Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Getaneh Metafriah Getaneh is a gentle man whose radiant face belies the horrors he experienced during the red terror of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia. Arrested by the Communist authorities for preaching, he was repeatedly denied food, water, and sleep for days, tortured with boiling oil poured on the soles of his feet, and whipped with metal cable during his many years in prison. He eventually escaped prison and fled to neighboring Djibouti. When the Communist government fell in 1994, he returned to Ethiopia, only to be arrested at the airport because an autonomous Islamic court in his home region had charged him with converting Muslims to Christianity. He escaped again, and this time his exile led him to the United States, where he faced the threat of deportation. Through it all his commitment to “The Lord Jesus Christ” endured.
Getaneh’s story of faith amidst persecution has made him a familiar witness in Christian circles in the United States, one of the rising voices of a Christian solidarity movement highlighting the persecution of believers around the globe. He has spoken at numerous conferences, testified at congressional hearings, and been featured in religious publications that dramatize the plight of the “suffering church” abroad.
Getaneh’s life is especially compelling because it seems to capture, in microcosm, so many of the forces at play in the faith-based human rights movement. He represents the new face of Christianity that has shifted demographically to the “global south” of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where nearly two-thirds of all the world’s Christians now live. He has suffered at the hands of Communists, dictators, and a militant Islam, but in the freer environment of the United States he joined with other refugees to create a new congregation that adds to the pluralist tapestry of American religion. The vitality of American church networks, moreover, ensured that his fledgling congregation was linked with more established churches that could provide assistance and exposure. In turn, the growing sophistication of international Christian advocacy groups, combined with global communications and travel, has meant that accounts like Getaneh’s receive wide distribution in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere in the West. This publicity has dramatically heightened concern in the pews of American churches and sparked efforts to champion believers abroad who suffer for their faith.
But Getaneh is special for another reason. His desperate quest for asylum brought him, literally, into the suburban home of one Michael Horowitz, a seasoned Washington, D.C., insider with a potent Jewish combination of chutzpah and moral outrage (see chapter 5). It was this providential meeting that helped spark a new human rights movement that burst unexpectedly onto the international stage with the dawning of the twenty-first century.
Initially motivated by concern for persecuted Christians around the world, this movement now encompasses a broader faith-based quest for human rights, infusing new energy into a cause often trumped by economic and strategic calculations. Acting as a magnet for groups with diverse grievances and hopes, the movement sprouts congressional legislation, presidential initiatives, diplomatic moves, petition drives, international protests, stock divestment campaigns, and acts of civil disobedience. In the classic motifs of social movement, once obscure activists gain prominence, new constituencies are mobilized, alliances of “strange bedfellows” emerge, and confidence among advocates grows. One cannot understand international relations today without comprehending the new faith-based movement—a bold assertion but one that will be borne out in the coming years.
This book has several purposes. First, it provides a detailed account of the nature and impact of this movement, which arises out of the nexus of global religious developments, American church involvement, and national politics. From the mid-1990s onward successive campaigns by religious leaders addressed—and continue to press—human rights concerns through the machinery of American foreign policy. Central to the movement are American evangelicals, heretofore associated mostly with domestic skirmishes in the culture wars, but now increasingly engaged in international humanitarian and human rights causes. In partnership with a broad array of other religionists, evangelical leaders mobilized grassroots pressure behind the successful enactment of legislation to stem the pandemic of global religious persecution. This success galvanized an increasingly diverse alliance to champion other human rights causes, from Sudanese atrocities to sex trafficking to massive abuses in North Korea. Given the depth and range of this activity, the movement seems poised to endure as a key presence in American foreign policy.
Second, this book offers an explanation for why this movement emerged when it did. What we will see is that a number of developments were flowing in parallel fashion, like tributaries of a river, until they finally converged. For example, over the past quarter-century American evangelicals have built a thriving network of domestic organizations, both for ministry and social action. Parallel to this development, global Christianity has shifted “south” into the developing world, where many indigenous believers face poverty, violence, exploitation, and persecution. As these two developments connect, the social networks of the evangelical world, born initially of conservative impulses, are increasingly put in service of human rights and justice concerns normally associated with the progressive spirit—a striking development indeed.
Third, the book demonstrates how committed individuals can make a difference. This seems like a truism, but it runs counter to much social science inquiry, which highlights impersonal “forces” at play in the world. As we will see, even though conditions were ripe for movement mobilization, it took leadership initiative to harness and channel those nascent forces. Individual agency thus is a central truth about the faith-based movement and undermines pessimists who believe it is irrelevant to public policy. That agency includes efforts of Jews, Catholics, and others who buoy—and sometimes even prod—evangelical leaders in their new international role. The motivation for much of this ecumenical activism, as I discovered in my interviews, appears to flow from authentic religious conviction and conscience, suggesting how American religious culture can nurture social movement leaders.
Fourth, Freeing God’s Children provides a window into the changing religious landscape, at home and abroad. For the past three decades, much American religious commentary has focused on the clash between conservative and liberal religionists over the nation’s meaning and direction. In this book we will encounter alliances that belie that simplistic dichotomy. Liberal Jewish groups team up with conservative Pentecostals, the Catholic Church with Tibetan Buddhists, Episcopalians with the Salvation Army, black churches with secular activists, feminists with evangelicals. Especially robust is Jewish activism for persecuted Christians, which flows in part from Judaism’s historical commitment to human rights, but also from a growing sense of kinship with those whose persecution is written off as inconvenient. These diverse alliances of “strange bedfellows” illuminate how religious currents around the globe are impinging on American society and politics.
Finally, this exploration has something to teach us about the role of transcendent faith in the new millennium. For much of the twentieth century, the dominant view among intellectuals was that modernization brings an inevitable secularization of society, a waning of religious salience. Thus one reason top journalists, scholars, and policymakers have been slow to grasp the import of this new religious engagement is that they have long operated with secular “pictures in their heads” that dismiss the force of religious commitments in people’s lives. Developments charted in this book not only challenge this “secularization thesis” but also suggest the need to incorporate the role of faith, particularly global Christianity, into the calculus of human rights around the world.
The job of a scholar is to make sense of complex things, to provide insight. One way to do that is to articulate a clear argument (buttressed with compelling evidence) that explains why something is occurring and what it means for the world. My argument is that the new faith-based movement is filling a void in human rights advocacy, raising issues previously slighted—or insufficiently pressed—by secular groups, the prestige press, and the foreign-policy establishment.
Sparked by identification with “suffering churches” abroad, diverse religious groups launched an ongoing campaign to promote religious freedom in American foreign policy. The energies unleashed by this campaign have injected a shot of adrenalin into the broader human rights quest. The movement plucked the tragedy in Sudan from the backwaters of international concern and into a high level of focus for American government. It is doing the same for the humanitarian tragedy in North Korea. The faith-based constituency also joins with feminist groups to fight international sex traffic, which swallows up millions of vulnerable women and children in grotesque forms of modern servitude. From India to Thailand to Eastern Europe, local Christian groups link up with American advocates to attack this and other forms of slave labor practices and exploitation. Moreover, alliances forged in these disparate campaigns facilitate cooperation on such international humanitarian efforts as debt relief and AIDS funding for Africa. Thus the supposedly “parochial” concern for fellow believers abroad produces an ecumenical quest to have “the globe’s indispensable nation” act more vigorously on behalf of human dignity.
The significance of this phenomenon should be obvious. Unparalleled in its global influence, the United States is also an exceptionally religious society with deepening links to religious communities abroad. To comprehend the new politics of human rights we must thus appreciate how American churches operate within a global context. To grasp something of the global future, we must understand American religion.
Before I develop these themes it is necessary to say a few words about how I conducted research for this book. For the past six years I have followed the new faith-based movement from its early stirring through its halting steps to its notable policy triumphs. This book has thus evolved with the movement it chronicles, and the narrative takes the reader on a journey quite similar to the one I experienced.
I began my journey by investigating the legislative campaign to advance religious freedom through American foreign policy, and much of my narrative develops that story and its significance. As events unfolded, however, I realized that this campaign had galvanized the religious community into successive waves of human rights initiatives—initiatives that were achieving some dramatic results, such as potentially ending a civil war in Sudan and shutting down child prostitution rings in Asia. I had stumbled onto the most significant human rights movement of our time.
To capture this evolving movement, I took numerous trips to interview activists in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. I blended these with forays to grassroots events in places ranging from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Midland, Texas, where I observed the interaction of local activists, national movement leaders, and representatives of religious communities from around the world. Ultimately I interviewed scores of leaders and activists, both from the United States and abroad, some multiple times. These included Christian evangelicals, Jews, Catholics, mainline Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, and Baha'is, as well as journalists, human rights activists, feminists, academics, executive branch officials, presidential aides, and members of Congress and their staffs. I have been humbled to meet many courageous leaders—Chinese dissidents, Sudanese exiles, North Korean refugees—who have championed the cause of human dignity despite enormous personal suffering.
I also attended a host of functions to record observations and chat with participants. Thus in addition to formal interviews, I had many conversations with activists on the fly, before or after meetings, in taxi cabs, and so on, and I observed the same people in a variety of contexts. When it is feasibly possible, I provide endnote citations of these sources. This “soaking and poking” provided rich detail, which I weave together with material from internal documents, a mushrooming public record, and voluminous e-mail traffic among the activists.
Because I attended so many functions, I got to know well a number of the religious activists and their allies, not only as an “objective scholar” but as a sympathetic witness in the process, hanging around meetings, sharing work I had written, passing along information that might be of value. I became, in the language of ethnographic research, a “participant observer,” a small part of the movement I was studying. Indeed, I published articles in outlets read by policymakers that made the case for U.S. promotion of religious freedom, leadership against Sudanese genocide, and the like.
Although “participant observation” research can compromise scholarly objectivity, it also provides the enormous benefit of special access. On a number of occasions I attended strategy sessions where no other scholar or journalist was present, providing me with a unique vantage point on the movement’s evolution. Because I was in the information loop, I was able to schedule research trips to numerous public events: congressional floor debates, hearings, National Press Club speeches, rallies, demonstrations, executive briefings, religious conferences, prayer services for the persecuted, advocacy group meetings, and the like. Moreover, by sharing writings with the activists themselves, I received helpful corrections and clarifications and fresh insights.
While acknowledging the potential pitfalls of this kind of research, I do not apologize for it. Past scholars have capitalized on their personal involvement in labor organizations, social movements, civil rights, or party politics to develop insights that enlighten us about crucial trends in politics. It is in this tradition that I am situated. Keenly aware of legitimate concerns about bias coloring my analysis, I have consciously sought out diverse persons and perspectives, including those highly critical of the movement and its leaders. I also made sure to confirm key events through several sources.
In my writing I often present the story from the vantage points of the actors themselves, as faithfully as possible. If I have done my work well, activists will see themselves here. But I also hope they will see their work situated in a broader framework. Of course, no research project is wholly objective, and even the decision to study a particular phenomenon is laden with the values and biases of the researcher. The reader can judge whether, or where, I have succeeded in providing insight and explanation.
Every research project must define and limit the phenomena it considers. Since this book addresses the new faith-based human rights movement in foreign policy, it does not cover the entire landscape of religious forces in global politics, nor is this an account of the entire international agenda of religious organizations, though it has profound implications for that agenda.
To get a flavor of how successive faith-based initiatives are transforming the politics of human rights, consider the stories of four individuals:
• Baroness Carolyn Cox is a nurse, social scientist, grandmother, and member of the British House of Lords. As head of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, she personally ferries relief supplies to forbidden places where war, famine, and ethnic violence make relief efforts dangerous. Christian audiences, from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to Midland, Texas, are riveted by her accounts of the courage of believers amidst horrible suffering. Her documentation of religious persecution, especially of Christians in forgotten places, helped move Congress to pass the International Religious Freedom Act (1998).
• Gary Haugen is a human rights lawyer who served as UN genocide investigator for the Rwanda war crimes tribunal. This experience moved him, as an evangelical Christian, to create the International Justice Mission, an organization that intervenes on behalf of exploited people. On his desk is a busted padlock, a vivid symbol of the need for action against the global sex trafficking industry. During an investigation of a notorious Asian brothel, Haugen personally wielded bolt cutters to bust the lock that imprisoned young girls inside, who were in wretched shape after weeks of repeated rapes. It was this kind of documentation that led Congress to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000).
• Charles Jacobs created the American Anti-Slavery Group when he discovered that secular human rights groups were largely ignoring widespread slavery in Sudan and Mauritania. As a Jew he feels profound kinship with people whose stories of captivity and deliverance echo Hebrew scripture. He has traveled to the Sudanese bush to redeem slaves, sponsored Sudanese exiles to tell their stories across the country, pressed major investment managers to divest stock in Sudanese oil, and enlisted the participation of African American preachers in the coalition that lobbied for the Sudan Peace Act (2002).
• Norbert Vollertson is a German doctor who spent eighteen months working in North Korea for a medical aid group. In hospitals he saw children who looked like Nazi concentration camp victims, operations with no anesthesia, horrific conditions. But he was also shocked by the shameless lives of the party elite, who enjoyed sumptuous banquets, posh hotels, casinos, and luxury cars in a nation of famine and torture. Vollertson’s exposé of this outrage was met with indifference in Europe but was quickly embraced by the American faith-based community. He was featured in Christian publications, cited in congressional hearings, consulted for commission recommendations, and invited to speak at religious conferences. As a result of this exposure, congressional legislation was introduced in 2003 to promote human rights in North Korea and facilitate asylum for refugees.
These profiles capture something of the spirit and range of the faith-based quest for human rights. A sense of religious calling has drawn these people to places where they become witnesses to injustice—injustice often overlooked by others. Religious networks, in turn, enable them to fill those voids by mobilizing for initiatives in American foreign policy. Taken together, these vignettes illustrate how struggles that seem disparate can be part of a wider movement. To understand the origins of this movement, I now turn to the conditions that shaped its emergence.
My first inquiry into the movement occurred when I was asked to present a paper on the Christian response to global persecution, at a 1998 conference on religious groups and American foreign policy. That conference was held on January 6, the date that traditionally marks the feast of Epiphany in the Christian calendar. To Christian believers this coincidence might seem providential. For as recounted by Matthew, the manifestation of Christ’s divinity by the Magi becomes inextricably linked to political oppression. Indeed, divine promise and earthly persecution arise simultaneously, as King Herod, deeply troubled by the news of the royal birth, orders the slaughter of all male infants in Bethlehem and its environs. For the next three centuries various Caesars would compete with Herod to inflict brutality on Christ’s followers, who dangerously believed in the equality of all souls before God and proclaimed allegiance to a power higher than the state. From the start, one might say, the Christian message has threatened tyrants.
While comfortable Christians in the West may read accounts of early martyrs as part of some bygone age of heroic faith, for many believers around the world today persecution is a concrete reality. Autocratic regimes cannot tolerate citizens who embody free civil society—and a number of those people happen to be indigenous Christians. Ironically, these regimes sometimes have a keener, if perverse, appreciation for the character of their Christian citizens than many who live comfortably in free democracies. Chinese authorities, for example, watched in horror as Christian churches in Eastern Europe helped topple those Communist regimes. “If China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land,” the state-run press admonished in 1992, “it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.” Clearly the authorities knew which figure in the nativity story they would emulate.
Many of today’s foreign-policy challenges were anticipated in the waning days of the Cold War. The emergence of a religious movement to confront global religious persecution, however, took the foreign affairs community by surprise. No less surprising is how the energy unleashed in that faith-based campaign has propelled the religious alliance into the vanguard of human rights advocacy in American foreign policy.
In the annals of the bloody twentieth century, of course, there is nothing novel about religious persecution, whether against Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims. Religious persecution has been a leitmotiv of the century past. What cries out for answer is why a religious movement to challenge this persecution emerged when it did and with the expressions it took.
To answer these questions requires that we understand the nature of social movements. There is “power in movement,” which takes people out of their routines. Movements excite, buoy confidence, forge new relationships, strengthen organizations, and force the system to respond.
What distinguishes a social movement from other forms of political advocacy? Social movements seek broader goals than interest groups; they strive for fundamental change. And movements depend on grassroots mobilization to exploit political opportunities. But mobilization requires resources—energetic leaders, ardent followers, informational networks, credibility. Where in the American social landscape do we find institutions that share these attributes? In American churches. Entrepreneurial church leaders strive for broad normative change, seek sweeping goals (like salvation), and organize multitudes of citizens. Though most of these efforts are nonpolitical, they represent a unique potential resource for movement mobilization when favorable opportunities present themselves.
Successful social movements are rare because they require the convergence of underlying conditions, resources, political opportunities, and choices by leaders. The new faith-based movement has had all of these, but with an international twist. The movement focuses on the plight of people far beyond the shores of the United States through the linkages of global church networks that have blossomed in the post–Cold War era. Understanding this movement, consequently, will not only explain a surprising thrust of American foreign policy, but will tell us something about broader forces afoot at the dawn of the new millennium.
The underlying conditions for the movement include a revival of religion around the world, the globalization of Christianity, an enduring human rights crisis, and a shift toward a more faith-friendly intellectual climate in the United States. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the revolution in global communications in turn converged to open far corners of the world to scrutiny by a growing array of religious groups with access to American religious networks and political leaders. The emergence of the United States as the globe’s preeminent power provided a pivotal opportunity to leaders to focus nascent movement energies on tangible foreign-policy goals.
For much of the twentieth century, intellectuals and policymakers were guided by a powerful if mistaken vision that with modernization would come an inexorable decline in religious faith and adherence. Indeed, it was an article of faith among some of the West’s great thinkers that as societies embraced modern technology and rational forms of social organization, religious “superstition” would increasingly recede into the narrow recesses of the private sphere, losing its power over how people organized their collective lives. Communist ideology, of course, sought to accelerate the secularization process by force. But elsewhere, technological, rational, and bureaucratic organizations pushed religious culture to the margins of society as “the link between religion and civic order seemed to grow increasingly tenuous.” Deemed of decreasing power in people’s lives, religion was ignored or trivialized by the most well-educated of the globe’s scholars, policymakers, diplomats, and journalists.
This secular worldview is so powerful that it blinds otherwise intelligent policymakers. Thus American officials were caught flat-footed by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 because they dismissed the power of Shiite religious forces building against the Shah. Indeed, an attempt within the CIA to assess the activities of religious leaders in Iran was even vetoed as a waste of time. Why study religious factors that “we know” are politically irrelevant to a modernizing society? The shock of the Iranian revolution was but one of many events that undermined the secularization assumption. The resurgence of Islam, the dramatic growth of Christianity in the developing world, the role of churches in undermining Communist and authoritarian regimes, and the rise of various fundamentalist expressions all testify to the salience and power of religious devotion. But fundamentalist movements, while visible and dramatic, represent only “the surface waves of the much broader and more fundamental religious tide,” in which people are “reinvigorating” or “giving new meaning to the traditional religions of their communities.”
As we move into the third millennium it is clear that religion endures as a pervasive dimension in the lives of “the overwhelming majority of the human race.” Indeed, secularizing trends in Western Europe and among a thin, if influential, community of global intellectual elites now stand out as exceptions to more general global patterns. Paul Johnson concluded that “the outstanding event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear.” Today what looks “antiquated” is “not religious belief but the confident prediction of its demise once provided” by a host of western intellectuals.
Faith has not only endured; in many places it is powerfully resurgent. Now scholars speak of the “unsecularization of the world” or even “the Revenge of God.” The vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet system, for example, is being filled by resurgent faith. In the new republics of Central Asia, there were only 160 functioning Islamic mosques in 1989; four years later there were an estimated 10,000. In Africa and Asia, meanwhile, Christian churches are sprouting apace in societies plunged into the chaos of globalization. A single Christian evangelist draws over a million Nigerians to revivals in Lagos; the Pope has entertained the largest crowds in history, from Africa to Latin America to Asia.
Not only is religion resurgent in people’s daily lives, in many cases it is increasingly assertive, political, and the focus of government initiatives. French scholar Gilles Kepel suggests that beginning in the 1970s religious leaders around the world took on a new, more assertive posture toward secular society. Rather than accommodating religion to secularization, they moved in the reverse and sought to re-evangelize the world, to Christianize or “Islamize modernity.” This more confident and assertive posture emerged from a disillusionment with secular society itself—with the shallowness of its materialism, its lack of communal solidarity, its moral relativism, and the perceived spiritual cul-de-sac of its radical skepticism. Moreover, we see around the globe the same phenomenon noticed by scholars of American religion: religious bodies that offer a vivid alternative to the secular realm grow, while churches that accommodate themselves to modernity decline. Writes Paul Johnson: “What the world witnessed, during the late 1970s, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, was a widespread retreat from the churches and established religious bodies which had sought to rationalize their beliefs” and the simultaneous growth of bodies that “bypassed rationalism [and] stressed the overwhelming importance of faith and miraculous revelation.”
The price of the growing salience and public assertiveness of religion, however, is increased scrutiny by fearful government authorities. When religion matters to people, authoritarian governments “will insist on controlling it, suppressing it, regulating it, prohibiting it, and manipulating it to their own advantage.” Thus, we should not be surprised that governments engage in egregious religious persecution, lesser forms of discrimination, and the manipulation of religious rivalries in many places around the globe. A Freedom House survey in 2000 found that 36 percent of the world’s population live in places where religious freedom is fundamentally violated, and another 39 percent reside under conditions that are only partly free.
The revival of religion has also fed into, and intensified, the cultural cleavages that characterize the post–Cold War world. Rather than eliminating ethnic, national, or religious identities, the disruptions of modernization have intensified the yearning for a sense of belonging and identity, often provoking clashes on the fault lines of culture and civilizations. This reality has shaped the perception of American constituencies as they respond to accounts of the suffering of fellow believers abroad. Christian minorities have come under increasing pressure in Islamic lands as political movements there assert the primacy of Islamic civilization over the West. Chinese authorities, in turn, clamp down on independent Christian churches, both because they represent independent civil society and because they are perceived as outposts of Western influence.
This pattern has led some to see the religious freedom movement in the United States as an overt attempt to protect the frontiers and outposts of Western Christian civilization in a world where civilizational conflict may take on the dynamic of “the West versus the rest.” In the literature of Christian advocacy groups, in fact, we see the twin specters of militant Islam and the Communist remnant as the key threats to the faithful abroad. The September 11 attack by Islamic radicals only crystallized an emerging ecumenical consciousness among disparate Christian groups. Thus highly sectarian evangelicals who would have castigated Catholics as “papists” in the past now count them among the “faithful” and routinely highlight the depredations suffered by these “brothers and sisters in Christ.” Similarly, Pope John Paul II, in spotlighting the “ecumenism of Christian martyrdom,” has lauded the witness of Christians of all stripes.
But even if we grant that the movement is colored by a Christian solidarity defense of the faith’s outposts, its efforts advance a more general vision of human rights. This is due in part to the fact that Christian churches in the developing world increasingly are not appendages of the West, but rather, local institutions blossoming with indigenous cultural expressions. To defend those communities, advocates embrace the vision of free civil society contained in UN declarations and international covenants. Moreover, despite crude depictions of Islam in some born-again circles, the global threat of radical Islamist movements is drawing some evangelicals into dialogue with moderate Muslims who are often common targets of militant intimidation and violence.
The unexpected attention on Sudan in the new century illustrates these themes. American religious leaders with links to Sudanese Christian communities are, in one sense, “defending Christianity” against the tide of militant Islam. But they also are championing the broader cause of human rights. In 2002 the Islamist regime in Sudan was named the “world’s most violent abuser of the right to religious freedom and belief” because of its brutal attempt to subjugate its southern African population—whether animist, Christian, or Muslim. While harrowing tales of Christians subject to ethnic cleansing, slaughter, starvation, slavery, and forced conversion touch a deep chord in the American religious community, that chord generates pressure on American officials to act on behalf of all southern Sudanese, not just Christians.
The case of Sudan also points to a second development of enormous import for American foreign policy: the globalization of the Christian churches. The growth of Christianity outside the West, coupled with the immediacy of global communication, ensures that American church networks will publicize persecution of vulnerable believers and convey that message to policymakers. A new constituency for international human rights has thus arisen in American religious circles that once were preoccupied with domestic concerns.
Christianity is so closely associated with Western civilization that it is easy to forget that indigenous Christian communities existed for centuries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, in many cases predating the introduction of the faith in Northern Europe. In fact, in the first centuries after Christ, the faith spread from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) into the Persian Empire, where it suffered harsh persecutions, on to India, then into China by the seventh century. It spread from North Africa to the Nuba regions of what is now Sudan, where it antedated Islam by five hundred years, and then into Ethiopia. Christianity was thus “in Africa before Europe, India before England, China before America.” Over time, of course, the evangelization of Europe and the Americas, coupled with depredations elsewhere, concentrated the faith in the traditionally Christian countries of the “global north.”
That is no longer the case. An unheralded demographic revolution, which accelerated in the last half of the twentieth century, has produced a tectonic shift of the Christian population toward the “Global South.” A function both of lapsing faith in the West and dramatic indigenous growth elsewhere, this shift has momentous implications for both U.S. domestic politics and international relations. Consider the trends. In 1900, 80 percent of the world’s Christian population resided in Europe, Canada, and the United States. By 2000, that figure was down to a rapidly declining 40 percent, so that the proportion of the world’s Christians living in Latin America, Africa, and Asia stood at 60 percent and rising. The most dramatic demographic transformation is occurring in Africa. While Christians accounted for less than 10 percent of the continent’s population in 1900, it is now nearly half, while in sub-Saharan Africa a strong majority profess Christianity. Because Christianity is the largest world religion, with about two billion adherents, its concentration in the “global south” makes it one of the major faiths in the developing world today; it certainly is more broadly dispersed than Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism
In the sweep of two millennia of Christian history, this demographic transformation is striking for its “suddenness and rapidity.” And it may be comparable in significance to other epochal events in the shaping of Christendom because the growth of Christianity in the developing world has occurred simultaneously with its dramatic decline in Western Europe. If demographic trends continue, there will be more practicing Muslims than Christians in France and other European countries. As a leading scholar of missions observed, “one has to go back centuries” to find such a “radical shift in the cultural and demographic composition of the Christian church since 1900.” Just as Christianity was shaped by its successive implantation into Greek and Roman cultures, the British Isles, or North America, its indigenous growth beyond the West will usher in a new chapter for the faith. That is the message of Phillip Jenkins, who argues that the movement of the faith to the “global south” will constitute nothing less than a “New Christendom,” a “Second Reformation” as potentially world-shaping as the first.
The character of this New Christendom is strikingly akin to that of the early Church. Living amidst poverty, oppression, and violence, believers in the developing world experience the faith in literalist “New Testament” terms. Their world is one of divine power and evil; of miracles, prophecy, faith-healing, and the expulsion of demons; of persecution and martyrdom. Because of this, Jenkins predicts that a gulf will emerge between the Christianity of the global south and modernist churches of the West.
The crucial exception to this looming divide are those churches in the United States that have resisted, to a degree, modernist religious impulses. Thus in Pentecostalism, evangelicalism, and traditional Catholicism and Anglicanism, we find parishioners who especially identify with believers in the global south. It is this identification that helps animate the Christian solidarity impulse in the faith-based movement.
Some scholars believe that current figures even underestimate the extent to which the bulk of Christian adherents now live outside the West. Because demographers rely on self-identification, their figures include many nominal Christians in the West who scarcely practice their faith. On the other hand, the “cost of discipleship” can be high for Christians elsewhere, so those figures reflect people who actively practice their faith, often under conditions of discrimination and persecution.
Paul Marshall thus argues that the concentration of global Christianity is closer to 75 percent in the developing world. He suggests that “more people take part in Christian Sunday worship in China than do people in the entirety of Western Europe.” The same may be true for Nigeria, India, and Indonesia. We see the same stark contrasts within denominations. For example, on a given Sunday “more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Episcopalians in the United States combined.” Nigeria’s Anglican population dwarfs that in the West. Thus the “typical Anglican is not drinking tea in an English vicarage. She is a twenty-six-year-old African mother of four.” More Presbyterians attend church in Ghana than in Scotland; more Assemblies of God members worship in Brazil than in the United States (the Pentecostal denomination’s birthplace); more Lutherans now worship in Africa than in America.
Given that about a third of the globe’s population is Christian, changes in the composition of the faith also bear watching. Over 80 percent of the world’s Christians are either Roman Catholics or evangelicals. Half, or about a billion, are Catholics while another 650 million are evangelicals and Pentecostals. The remaining believers are scattered among Orthodoxy and various Protestant denominations. In terms of growth, the most dramatic trend is among the evangelical and Pentecostal population. Since 1970 the evangelical population has grown 207 percent in Africa, 233 percent in Latin America, and 326 percent in Asia, so that perhaps 70 percent of Protestant evangelicals now live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
In part this growth reflects the fact that theologically conservative evangelicals take seriously the great commission to “make disciples of all nations.” When leaders of the so-called mainline denominations—Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Congregationalists—embraced more liberal theology and engaged in “worldly” ecumenical enterprises, they left the missionary field to theologically traditional Protestants, who quietly went about the business of spreading the “Good News” in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This has produced a dramatic transformation of missionary activity. At the end of World War I, eight out of ten of the Protestant missionaries sent from the United States were sponsored by the historically mainline churches. By 1996, those same mainline churches mustered less than 3,000 missionaries out of more than 40,000 sent abroad (not counting Mormons ), indicating that theologically conservative evangelicals virtually dominate the Protestant mission field today. Notably, the Southern Baptist Convention alone, by fielding some 3,500 missionaries annually, dwarfs the combined missionary effort of the mainline denominations. The U.S. Catholic Church also operates a sizable missionary enterprise, but it has declined after a peak in the late 1960s, now numbering just over 4,000 sent abroad annually.
The crucial story is not about western missionary activity, however, but about indigenous Christian evangelization. This was epitomized by the gathering, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, of some 10,000 church leaders who traveled from 190 countries to Amsterdam in the summer of 2000. Capturing the flavor of the gathering was the story of a single pastor from Papua New Guinea, who had personally founded over 300 churches in the past two decades. This indigenization has profound implications for the politics of developing nations. Whereas scholars of African politics in the 1950s referred to Christianity as a missionary phenomenon, by the 1990s Christianity had become an intimate “part of the fabric of sub-Saharan African life,” often one of the most visible forms of “civil society when other forms had collapsed.” Though churches do become enmeshed in violent ethnic strife, they also serve as “umpires,” “vehicles of change,” and “catalysts in times of transition.”
One of the most rapidly growing expressions of Christianity in the developing world is Pentecostalism, which is particularly appealing because it provides a vivid emotional experience, makes the church the center of community life, and provides a strict code of personal morality. Once introduced by missionaries, it quickly becomes an indigenous movement, owing to heavy emphasis on lay involvement and few formal requirements for ministers. In fact, the growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America may represent a net increase in faith practice, as “nominal and passive Catholics become active and devout Evangelicals.”
Because Christianity often elevates the status of women in traditional societies, believers in nonwestern societies are disproportionately female. Thus “there is absolutely no excuse for thinking of Christianity as either western, white, or male.” The majority of the world’s Christians, indeed, are females of color.
Demographic shifts have profoundly affected denominations. As late as the 1960s roughly half of the world’s Catholic population resided in the European heartland and North America. Today the vast majority live elsewhere, as the Roman Catholic Church has become a truly global religious community. Catholic leadership reflects this trend, with an increasing proportion of bishops and cardinals from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Protestant church bodies are experiencing similar globalization, with American churches increasingly discovering that they are in fact national branches of larger global ministries.
One exception to these demographic trends is Eastern Orthodoxy, which has declined significantly as a proportion of world Christianity. This decline flowed in part from the devastating effects of Soviet repression and persecution in the Middle East, but there are other reasons. Orthodoxy developed a different trajectory from western Christianity, one more dependent on a melding of church and nation. Thus is it less able to operate in the more entrepreneurial environment of global Christianity. Threatened by the new environment, Orthodox societies have attempted to prevent inroads by other Christian groups. Some western Christian solidarity organizations, in response, depict Orthodox discrimination against Catholics and evangelicals (in such places as Russia) as part of the story of the “suffering church” abroad, barely acknowledging Orthodoxy as part of the Christian family. More astute western advocates, on the other hand, champion the cause of minority Orthodox communities under increasing pressure in Islamic lands even as they criticize Orthodox governments that harass non-Orthodox believers.
This extended discussion of Christian demographics points to a stunning reality: The Christian churches most intimately associated with western civilization are now most populous and most vibrant outside the West. Christianity is now predominately a nonwestern faith, but one with linkages to established bodies in the West, especially in America where religious practice remains far more vibrant than in Western Europe. We cannot understand the new interfaith engagement in international human rights without appreciating this reality.
Explanations for the indigenous growth of Christianity vary. Some see the Christian message of love and transcendent reward as especially appealing to the vulnerable. Perhaps this is why, as a scholar of missions noted, Christianity tends to “wither at center,” where it becomes established and comfortable, and grow “at or beyond the circumference.” Others look to more proximate causes of the demographic growth of Christianity. Forces of mass communication, technology, and capitalism uproot people and weaken ancestral faiths tied to village or place. This produces a spiritual vacuum that the great proselytizing and cosmopolitan faiths, such as Christianity and Islam, rush in to fill.
Because of this demographic revolution, American church leaders are coming to approach Christian communities abroad less as “leaders” sending missionaries and more as “servants” providing support to heroic indigenous believers. Vivid models of courage and fidelity among modern martyrs and “Christians in catacombs,” it turns out, serve evangelical aims. As one parishioner observed, “It’s done me a world of good in my commitment to see the examples of these people who have joy and strength in their faith while they daily face the threat of personal disaster.” Indeed, at some evangelical events in the United States, the featured speakers are likely to be foreign Christians, often treated like celebrities and role models, who share poignant testimony of how God sustained them in prison, of how the spirit worked to gain souls despite persecution. With Protestant evangelicalism at the cutting edge of church growth in the United States, it is not surprising that grassroots concern for the “suffering church” has increasingly percolated up through the political system.
The metaphor of the “suffering church” captures a genuine consequence of the demographic revolution. In the midst of globalizing markets, ideas, and migrations, autocrats often repress the independence of Christian churches or incite mob violence as a way to maintain their hold on power. The result is that today as many as 250 million Christians live at the mercy of hostile regimes in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, while an additional 400 million face nontrivial restrictions on their religious freedom. Christians are among the most numerous victims of religious persecution in the world today. In another sense the “suffering church” metaphor captures the extent to which the growth of global Christianity nests the faith among the world’s poor and vulnerable. Because these believers are linked with counterparts in the West, they help expose other forms of exploitation, such as sex trafficking, previously hidden in dark corners of the global marketplace.
Though hard to measure, changes in the intellectual climate also facilitated the new interfaith human rights movement. Since at least the 1970s an avalanche of commentary and scholarship has fostered a new intellectual mood—one less hostile to religion and more open to serious discussion of its impact in public life.
One aspect of this mood is simply an appreciation of the political relevance of religion. On the negative side, we see how religiously infused ethnic conflict has provoked horrendous atrocities, from the Balkans to Central Africa. Also obvious is the power of militant fundamentalist movements to create disorder and violence. On the positive side, we see how churches nurtured dissent and contributed to peaceful democratic transitions—from the velvet revolution in Eastern Europe to the Philippines to South Africa. Clearly religion cannot be ignored by foreign-policymakers.
On the diplomatic front, there has been a new awareness of the unheralded role of churches as mediators of conflicts and agents of social and economic development. Religious groups have been instrumental in a wide array of successful mediation efforts. The pivotal role of churches in relief and development work is also receiving positive attention. The faith-based “nongovernmental organizations” (NGOs) operate a formidable array of humanitarian programs in some of the most remote corners of the globe. Such groups as Catholic World Relief and World Vision have some of the best networks on the ground in hot spots and areas hit by natural disasters, and governments rely upon them to deliver foreign aid and relief services. These faith-based partnerships with government have been going on for years, with millions of U.S. aid dollars funneled annually through religious institutions. Without religious NGOs, numerous efforts—from refugee services to agricultural development to health care—would be less effective at reaching those in need.
Another shift in intellectual mood has come from the critique of the perceived failures and blinders of the secular project. To be sure, this critique is not universally shared, but a vast scholarship, along with a proliferating array of opinion journals and think tank symposia, catalog the fallout from the abandonment of transcendent societal anchors. Epitomizing this thought is Paul Johnson’s magisterial book Modern Times, which attacks the common Enlightenment assumption that less religious faith necessarily equals more human freedom or democracy. The collapse of the religious impulse among the educated classes in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, he argues, left a vacuum that was filled by politicians wielding power under the banner of totalitarian ideologies—whether “blood and soil” fascism or atheistic Communism. Thus the attempt to live without God made idols of politics and produced the century’s “gangster statesmen”—Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot—whose “unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind” unleashed unimaginable horrors. Or as T. S. Eliot put it, “If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”
The new intellectual mood is reinforced by a growing receptivity of government officials to work through faith-based organizations. It is striking that during the 2000 U.S. presidential election both Al Gore and George W. Bush campaigned on developing partnerships with religious charities. These programs, they argued, can better attend to the whole person, body and soul. As president, Bush made the faith-based initiative the centerpiece of his noneconomic domestic agenda, defending his approach on the basis of Catholic social teaching that the state should support, but not supplant, the healing work of families, communities, and religious voluntary associations. This dovetails with how America’s sprawling global commitments require work through religious relief and development organizations, which in turn provide valuable information for foreign-policy deliberations.
Growing concern about citizen disengagement and cynicism has also sparked a fresh exploration of the religious contribution to a healthy civil society. This exploration often takes as its point of departure the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, who stressed the role of churches as the crucial mediating institutions of civil society. More recently, Robert Putnam popularized the idea that trusting relationships among citizens are essential to healthy democracies, and he found that religious institutions produce roughly half of such “social capital” in America. Other political scientists have found that civic engagement is facilitated by participation in religious activities that teach civic skills and connect people to public affairs. That hardheaded empirical political scientists document this contribution to American democracy represents a departure from the previous generation that ignored the religious dimension.
Intellectual trends within the religious community have also been important to the altered climate. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly argued that the primacy of religious freedom is “a point of reference of the other fundamental rights” and in some way “a measure of them.” A cadre of influential evangelical thinkers have joined Pope John Paul II in promoting a more theologically grounded civic consciousness among the faithful. Central here has been Charles Colson, who seeks to recover for Bible-believing Christians the heritage of social engagement from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when evangelicals fought against the evils of slavery and exploitation of children. Others are working to help the pietistic community develop a vocabulary that will anchor political activism against injustice and the denial of human dignity. Though certainly not a dominant force in a constituency known as the bulwark of “Christian Right” moral causes, this impulse nonetheless facilitates evangelical participation in ecumenical initiatives on international human rights.
Further spurring ecumenical cooperation is a deeper appreciation that all faiths have a stake in the protection of religious liberty. Ironically, it was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that crystallized this understanding on the domestic front. In 1990 the Court shocked the religious community by narrowing the grounds of its religious freedom guarantees, which sparked a decade-long struggle to reestablish more generous contours of religious protection. Not only did this struggle forge relationships among diverse faith representatives, it helped sharpen the sense of religious liberty as the “first freedom” in the American experience. Another shift in intellectual mood has come from a fresh understanding of the centrality of religious freedom to the broader cause of human rights, producing a more congenial attitude toward the religious sector. While this centrality was boldly asserted by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, some secular human rights activists have been ambivalent. This ambivalence stems from a view that religion is a “problem”—a contributor to intolerance, ethnic strife, and war. Moreover, because expanding religious freedom also facilitates proselytization, some seem reticent to promote it. But religious freedom, many now appreciate, is less about missionary activity than the rights of local peoples. And religious freedom is deeply instrumental to rights because its very practice entails other human freedoms: the right to assemble, to express oneself freely, to print literature, to own property. As the revolutions in Eastern Europe showed and as Chinese dissident Wei Jingshen has argued, allowing freedom for religious communities simultaneously opens space for political dissidents, labor organizers, and other human rights advocates.
This brings us to one of the most consequential intellectual developments buoying the movement: a vibrant scholarly inquiry into the contribution of Christianity to global democracy and freedom. The Christian emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the equality of all souls before God, and the autonomy of churches from state control (now embraced by both Protestant and Catholic traditions) fosters civic culture and institutional pluralism. As Samuel Huntington has shown, western Christianity is strongly associated with democracy around the world. This relationship strengthened dramatically when the Catholic Church joined Protestantism as a major cultivator of democratic culture. After the Second Vatican Council endorsed human rights and democratic governance, the Catholic Church became a forceful advocate of change in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Philippines. As a consequence, well over 80 percent of the countries that Freedom House categorizes as “free” are majority Christian. Other democracies have substantial Christian minorities that played a role in democratic transition. The almost simultaneous growth of Christianity and democracy in South Korea and Taiwan, for example, culminated in the election of Christian politicians (who championed the democracy movements) to head both governments in the 1990s.
One implication of this pattern is that support for besieged religious minorities, many of them Christian, might serve the broader aim of “democratic enlargement” in American foreign policy by helping to nurture incipient civil societies in authoritarian lands. This prospect at least provides ammunition both to those who dispute the pessimistic “realism” in foreign-policy circles that dismisses promotion of democracy as utopian and counterproductive.
The changes noted above—the revival of religion around the globe, the Christian demographic transformation, the reality of widespread persecution, and the shift toward a more faith-friendly intellectual climate—prepared the ground for the new religious human rights movement. Epochal changes in a new global environment, in turn, opened up new opportunities for human rights advocacy.
No event is as central to this new environment as the end of the Cold War. The Iron Curtain, representing a world of barriers, was an apt metaphor for closed systems and hidden realities. The new global environment is best captured by metaphors of openness: we hear of walls falling, curtains torn open, and veils lifted. The fall of the Iron Curtain exposed the appalling human rights record of collectivist systems and highlighted continuing abuses in the Communist remnant. The end of the Cold War also meant that the quest for human rights would no longer be submerged within superpower rivalry. The endless and often debilitating debate between liberals and conservatives about the relative evil of superpower clients—of right wing versus left wing dictatorships—was rendered moot. As these ideological veils were lifted, new alliances for the cause became possible.
But the end of the bipolar world also tore open curtains that separated cultures and civilizations, heightening ethnic and religious identities. As despots exploited ethnic animosities, religious minorities became vulnerable targets. The opening of the globe also accelerated the disruptions of modernization, sparking fundamentalist religious movements that seek, in a sense, to erect new curtains against disruptive change. When armed with political power this impulse threatened the rights of those deemed as alien or impure, as we see from the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in the Balkans, Hindu militant attacks on Muslims in India, and Shiite persecution of Baha'is in Iran.
The most powerful expression of this impulse is militant Islam, which employs Muslim symbols and networks to advance its radical political ideology. The rich heritage of Islam has many sides, but various fundamentalist Muslim movements deeply threaten human rights because they are unabashed about using violent intimidation and coercive state power against those deemed infidels, including other Muslims. It is not surprising that as Islamic societies come under pressure from these disruptive movements, all religious minorities become victims.
For the global Christian community the lifting of veils has produced an awareness of a shared crucible. From Indonesia to Nigeria, China to Cuba, local church leaders now see their struggles in a wider and more ecumenical context. Expanded travel, communication, and advocacy networks connect these vulnerable Christian communities to more powerful bodies in the West. From remote Sudanese villages to Uzbekistan prisons, reports circle the globe at the speed of light as on-the-ground groups link up with international church ministries. These international Christian networks, moreover, move beyond succoring fellow believers to revealing human rights tragedies in some of the dark corners of the world. Such information becomes a source for policy consideration through the efforts of movement advocates.