The Politics of Persecution

by Melani McAlister
published in MER249

The video opens with a young Sudanese boy being interviewed outside a hut. “They wanted me to become a Muslim,” he says through a translator. “But I told them I wouldn’t. I am a Christian.” “It was then,” a deep male voiceover intones, “that he was thrown on a burning fire.” The boy looks away from the camera as he lifts up his shirt to reveal horrific burns over one side of his thin body. In Sudan, the video later explains, “a government set on jihad” is persecuting Christians. There is footage of soldiers, then of women lying on the ground, their mutilated limbs and open wounds in view. Bodies -- violated, damaged bodies -- are on display.

Another scene features a Chinese pastor who was imprisoned. He almost lifts up his shirt to show a scar, but does not. There is a close-up of a young Indonesian girl who tells, weeping, of having a knife to her throat. The narrator translates: “They tried to get me to deny Christ.” “But she refused to deny her savior.”

Each tale is told as a melodrama of steadfastness: “All around the world,” the narrator continues, “Christians are dying for their faith. They could save themselves by denying Christ. But they didn’t -- and they won’t.” Off a revolving globe spin the names of nations that persecute Christians: Sudan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, among others. “These people are not heroes or statistics; they are ‘family.’”

The video, Faces of Persecution (2000), was produced by the Voice of the Martyrs, a Bartlesville, Oklahoma-based group that has been “serving with the persecuted church since 1967.” It is simultaneously a “documentary” and a fundraising document, circulated in churches and at conferences, and available for purchase on the group’s sophisticated website, where one can also read the latest news of the maltreated faithful and sign up for a monthly newsletter or a weekly e-mail update. Faces of Persecution is of a piece with the group’s other films and publications, such as a series of books for teenagers about martyrdom issued in tandem with the Christian pop act, dc Talk, best known for its 1995 anthem “Jesus Freaks.” Not infrequently, Voice of the Martyrs materials paraphrase the church father Tertullian: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The Voice of the Martyrs is a conservative evangelical organization, but by the turn of the twenty-first century, a passionate concern with the persecution of Christians united not only conservatives, but liberal and moderate evangelicals as well. Evangelicals saw Christians being martyred all over the world, prevented from spreading the Gospel and targeted for their faith. Chronicled in magazines ranging from conservative venues like World to the moderately conservative Christianity Today to the left-leaning Sojourners, described in books and on websites, pictured in fundraising newsletters and DVDs sold in church basements, “the persecuted body” -- the physical body of the believer and the body or church of Christ—became an article of faith and a springboard for political activism. [1]

Countries of Concern

The anti-persecution movement can boast of concrete political achievements. In 1998, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the result of years of intense lobbying led by evangelicals, with the participation of Jews, Catholics and Tibetan Buddhists. The law mandates that every year the United States produce a list of “countries of concern” that are guilty of violating religious freedoms. The president is then required to choose from a set of graduated sanctions, ranging from expressions of concern to trade cutoffs, to impose on each country named. If he sees fit, the president can waive the sanctions for reasons of national security.

IRFA created an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department and established the post of ambassador for religious freedom. It also established a separate unofficial body dubbed the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, to monitor government and make sure that “political necessity” did not trump the moral necessity of fighting religious persecution.

The backdrop to this legislation was the US relationship with three countries in particular. First was Sudan, where the most active front of a long-running civil war pitted the Islamist government in Khartoum against the non-Muslim populations of the south, perhaps 70 percent of whom are at least nominally Christian. To what degree the war in the south could be described as a religious war was a matter of great debate, but for at least some anti-persecution activists, Sudan’s government was the foremost example of the Islamist threat to Christians everywhere. Second was China. There, the official Christian church was large and growing, but many believers worshipped at illegal “underground” churches. They were vulnerable to harassment and arrest. In addition, China occupied Tibet and oppressed Tibetan Buddhists, attracting a few Hollywood liberals to the evangelicals’ cause. The third country was Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims are not allowed to worship publicly (and Shi‘i Muslim observances are severely restricted).

IRFA was signed into law in the teeth of strong opposition from big business and the Clinton administration, and in the face of concern from traditional human rights groups, who saw it as too narrowly oriented toward the victimization of Christians. Its passage was, in large part, a testament to the clout of the anti-persecution grassroots and a high point for evangelical activists who wanted to make global issues central to their community. Their success was due to good organizing, but also to a new “common sense” emerging in the evangelical public sphere, where for more than 30 years religious persecution had been the stuff of novels, memoirs and magazine articles.

Movement in the Making

Not long ago, the concept of Christian martyrdom had little purchase for evangelicals, who saw in the veneration of martyrs a suspect Catholic practice tainted by excesses of emotion and even idolatry. In 1956, however, the demise of five young American missionaries in Ecuador made martyrdom an evangelical issue. The group of missionaries had traveled, two of them with their wives, to a remote jungle area to witness to the Waorani tribe. Shortly after their arrival, having made only tentative contact with the Waorani, the five men were speared and hacked to death. Later, the two wives returned, and several Waorani were converted to Christianity. The story was told in a bestselling book excerpted in Reader’s Digest. [2]

American Christians were also called to attend to a different kind of persecution -- the quotidian dramas of the “suffering church” under communism. In the late 1960s, the most famous “living martyr” in the United States was a Romanian Jewish convert and minister, Richard Wurmbrand. Wurmbrand had been imprisoned twice for his activities as an “underground” minister before he finally escaped to the West in 1964. In 1966, he offered remarkable testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Standing before the cameras, Wurmbrand stripped to the waist and turned to display his deeply scarred back. “My body represents Romania, my country, which has been tortured to a point that it can no longer weep,” he said. “These marks on my body are my credentials.” [3] Wurmbrand went on to found Jesus to the Communist World, later renamed the Voice of the Martyrs. Evangelicals also knew “Brother Andrew” Vanderbijl, a Dutch pastor who made his name smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He published his bestselling memoir, God’s Smuggler, in 1967. During the Cold War, then, American evangelicals married missionary enthusiasm to anti-communism to forge their own kind of bipolar vision, of Christians everywhere besieged by those without God.

Then the events of 1989 shattered that vision, with its comforting Cold War certainties. Evangelicals poured into Eastern Europe to proselytize the liberated peoples of the Soviet bloc. Meanwhile, their numbers in the global south were way up; conversions in Latin America and Africa, in particular, were creating millions of new believers. In 1989, evangelical leaders around the world began to remap their global dreams. That year, the Second International Conference on World Evangelization met in Manila, and 4,300 evangelicals from 173 countries constructed for each other a model of border-crossing Christian community. There was a “millennium bug” in the air, one participant said, as evangelicals began to imagine reaching “all the world” for Christ by the year 2000. [4] All the world, yes, but now new parts of the globe demanded particular attention. Argentine evangelist Luis Bush gave a rousing speech calling upon evangelicals to focus their missionary work on the “10/40 window,” that area between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north of the equator that encompasses the Middle East and much of Asia. It is there, Bush said, that Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism “enslave” the majority of the inhabitants -- “billions of spiritually impoverished souls.” Of these, Islam was clearly the biggest threat.

Enslaved people must be liberated, of course, and evangelicals turned to the secular language of “human rights” to highlight their cause. During the Cold War, evangelicals had considered “human rights” the domain of the political left, but in the post-Soviet era, they too had to adapt to the concept’s increasing hegemony. In July 1992, Christianity Today initiated the process with a special issue on the “persecuted Church,” implicitly integrating the diverse Christian experiences in the former Soviet Union, China, Latin America and the Middle East. The issue included many Amnesty International-style images. Several years later, Max Stackhouse, the internationally regarded, theologically conservative professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, would argue that, for Christians, human rights and God are inseparable. Belief in God -- a Christian view of God -- requires a commitment to human rights. But this also works in the reverse, Stackhouse claimed: “Without the impetus of theological insight, human rights concepts would not have come to their current widespread recognition, and…they are likely to fade over time if they are not anchored in a universal, context-transcending, metaphysical reality.” [5] Stackhouse insisted that not all religions are equal on this point. Those parts of the world where Christianity had been most influential were “the safest havens for non-established and non-majoritarian religions.” [6] This argument was crucial to the rising tide of fear of Islam among evangelicals. In the same 1992 issue of Christianity Today, Diane Knippers, executive vice president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a deeply conservative Washington think tank, insisted that Christians should not let down their guard against religious persecution. Yes, Marxism, “the twentieth century’s scourge on religion,” was being rooted out of Europe. But the emerging threat “looming on the religious-freedom horizon” was Islam. A movement was in the making.

In 1995, Michael Horowitz electrified evangelical elites with an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that blasted Islamic countries for persecuting their Christian minorities. The stories were horrific. Some were widely known incidents: three Iranian pastors killed in 1994; the routine abduction of children in southern Sudan. Other examples seemed pulled from folklore: a pastor in Ethiopia whose eyes were put out by local Muslim officials; Christian students in Egypt “routinely” beaten and called “devils” by their classmates. But the overall argument was that Christians had for too long stood by while “in a growing number of other countries, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has effectively criminalized the practice of Christianity.” [7] Horowitz’s piece led to the first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church in 1996, and with his support, it became an extraordinarily successful annual event. The first year, 5,000 churches participated. In 1997, organizers claimed that 70,000 churches had received materials (including all 40,000 member churches of the Southern Baptist Convention).

That same year, the emerging movement got its activist manifestoes. Nina Shea, director of the Puebla Program at Freedom House, published In the Lion’s Den: Persecuted Christians and What the Western Church Can Do About It. Short, lurid and lightly documented, Shea’s book repeated the standard script that there were two zones of global concern for Christians: Islamic countries and the still extant communist world. Paul Marshall, also at Freedom House, produced the more detailed and scholarly study with an equally sensationalist title, Their Blood Cries Out. These two books became for the anti-persecution movement what Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth had been to a rather different group of activists in the 1960s -- angry, righteous documents of suffering that were carried around from meeting to meeting.

Marshall focused quite extensively on the dangers of Islam, but also discussed everything from the status of evangelicals in Russia to the “forgotten outcasts” in India, Burma and other countries. (His book was also the original source of what would become the all-but-official numbers used by activists: 200 million Christians live in countries where Christians are persecuted; another 400 million live in situations of “non-trivial” limits on their religious freedom.) Marshall did not just focus on persecutors; he also took aim at American Christians. He attacked Protestant liberals for tiptoeing around the truth, especially regarding China and Islam. But Marshall strongly criticized evangelicals as well, for their complacency, relative ignorance about the rest of the world, excessive nationalism and over-investment in end-times prophecy. “Concern with American families, American values and American morality eclipses a sense of worldwide Christian presence.” [8] It was time, he argued, that American Christians looked beyond their fences and started doing something.

Setting the Agenda

Evangelicals were far from united in their views on what they should do. Work on “human rights” was increasing, but what that meant for defending persecuted Christians was far from clear. In fact, Alan Hertzke, who has written a useful but hagiographic account of the Washington lobbying of the anti-persecution movement, recounts that some evangelical leaders who attended a 1996 strategy meeting convened by Freedom House said they were not particularly interested in political engagement. What evangelicals did best, they said, was praying for the persecuted and feeling inspired by them. These non-activists had two concerns. The first was pragmatic: The draft legislation included proposals to ease asylum requirements for people facing religious persecution. Some leaders worried about the effect of such provisions on churches in the global south. In the Middle East, in particular, churches might be “emptied out,” thus undoing “the labor of Christian missionaries and martyrs over centuries.” [9] The second concern was theological: If “the blood of the Christians is the seed of the church,” then the suffering of believers can lead to conversions and greater faith. Persecution might be part of God’s plan. The Voice of the Martyrs video implicitly makes a similar point: “We can be confident that [our brothers’ and sisters’] suffering is prelude to coming revival.”

But the activist faction won out on Capitol Hill. In 1996, in anticipation of coming legislation, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), chair of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the House International Relations Committee, called witnesses to discuss “Religious Freedom and the Persecution of Christians.” Like many Congressional hearings, this was designed as a performance -- this time, to display the suffering of Christians from the global south. Over the next two years, the House and Senate would hold five more hearings on persecution and the bills drafted to address it.

Two bills were wending their way through the House and Senate in 1996 and 1997. The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), focused on stopping “widespread and ongoing persecution” of persons on account of their personal beliefs. The Wolf-Specter bill was provocative, in that it demanded immediate action against any nation found guilty of serious repression of religious practice. The alternative, co-sponsored by Sens. Don Nickles (R-OK) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT), was the “diplomatic” option, containing a broader definition of persecution, but giving the president great leeway in deciding how, or if, to respond to findings of persecution in a given country. [10]

Of course, no one in Washington was in favor of religious persecution, whether directed at Christians or anyone else. And there was a broad consensus that the issue itself was quite real. “To suggest that the persecution of Christians is not a serious problem is nonsense,” William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, told a reporter. [11] Nonetheless, traditional human rights groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, as well as some liberal mainline Protestant denominations, were concerned about “a questionable selectivity of participants” at the hearings. [12] Almost all of the witnesses, indeed, represented conservative Christian organizations. Liberals worried that the anti-persecution movement was uninterested in the larger human rights agenda, that in fact it only cared about Christians. They further thought that the Wolf-Specter bill, in particular, was too blunt an instrument, one designed not so much to protect religious freedom as to assert US commitment to it. [13]

The Clinton administration also opposed the Wolf-Specter bill. The administration’s strategic arguments were the same as those of the liberal groups, namely that confrontation with offending countries was not always the best path to reform. But the White House also had an ulterior motive, as the bill was quite consciously written to hamstring the State Department and prevent the president -- that president, in particular -- from sidestepping tough action. Hertzke reports, in fact, that one evangelical activist was disturbed by what she saw as excessive partisanship: “The whole discussion was that ‘religious freedom’ is the Achilles’ heel in the Clinton administration. We can defeat Clinton in November 1996 using this.” [14]

Finally, free-trade Republicans allied with the National Foreign Trade Council, the National Association of Manufacturers and USA Engage, a large coalition of businessmen, farmers and trade unionists, worked hard to defeat the religious freedom bills. Senators led by Rod Grams (R-MN) blocked an initial vote on even the more flexible Nickles version. In a commentary, Christianity Today snarled that evangelicals “felt abandoned by otherwise supportive business leaders who put profits ahead of morality.” [15] Criticism of business elites’ seemingly amoral posture came from the secular left as well -- Mother Jones published a damning exposé of USA Engage titled, “So You Want to Trade with a Dictator.” [16]

But supporters of the legislation were certain they were on the winning team. To Nina Shea, who was deeply involved in lobbying for the Wolf-Specter bill, liberal human rights groups were elitists who did not want to work on behalf of Christians. “No one is paying attention to anything they say or do or write anyway,” said Shea. “I’ve got the numbers. I’ve got the endorsements in all the Christian communities. I’ve got the power. It’s our side that is setting the agenda now.” [17]

In the end, the Wolf-Specter and Nickles-Lieberman bills were fused into IRFA. The combined bill allowed for graduated sanctions and gave diplomatic flexibility to the executive branch. But it also demanded the annual lists of “countries of concern,” a requirement parallel to the extant requirement for general State Department human rights reports, which were also designed to be embarrassing to diplomacy as usual. In this case, however, the White House and State Department could expect to be responsible to a constituency that would be watching them carefully. And the separately constituted US Commission on International Religious Freedom would write its own reports and provide a space for other public performances of concern.

The Spectacle of Persecution

Diplomatic historians often debate the role of culture in shaping policy, but they have far less frequently examined the role of policy in stimulating and shaping popular culture. In the case of IRFA, a policy decision gave renewed impetus to the movement on behalf of persecuted Christians. IRFA was also, in Foucault’s terms, an incitement to discourse: After 1998, there was a remarkable proliferation of materials that constructed a particular image of “the persecuted.” In books and magazines, and increasingly online, believers could consume vivid stories and images of suffering. A host of organizations -- the Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors, Christian Freedom International, Compass Direct -- raised money and solicited prayers for Christian sufferers in Africa, the Middle East, China and elsewhere. The Voice of the Martyrs saw its membership increase threefold.

“Persecution” now so dominates the evangelical representation of the global south that even traditional aid programs have been reframed in those terms. An advertisement on the website of Christian Freedom International, for example, promotes a sponsor-a-child program like that pioneered by Save the Children. Instead of asking for help for hungry children, the advertisement exhorts viewers to sponsor “persecuted children.” The money, nonetheless, goes to provide food, clean water and vocational training.

The materials on persecution are not all produced by Americans or Europeans. In the evangelical public sphere, there are scores of books, articles, websites and videos that are written or produced by believers in the global south. At dozens of evangelical conferences each year, Christians from around the world arrive as speakers and attendees. Those from the global south describe the imprisonment, social isolation and rampant discrimination they endure in the struggle to practice their faith. They tell their stories, but they also raise money for their projects and request political support.

Clearly, for some audiences, these performances of persecution are an internationalizing and, in some sense, democratizing form of political speech. In the late 1990s, Jars of Clay were a Christian rock band with a mainstream following and a few Grammy awards under their belts. Their music was typical of Christian pop -- apolitical, mildly counter-cultural, mostly about loving Jesus. With their “narrow worldview,” lead singer Dan Haseltine wrote, the band had not realized that “there is a world beyond the safety of our insular church culture.” Then Haseltine read an article about Christian persecution in the Sudan. “I had seen the pictures of torture victims [before]. I had read the reports of Christian women and children sold into slavery. I had been confronted with the tales of murder, rape and starvation. But all I knew were stories that seemed to fill that morbid curiosity that draws us to car wrecks and real-life TV shows. These people were not real to me. They were not brothers and sisters.” [18]

Then, in the spring of 2000, guided by a leader of the anti-persecution movement, several Jars of Clay members traveled to Vietnam and China, where they met with underground Christian groups. They came back deeply concerned about the “persecuted Church.” Jars of Clay spoke out in interviews, and they worked with Brother Andrew to reissue God’s Smugglers as a gorgeous volume, The Narrow Road, complete with a compact disc featuring a new song and a photo gallery. They held a benefit concert for Amnesty International and began taking up collections for persecuted Christians at their shows. In interviews, the band spoke with what seemed to be deep admiration for the people they visited: “Every experience I had there caused my faith to be shaken and my eyes opened to a big God…. These people live in countries where God’s provision is all they have to rely on. As an American, I can’t say I’ve ever been in that position.” [19]

At its worst, however, the spectacle of suffering can combine a kind of schadenfreude with a sense of righteous victimhood. At the spring 2004 international meeting of the World Evangelical Alliance, held in Orlando, Florida, representatives from India, Egypt, Jamaica, England and seven other countries compared notes. The riveting main speaker was Johan Candelin, a Finnish national and then head of the Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission. He cited example after example of anti-Christian persecution, showing terrible pictures: a young Sri Lankan woman whose boyfriend threw acid at her when she refused to convert to Islam; another girl tortured by her Muslim employers after the US bombing of Iraq; Christians attacked by Muslims, Hindus, communists -- but mostly, over and over, by Muslims. Many of the stories seemed to be more about personal conflict than systematic persecution, but the point was to put damaged people on display, their faces and bodies scarred, and to decry the Muslims who did these things to them. Candelin had a comic’s timing, a zealot’s energy and, in the end, a prophet’s message of hope: The persecuted always win, because their suffering is righteous, and they will live and die with God. The lecture was not presented exclusively to Europeans and Americans to incite pity for the less fortunate. It was given to an audience of evangelicals from all over the world. To see the unspeakable, together, was a form of community building. There was a border-spanning power worked by visions of the body in pain.

The evangelical embrace of sanctified bodily suffering also helps to explain the extraordinary popularity of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Released in February 2004, the film quickly became the highest-grossing movie of the year, earning $611 million at the box office. But even before it opened, The Passion had become a major cultural event for American evangelicals, who rented out theaters for group screenings and promoted the film in sermons and Sunday school lessons. R-rated and brutally violent, The Passion is nothing like the gentle films that evangelicals have traditionally embraced. And Gibson’s highly traditional form of Catholicism is overt. The film venerates Mary and shows Jesus stopping at each station of the cross -- the Catholic version, not the shorter Protestant one. [20] Twenty years earlier, such a film would not have been so enthusiastically embraced by evangelicals. In 2004, however, many of them described the act of viewing The Passion in sacramental tones.

The Passion’s unexpected appeal might be best understood from the fact that, fundamentally, it is a torture film. For most of its 126 minutes, it depicts the flogging, scourging and excruciating cries of Jesus as he makes his way through the streets of Jerusalem and then suffers a horrific death. One flogging scene lasts for several minutes, with the camera following each lash as it cuts into the body. By the end, Jesus is literally covered in blood and gore; there are close-ups of his hands and feet nailed to the cross.

Evangelicals had not traditionally focused on Jesus’ suffering. Indeed, their common criticism of The Passion was that it downplayed the resurrection. But every major evangelical magazine covered the film positively, and each argued that Christians should be willing to suffer the images in the film, in order to understand and embrace the reality of what Jesus had done. [21] “None of the violence is gratuitous,” Charisma magazine insisted, “and it is necessary in order to maintain the realism for which Gibson was aiming.” [22] Evangelicals who recommended the film to their congregations cited the graphic depictions of bodily torture repeatedly. “It is extremely violent because the cross was violent,” said Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. [23]

Evangelicals’ embrace of The Passion’s “realism” and their nearly universal willingness to overlook the film’s Catholic motifs bespeak the impact of the persecuted Christian discourse. For years, that discourse had highlighted the spectacle of the body in pain, insisting on the reality of suffering and the moral imperative not to turn the other cheek. In the process, the suffering of Christians of all denominations in the global south built a bridge between evangelicals and Catholics.

For some evangelicals, the refusal to avert one’s eyes was a political imperative as well. When the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were revealed in May 2004, the descriptions of the violence done to detainees, and the stunning pictures of bodies in pain, resonated with the images and stories of decades of the persecuted Christians movement. It was perhaps no surprise, then -- but nonetheless striking -- that after the Abu Ghraib revelations Christianity Today ran a cover story titled, “Five Reasons Why Torture Is Always Wrong.” The story leads with descriptions of three people being tortured: one electrocuted, one asphyxiated, a third humiliated in a bra and thong. It ends with a peroration that brings “rights talk” to bear at home:

We do not want to call torture what it is. We do not want to expose our policies, our prisons or our prisoners to public view. We deny that we are torturing, or we deny that our prisoners are really prisoners. When pushed against the wall, we remind one another how evil the enemy is. We give every evidence of the kind of self-deception that is characteristic of a descent into sin. [24]

On to Sudan

After IRFA, evangelicals returned with gusto to their agitation for robust US intervention to protect the Christians of southern Sudan. The Sudan activists had a vocal new ally in the US Commission on International Religious Freedom mandated by the act. Not only were evangelicals heavily represented on the commission, but Catholic friend of evangelicals and Sudan crusader Nina Shea also has served the commission continuously since it began (she is the only person to do so). In its 2001 report, the commission declared Sudan “the world’s most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief.”

The Sudan issue was emblematic of the complex politics of the movement after 1998. Just as the language of universal human rights opened up new worlds for evangelicals, it could also be used to frame other agendas -- such as the anti-Islam politics that came to the fore after the September 11, 2001 attacks. And once again, the push to protect Sudanese Christians sometimes pitted the activist base against pillars of the Republican establishment.

Civil war had wracked Sudan since the mid-1980s, as a series of more or less Islamist governments tried to extend their authority over the south, an area rich in resources, particularly oil. With varying degrees of single-mindedness, Khartoum also attempted to impose Islamic law on a population that was almost entirely made up of Christians, practitioners of traditional African religions and people mixing elements of both belief systems. In some regions, particularly Bahr al-Ghazal, Arabic-speaking tribes destroyed villages and abducted women and children into forced labor -- slavery -- in the north. Starting in the 1980s, the Southern People’s Liberation Army became the de facto government over much of southern Sudan, although various factions also engaged in deadly infighting. The people of the south paid dearly, with estimates of the dead from war, famine and disease as high as two million. By the late 1990s, the south was only one front in the rebellion of peripheral regions against the domineering policies of Khartoum (a pattern into which the conflict in Muslim Darfur, starting in 2003, also fit).

But many evangelical groups, and others, engaged the complex Sudanese civil war in a simplistic way. Their task, as they saw it, was to raise awareness that “Arab Muslims” in the north were oppressing “black Christians” in the south -- murdering the men and taking the women and children as slaves. Evangelical media, and more so, evangelical fundraising, embraced a vision of the Sudan conflict as a religious war—or, sometimes, a religious-racial war. That view involved not only a misreading of the identities of the antagonists, but also a simplification of the multiple concrete political issues at stake. Many people in the south were not Christian, and their “blackness” was generally defined by language or region, not by “race” in any Western sense. The southern rebels often disagreed about whether they wanted independence or simply more participation in the national government. They were certainly determined to get a greater share of the profits from oil, as well as a degree of autonomy from Islamic law; both provisions were ultimately built into the peace agreement signed in 2005.

In the US and Europe, however, many activists enthusiastically advanced the notion that Sudan was a combat zone in a grand “clash of civilizations” that, in the words of prominent spokeswoman Baroness Caroline Cox, arrayed “jihad warriors” against Christian believers. [25] Indeed, this vision of epochal battle made for fine local drama. Activists in President George W. Bush’s boyhood home of Midland, Texas (not coincidentally, the base for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church in 2001 and 2002) organized a series of concerts and reenactments. Sudanese exiles had built a model Sudanese village as part of a vigil; later, the exiles and Texans staged a mock raid, in which parts of the village were burned down and some “fled” into the surrounding desert. [26]

The conflict in Sudan became, for some white evangelicals, a calling card for a certain racial liberalism. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and a prayer leader at both of Bush’s inaugurations, made Sudan a signature issue. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2000, he suggested that religious and racial prejudice explained the West’s failure to intervene where a “Muslim government is waging a brutal war against Christians.” “Just as the West responded on behalf of the Muslims in [the former] Yugoslavia,” Graham wrote, “it is vitally important that Christians in Sudan be granted basic human and religious rights.” But perhaps Christians were being ignored. “Or are the lives of Europeans more valuable than those of Africans?” [27] Subsequent to the September 11 attacks, the Sudan campaigners ratcheted up their rhetoric. Paul Marshall has consistently tied persecution of Christians in Sudan to that in Vietnam and later to the anti-Christian “ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by insurgents in Iraq. Sudan and Iraq, Marshall wrote in 2004, are fronts in a larger war against “Islamofascism.” [28]

The religious-racial framing of the Sudan conflict mobilized African-American Christians as well. African-American leaders like talk show host Joe Madison and Boston minister Gloria White-Hammond traveled to southern Sudan, usually with the Switzerland-based Christian Solidarity International, to perform dramatic “slave redemptions.” Even when some of these activists offered caveats, their reports back home helped to frame the politics of Sudan in terms that resonated profoundly with the history of slavery in the United States. [29] This loose coalition of white evangelical and black congregations, together with synagogues, would later take up the cause of Darfur in a campaign that, initially, was suffused with the same religious-racial framing.

As with IRFA in the late 1990s, the Bush White House aligned itself against the Sudan activists, who had banded together behind the Sudan Peace Act, a measure that called upon the US to press Khartoum to come to an agreement with the southern rebels. After September 11, the Bush administration tried to suspend Congressional discussion of the Sudan Peace Act, in order to enlist Khartoum in the war on terror. As with IRFA, the evangelicals’ allies in Congress wanted the toughest possible bill. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) proposed an amendment prohibiting oil companies that did business in Sudan from US stock exchanges. “When you have to make a choice between dollars and lives,” Bachus said, “you choose lives.” [30] In the end, the Bush administration quashed the Bachus amendment, but could not resist the momentum of the evangelicals, who after all composed a vital portion of the Republican Party’s political base. Due to IRFA, President Bush already faced the annual embarrassment of having to waive sanctions on Saudi Arabia. The Sudan Peace Act passed in 2002, and, as it happened, the resulting US pressure on Khartoum helped to bring about the peace accords with the southern rebels, finalized in 2005, which, though fragile, have greatly reduced attacks against civilians in the south.

Where Are the Liberals?

In the 1980s, American evangelicals awakened to the global Christian community of which they were a part. They embraced international human rights -- a general commitment that both challenged and enhanced their specific commitment to protecting other Christians. In its globalized form, particularly, the anti-persecution movement marked both a fearful sense of embattlement and an expansive dream of freedom.

Elizabeth Castelli argues that religion can serve as “a critical theory of suffering.” We see “on the one hand, religion’s capacity to illuminate the suffering, to focus our attention on it, to provide practices for tending to it, and for critiquing the conditions that bring it into being -- on the other hand, religion’s capacity to rationalize suffering, to inscribe it with divine sanction, to blunt the impulse to alleviate it.” [31]

Beautiful as Castelli’s formulation is, its logic misses the interplay of narratives, the intersecting gestures of solidarity and universality, in the messiness of lived religion. The movement built to protect persecuted Christians became, at least sometimes and for some people, a foundation for humanitarian and social justice activism that has, ultimately, transcended the need to put Christians first. It inscribed suffering with divine sanction and it proposed practices for critiquing the conditions that brought it into being.

Consider what happened to Jars of Clay. After the band returned from their trip to Vietnam and China, vocalist Haseltine was invited to tour parts of Africa (including Uganda and Malawi); later, the band went to South Africa and elsewhere. They came back galvanized by the issue of HIV/AIDS, which they understood immediately as connected to structural economic problems. They also realized that people in Africa suffered from other waterborne diseases, and that their fundamental needs included (among other things) clean well water. Jars of Clay founded a charity, the Blood:Water Mission, to support well digging and to raise HIV/AIDS awareness. They got involved with the ONE Campaign, the global anti-poverty program founded by U2 frontman Bono. They joined a larger group of evangelicals who prayed for aid for Africa at the G-8 summit in 2005, and soon, Haseltine started speaking out politically as well. “Over the years, we really got tired of being lumped in with so many things we didn’t believe,” he told a reporter. “As the political process seems to be narrowing in on ‘Republicans are all Christians, Christians are all Republicans,’ we decided we don’t really want to fall into those categories.” [32] Today, rather than pass the plate for persecuted Christians, Jars of Clay asks concertgoers to contribute to their HIV/AIDS and clean water projects.

American evangelical Christians are afraid: They believe that Christians around the world are persecuted, that Islam is a global threat and that their fundamental values are under assault by a secular culture. American evangelicals are fearless: They are assertive and self-confident, energized and powerful enough to enact legislation that promotes their particular vision of international human rights. These concomitant realities do not form a contradiction so much as a mutually enabling construction. In the last three decades, evangelical fears of persecution have become the impetus for a remarkable surge of activism. The moral geographies of the new evangelical internationalism are in flux. These contain both the seeds of global solidarity and the threat of increasing hostility. Whatever the future holds, however, this history should make one thing clear: We can no longer analyze evangelical politics through the lens of the Moral Majority. Nor does the impending end of the Bush administration herald the end of evangelical influence over US engagement abroad and the cultural imagery that informs it. [33] More than 30 percent of white evangelicals voted for President-elect Barack Obama. A new world has come, and the embodied, border-spanning faith of evangelicals is shaping it for us all.


[1] Elizabeth Castelli has examined the rhetoric of persecution among US Christians in “Persecution Complexes: Identity Politics and the ‘War on Christians’,” Differences 18/3 (Fall 2007) and “Praying for the Persecuted Church,” Journal of Human Rights 4/3 (September 2005).
[2] Elizabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (New York: Harper, 1958).
[3] New York Times, May 7, 1966.
[4] The documents from Manila are accessible online at
[5] The article, written in 1998, appeared as Max Stackhouse, “Why Human Rights Needs God: A Christian Perspective,” in Does Human Rights Need God? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), p.36.
[6] Ibid., p. 39.
[7] Michael Horowitz, “New Intolerance Between Crescent and Cross,” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 1995.
[8] Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: The Untold Story of Persecution Against Christians in the Modern World (Nashville, TN: Word Publishers, 1997).
[9] Alan Hertzke, Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), pp. 183–236.
[10] Mary Cagney, “Senators Champion Rival Bill on Religious Persecution,” Christianity Today, May 18, 1998.
[11] New York Times, December 21, 1997.
[12] Hertzke, p. 187.
[13] Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, “Exporting Religion: Where the Religious Freedom Act Fails,” Commonweal, February 26, 1999.
[14] Hertzke, p. 175.
[15] Tony Carnes, “Curbing Religious Persecution Difficult,” Christianity Today, October 5, 1998; New York Times, April 20, 1997; Washington Post, January 26, 1998.
[16] Ken Silverstein, “So You Want To Trade With a Dictator,” Mother Jones (May/June 1998).
[17] New York Times, December 21, 1997.
[18] Introduction to Brother Andrew, The Narrow Road (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2001), p. 7.
[19] Krishana Kraft, “‘My Faith Was Shaken,’” Campus Life (March/April 2002).
[20] David Neff, “The Passion of Mel Gibson,” Christianity Today (March 2004). As for the controversy over whether the film was anti-Semitic, revived by Gibson’s later anti-Semitic rant at a traffic stop, evangelical intellectuals generally accepted Gibson’s claim that he wanted to show that all people, not only Jews, were guilty of the sins that sent Jesus to the cross.
[21] See, for instance, Judy Coode, “Cover Your Eyes—But Wonder,” Sojourners, February 26, 2004; and Todd Hertz, “Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ for Christ,” Today’s Christian (March/April 2004).
[22] Erika Larson, “Screen Savior,” Charisma (March 2004).
[23] Quoted in Lindy Warren, “Witness to the Passion,” Outreach (February 2004).
[24] David P. Gushee, “Five Reasons Torture Is Always Wrong,” Christianity Today (February 2006).
[25] Interview with Baroness Caroline Cox, Wheaton, Illinois, November 6, 2006.
[26] Hertzke, p. 266.
[27] Franklin Graham, “Stand Up for Sudan’s Christians,” Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2000.
[28] Paul Marshall, “Fundamentalists and Other Fun People: To Know Them Is Not to Despise Them,” Weekly Standard, November 22, 2004.
[29] See, for instance, Kimberly Davis, “The Truth About Slavery in Sudan,” Ebony (August 2001).
[30] Hertzke, p. 282.
[31] Elizabeth Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 360.
[32] Kate Bowman Johnson, “So Much to Sing About,” Sojourners (November 2005).
[33] Andrew Bacevich gets this precisely wrong because he defines foreign policy so narrowly. See “Evangelical Foreign Policy Is Over,” Boston Globe, November 6, 2008.

Filed under: