Foreign Affairs discusses US Evangelicals on Africa, Israel

Walter Russell Mead discusses the impact of US evangelicalism in Foreign Affairs:

…As evangelicals have recently returned to a position of power in U.S. politics, they have supported similar causes and given new energy and support to U.S. humanitarian efforts. Under President Bush, with the strong support of Michael Gerson (an evangelical who was Bush’s senior policy adviser and speechwriter), U.S. aid to Africa has risen by 67 percent, including $15 billion in new spending for programs to combat HIV and AIDS. African politicians, such as Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, have stressed their own evangelical credentials to build support in Washington, much as China’s Sun Yat-sen and Madame Chiang Kai-shek once did. Thanks to evangelical pressure, efforts to suppress human trafficking and the sexual enslavement of women and children have become a much higher priority in U.S. policy, and the country has led the fight to end Sudan’s wars. Rick Warren, pastor of an evangelical megachurch in Southern California and the author of The Purpose Driven Life (the single best-selling volume in the history of U.S. publishing), has mobilized his 22,000 congregants to help combat AIDS worldwide (by hosting a conference on the subject and training volunteers) and to form relationships with churches in Rwanda.

The nature of these “programs to combat HIV and AIDS”, however, is not assessed or discussed. I’m far from dismissive of Warren’s real efforts in these areas, but this glosses over certain problems that have been seen in Uganda and elsewhere, and which I have blogged. And while the historical references to Sun Yat-sen and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek are nice, why not mention the fascist Chiang Kai-Shek himself? Or the apartheid regime in South Africa? Or Rios Montt? The fact is that for all their honest desire to offer humanitarian assistance, US evangelicals have a track record of falling for very dodgy foreign leaders who claim to share their faith. Warren’s closeness to Paul Kagame of Rwanda is of doubtful wisdom (as I blogged here), and the Museveni regime is now showing some worrying signs (see here).

Mead also discusses Christian Zionism.

...U.S. policy toward Israel is another area where the increased influence of evangelicals has been evident…That U.S. foreign policy now centers on defending the country against the threat of mass terrorism involving, potentially, weapons of apocalyptic horror wielded by anti-Christian fanatics waging a religious war motivated by hatred of Israel only reinforces the claims of evangelical religion.

…Conspiracy theorists and secular scholars and journalists in the United States and abroad have looked to a Jewish conspiracy or, more euphemistically, to a “Jewish lobby” to explain how U.S. support for Israel can grow while sympathy for Israel wanes among what was once the religious and intellectual establishment. A better answer lies in the dynamics of U.S. religion. Evangelicals have been gaining social and political power, while liberal Christians and secular intellectuals have been losing it. This should not be blamed on the Jews.

This is an interesting take on the subject, although it could have been more nuanced. There are all kinds of lobbies everywhere in politics; if someone mentions a “Jewish lobby” must we always assume that he or she really means “Jewish conspiracy”? And where do any serious “secular scholars and journalists” talk about “the Jews” with the definite article like that?.

However, Mead’s perspective is useful for its emphasis on culture. Radical critics of the “pro-Israel lobby” theory of US support for Israel usually focus on Israel’s strategic position in Middle East geo-politics – there may be something to that, but it overlooks the possibility that the US supports Israel in large part because it believes that that’s the right thing to do. Many Americans support Israel because the Bible tells them to (see this Pew report) – but those Americans believe that they have interpreted the Bible correctly because of their underlying values. Those of us who are informed about the Palestinian human rights situation and the occupation of the West Bank may find this support to be misplaced, but the sanguinary nature of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Ahmadinejad regime together make up an extremely effective “anti-lobby” that can only re-enforce the pro-Israel position in the US.

Further, as examples of Christian Zionists, Mead presents us with John Hagee and, in his reading list, Hal Lindsey. Both are, of course, hugely influential figures – but there’s not much evidence that they shape US foreign policy. If George W Bush were taking cues from Hagee, there would be no discussion of the “two-state solution” Bush apparently favours. Hagee’s apocalyptic Christian Zionism gets all the headlines – but perhaps someone like Ted Haggard is a more significant figure. Haggard, who heads the National Association of Evangelicals, is a strong supporter of Israel, and his New Life church helps to fund an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank. But Haggard does not go on about the Last Days – instead, his support for Israel is grounded in a more generally conservative political perspective.

Mead also discusses the differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists, although he doesn’t say much about the latter group’s influence on US public life. He concludes optimistically:

…As more evangelical leaders acquire firsthand experience in foreign policy, they are likely to provide something now sadly lacking in the world of U.S. foreign policy: a trusted group of experts, well versed in the nuances and dilemmas of the international situation, who are able to persuade large numbers of Americans to support the complex and counterintuitive policies that are sometimes necessary in this wicked and frustrating — or, dare one say it, fallen — world.

(Hat tip: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life)

One Response

  1. […] from a significant Christian paperback genre presided over by influential evangelists. I’ve argued that Christian Zionism should not be reduced to apocalypticism, but this is just as […]

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