Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 10 October 2003

On This They Do Agree



OCT. 10, 2003 — Imagine an event akin to the fall of apartheid, a human-rights breakthrough that for millions of black Africans could mean an end to massacres, ethnic cleansing and enslavement by a despotic regime. Imagine, too, that this event would not have occurred without a grass-roots movement in the U.S. whose campaign of pressure and exposure helped force the regime to relent.

Front-page news, one might think. Feature stories on the nightly news. Yet the recent U.S.-brokered security pact between the government of Sudan and rebel groups earned only perfunctory treatment in the press. This despite the fact that the pact may end a civil war that over the past 20 years has killed two million people, displaced another five million and rekindled a slave trade reminiscent of centuries past.

A clue to this puzzle appeared in a Sept. 26 New York Times story, in which the war in Sudan was described as a "pet cause of many American religious conservatives." Would the Times have similarly described the plight of Soviet Jewry as a "pet cause" of American Jews or apartheid a "pet cause" of African-Americans?

Such patronizing illustrates how the Sudan cause becomes "tainted" by association with evangelical Christians, whose efforts keep pressure on the Khartoum regime by documenting and publicizing its depredations. It isn’t only the efforts of evangelicals, of course. Jewish leaders, Catholics, Episcopalians and African-American pastors from many denominations all contribute. Former Sudanese slaves speak at synagogues and black churches; lay evangelicals from the heartland travel to Washington to join with civil-rights leaders in demonstrations; and campus activists have helped organize a divestment campaign that has resulted in plummeting stock prices for oil companies doing business in Sudan.

This story of human-rights activism offers one example among many of a new generation of evangelicals quite comfortable in forming coalitions with those they may oppose on some hot-button domestic concerns. Leaders like Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals worked closely with liberal Jews and Tibetan Buddhists to press landmark international religious freedom legislation in 1998. They joined with Gloria Steinem and all the major feminist organizations to pass the Victims of Trafficking and Protection Act of 2000 and with the Congressional Black Caucus for passage of the Sudan Peace Act of 2002. In 2003 they worked with Ted Kennedy and civil-liberties groups such as the NAACP, La Raza and Human Rights Watch to pass legislation targeting prison rape.

Evangelicals are now leading similar coalitions on behalf of North Korean refugees, and their activism represents the main bulwark against granting further license to the Pyongyang regime to perpetuate its internal human-rights atrocities in return for "concessions" on the international front.

These initiatives are making a difference. Take the actions of the anti-trafficking office at the State Department, headed up by John Miller, a Jew whose appointment by President Bush was vigorously pressed by evangelicals. Declaring his mission as nothing less than leading the effort "to abolish modern-day slavery," Mr. Miller went to work with all the resources at his disposal. The result: Anti-trafficking laws pass in the Philippines, Haiti, Burkina Faso and Georgia; scores of arrests occur in Serbia and Cambodia; and a major crackdown begins on India’s child-prostitution industry.

The vast majority of Christians, including evangelicals, now live in the developing world, and many suffer amid poverty, oppression and persecution. Their plight informs sister churches in America and animates a growing humanitarian and human-rights quest that resembles the efforts of such evangelical giants as William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who led the fight against slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It is high time, therefore, to end the blindness that causes a great human-rights movement to be tainted by the fact that it is led by believing Christians.

Mr. Hertzke is a professor of political science and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.

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