating ties with Uganda's evangelical first family, the Musevenis, who have attracted massive U.S. aid by playing ball, evangelicals inside and outside the administration have spun out a myth, completely contradicted by scientific data, that promoting abstinence and marriage can prevent HIV. In this model, condom information and access is confined only to narrowly defined "high-risk groups" such as sex workers. In fact studies tell us that people who are taught the abstinence-only message, which bars mention of condoms, do go on to have sex, and the sex they have is more risky, less often protected, and they are far less likely to seek out care for sexually transmitted disease.

This deadly ideology has now been exported, to the tune of $1 billion or more, to countries such as South Africa where more than one in four people have HIV--in other words, where every community is a high-risk group. In a situation like that, marriage itself is an HIV risk factor and monogamy is no protection. And depriving people of condoms and information about how to use them effectively is, frankly, murderous.

I spoke with one AIDS advocate in Uganda recently, who has been active fighting HIV there since long before evangelicals discovered the disease, who says condom shortages are now so acute there, due to U.S. pressure, that some men are now using plastic bags out of desperation.

For many evangelical leaders, this kind of reality check is beside the point, because abstinence is really a back door into evangelism. As Franklin Graham, who has received a multimillion dollar grant to do abstinence education in Uganda, told the Senate a few years ago: "This crisis will be curbed only when the moral teachings of God's Word permeate African society."


The problem, again, is not that Americans who are evangelicals are seeking to shape U.S. foreign policy. It is the nature of that influence, which is working to inflame Muslims in Iraq and beyond by sending the message that the U.S. is involved in a war on Islam, which is working to obstruct any peace between Israelis and Palestinians and prolonging a painful and deadly conflict there, which is working to exacerbate one of the worst epidemics in world history by placing religious values and ideology above saving human lives. Most importantly, the evangelical worldview has undermined our ability, as a nation, to have an open debate about the costs and consequences of these policies, because their stances, based in an inflexible reading of the Bible, are intransigent.

Jeff Sharlet in Harper's and Lisa Getter in the Los Angeles Times have done some astounding reporting on the role played by one elite evangelical ministry in circumventing the State Department to set up backdoor meetings between top U.S. officials and some very nefarious foreign heads of state, which may violate U.S. laws against private citizens negotiating with foreign governments. But the Christian right, as a political movement, has generally played by the rules of our democracy. Evangelical conservatives mostly exert their influence the hard way, by organizing, mobilizing, educating, and lobbying. And yet their influence is serving to undermine basic values of a secular, pluralistic democracy and to inflame conflict abroad.

Let's not forget that after the Revolution, the people of Iran voted overwhelmingly to have an Islamic Republic as their form of government in a national referendum. It was only after they got what they wished for that people began to flee or revolt.

"evangelicals inside and outside the administration have spun out a myth, completely contradicted by scientific data, that promoting abstinence and marriage can prevent HIV" - Indeed :

Despite the considerable sums of federal and state monies thrown into the maw of the questionable venture, "Abstinence" education in Texas hasn't been very effective. In fact plain old "sex ed", in Massachusetts, has outperformed Texas' fancy new methods.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon May 15, 2006 at 09:10:12 PM EST

If you want to get a glimpse into an interesting parallel universe, read Jeff Sharlet's The Young and the Sexless article from Rolling Stone.

by Lorie Johnson on Mon May 15, 2006 at 09:53:40 PM EST

or in the words of one Abu Ghraib detainee, "They ordered me to curse Islam, and because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion. They ordered me to thank Jesus I'm alive. And I did what they ordered me."

Torture as punishment for "denying Christ" is what evangelicalism is all about - it's not like an omniscient God needs to send people to Hell to torture information out of them.

Abu Ghraib: Hell House of the Religious Right II
by sendtoscott on Tue May 16, 2006 at 10:00:22 AM EST

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