After 34 years in Congress, Frank Wolf, the renowned gadfly for human rights and religious liberty, retires in January. But this 75-year-old won’t be browsing Golfsmith for clubs. He’s more likely to fly back to East Africa, where witnessing severe famine in Ethiopia changed the course of his life in the early 1980s.

As co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Wolf has traveled the world’s hot spots; adopted Gao Zhisheng, the dissident lawyer from China; criticized the State Department’s inattention to human rights; and fought to end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Wolf’s signature achievement in Congress was the passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and established the International Religious Freedom Office at the State Department, including its ambassador-at-large. This was a critical step forward in establishing religious freedom as a priority in US foreign policy.

Admired by conservatives, Wolf’s voting record in Congress gained a 100 percent rating by the National Right to Life. But he received a 0 percent from the American Civil Liberties Union. He voted to defund Planned Parenthood, and voted against gay marriage and legalized gambling.

The Virginia Republican, who represents wealthy Loudoun and Fairfax counties, believes there are competent insiders in Congress to take the religious liberty baton forward. But he agrees with many experts that religious freedom is declining worldwide.

Wolf calls on evangelical leaders to step up their game for human rights among all at-risk faith groups—Christian, Jewish, Islamic minorities, Bahá’í, and others. He spoke recently to Timothy C. Morgan, CT senior editor, global journalism.

People who focus on the decline in religious freedom have told me repeatedly that our State Department is part of the problem.

I agree, even during the Bush and Reagan years. When Reagan put the words evil empire and tear down the wall in his speeches, the State Department took it out. Reagan put it back in.

Perhaps the problem is greater now. Our new ambassador to China, Max Baucus, is a nice fellow from Montana. He does not speak out on human rights in China. It’s all business, business, business, trade, trade, trade. The Chinese know that’s what we’re interested in, so they don’t move on the other side.

We need to hear from the pews, from outside of Washington, DC. When we passed the Religious Freedom Commission, many churches had a Religious Freedom Sunday in November. Few churches have them now. Churches are changing their emphasis and approach.

Article continues below

Who inherits your bullhorn for religious freedom after you leave Congress?

Many good people will: Congressmen Randy Hultgren of Illinois, Mark Meadows from North Carolina, Chris Smith of New Jersey, Trent Franks of Arizona.

Many can pick up the baton.

I’m not leaving the issue of religious freedom. I could have stayed here for many years. But I felt I could do more outside of Congress than in Congress. I don’t play golf. My aim is to mobilize on the outside to have an impact. I can take what I’ve learned, what works, what doesn’t work, how to take it outside, and hopefully have an impact to advocate for the voiceless.

Who most influenced your life to become a champion for human rights?

I was elected in 1980, but did nothing on this issue for 4 years. Congressman Tony Hall called me after he returned from Ethiopia during the famine in the early 1980s, so I naively flew to Ethiopia. What I saw in the camp, kids dying, was life-changing. In 1985, Tony asked me to go to Romania during Ceausescu’s dictatorship. It was dark.Those two trips led to where I am now.

Because you were on the ground, you smelled it, and you saw how people lived?

You just said the words: You smell it. You just go and see it and feel it. You taste it. To travel to see, to feel, to touch, and to smell makes the difference. Sometimes it hits you on the way back or when you get back. Other times it hits you when you are there. The smell is the key. In the United States I live in a nice community. I don’t worry for my family’s safety, food and comfort. You can see the difference.

Going to Africa to see what’s going on opened my eyes. It was all new. Outside one refugee camp I visited, women were being whipped to keep them from getting inside the camp.

I encourage Americans to go to places like that. You see it. You touch it. It’s different than reading a book.

Overall, are you hopeful or pessimistic about the future for religious freedom?

The honest answer is pessimistic. What we need is a revival, for the faith community to practice the teachings of Jesus, to bring them into the marketplace in a winsome, loving way—not with voting cards and voting records.

In my own Presbyterian denomination, I spoke out on the House floor against the PCUSA vote to disinvest in Israel. I also asked Presbyterians to sign a petition with roughly 260 religious leaders of every denomination for the special envoy to advocate for Middle East religious minorities: Christians, Amadis, Bahá’ís and others. Presbyterian leaders refused because they thought it would offend the Muslims.

Article continues below

The pessimistic camp is not a good one for me to be in.

What hope is there?

The book A God-Sized Vision by Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge includes a chapter on the 1857 revival. It was led by Jeremiah Lanphier, an average person like me—a business person, not a great evangelist.

Lanphier’s group met off Wall Street for one hour on Wednesdays during lunch. The ground rules were you come in at 12 noon, but it’s okay if you’re late or leave early. You sing a hymn. You have a prayer. No prayer can go longer than five minutes. No controversial prayers. Close with a hymn and a prayer. The revival spread nationwide.

If revival happens, I will be optimistic. If not, I will stay in the pessimistic corner.

What would you say to a young, promising Christian leader who asks, “Should I come to Washington? Is this where things get done?”

I had dreamed of being in Congress since third grade. People would tell me I couldn’t because I stuttered. I’ve been able to do some things, but currently not much is being done in Washington. The Congress is polarized. Not everyone has to come here to change things. I would not discourage people from coming. If you come, make sure you are grounded or this place will capture you.

Why do you say the arts should take up the cause for religious liberty in a more robust way?

The Chariots of Fire beach running scene just gets me. Go see the movie Braveheart. The poet Allen Ginsberg said, “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.” He was right.

Right now, we’re making a video about Pakistani Christian human rights leader Shahbaz Bhatti, a good friend of mine, who was assassinated in March 2011. The film includes Washington’s Cardinal Wuerl and Baghdad, Iraq’s Canon Andrew White.

Canon White recently told students at a Christian college chapel service, “Don’t take care. Take risks.” Does that resonate with you?

I hope so, although I don’t want to put myself in the same category as Canon White. He lives in a tough neighborhood.

I’ve traveled to Chechnya, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. When the Afghan war broke out, Congressmen Tony Hall and Joe Pitts and I wanted to go. When we could not get into the country, we went to Pakistan, jumped on a World Food Program flight, and went into countryside to see what more could be done.

Article continues below

Is there an ideal foundation for this kind of advocacy?

Luke 4:18-19, Ecclesiastes 4:1, and many other Bible verses. People worldwide know America’s charter, the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights . . . Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” They may not know everything else in it, but, boy, that resonates. For the West, America has provided leadership as the city on a hill. The light is dim now. It had been bright.

Should the United States hold out a carrot to nations, while saying, “Look, if you stress human rights, it will benefit your nation”?

The carrots are aid and trade. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fell because of how he treated his people. The Chinese government will probably fall in 10 to 15 years because of actions such as arresting members and pastors of the government-sponsored Three Self Church. Good people in governments worldwide look to us as the model.

Tony Hall went to a Muslim country. The ambassador said, “Mr. Hall, this is a Muslim country. You’ve got to be careful.” A top leader in that country asked, “Why are you here?”

Tony said, “We come in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth . . .” This Muslim leader then asked the American ambassador, “Why don’t you ever talk to me about Jesus? My mother used to tell me about Jesus.” But that ambassador had been telling Tony to not mention anything controversial.

We have much to offer if we come in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.

What are the big threats to religious freedom?

People of faith are under attack in different ways. In China, 24 Catholic bishops and hundreds of Protestant pastors are under house arrest. In Tibet protests, at least 118 Buddhist monks and nuns have set themselves on fire. Evangelicals, Catholics, and Buddhists are persecuted in Vietnam. Christians in Damascus, Syria, have told us horrendous stories.

In Iraq, the Christian community has dwindled from 1.5 million to 250,000 to 300,000. Iraq was the setting of more biblical activity than any country other than Israel. Abraham is from Iraq. Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jonah are buried there.

Article continues below

Political leadership in both American parties and the church in the West have failed to advocate and speak out. Both the church in West and the political leadership of America have lost their voices.

President Reagan spoke out strongly, saying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were covenants, not just with the people in Philadelphia, but with the entire world. China’s students in Tiananmen knew that.

But advocacy is diminishing. The church hasn’t weighed in on these issues. The political leadership won’t move on it without hearing from the faith base.

Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini has been imprisoned in Iran since 2013. What can be done to gain his release?

In the Middle East, there’s a saying: First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people. The Jewish community are the Saturday people; Christians are the Sunday people. We don’t have much leverage over Iran.

The administration hasn’t done everything it can for Abedini, whose wife appeared before my subcommittee, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Though we asked the administration to meet with her, Secretary Kerry would not.

President Ford didn’t meet with Solzhenitsyn, but President Reagan did. Bush met with the Dalai Lama. Projecting American influence abroad is diminished now in reality as well as perception. We don’t have the leverage.

Soviet-era dissident Natan Sharansky told me, “When people advocated for me in the West, my life got better.” Chinese dissidents told me the same; they even received better food. Much of that was in the 1980s. But now our influence must be regained. May all the faiths speak out and adopt these people.

Churches can adopt the imprisoned, write the Chinese embassy and government, the American embassy in Beijing and the White House. If you’re in China, visit their family.

The Bible calls for turning the other cheek and being the Good Samaritan. But terrorists are beheading relief workers and journalists. It’s dangerous out there.

Ecclesiastes 4:1 says, “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter.”

Jesus calls us to advocate for prisoners. Religious freedom is so fundamental. As we follow Jesus, we should also advocate for persecuted Bahá’í in Iran and for persecuted Buddhists in Tibet. This emphasis on public justice cuts across religious fault lines.

Article continues below

In Luke 4:18–19, Jesus reads from Isaiah at the Nazareth synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The oppressed are Buddhists monks in Tibet’s Drapchi prison, and the Amadi in jail. Power is on the side of the oppressors. The gospel calls us to be comforters.

Let’s bring faith into the marketplace. All pastors and all churches and all denominations will want to embrace this.

What’s the right response when nations imprison human right activists like China’s Gao Zhisheng?

The right response is what the Jewish community did in the 1980s for the Soviet refuseniks. Christians should pray, adopt prisoners of conscience and flood the Chinese government, American embassy, and the White House with letters. All the dissidents say the more publicity they receive, the better their life gets, the greater their opportunity. I adopted Gao, but he’s out now. In some respects, we in the West hold the key to the cell. Will we put the key in and turn it?

I would love to see human rights and religious freedom among the top issues in the presidential race or for Congress. The presidential debates never included a question on this issue. Those running Congress must articulate positions on what they will do for the persecuted church.

If religious liberty could be among the five issues that candidates must articulate their concern, it would make a big difference.

You can follow Tim Morgan on Twitter @tmorgan815.

Photo Credit: Enough Project / Flickr