In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, authorizing the government to impose sanctions on nations violating religious liberty. The law created an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom along with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. It enshrined religious liberty as a goal of United States foreign policy and created a special advisor on the subject within the National Security Council. The act was a milestone in international religious-freedom advocacy. It was also the culmination of years of evangelical activism in favor of a foreign policy that advanced the rights of conscience abroad.
In her book To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations, historian Lauren Frances Turek explores those preceding decades and the role evangelicals played in shaping foreign policy. Much scholarship has focused on evangelical engagement during the 1970s and ’80s on domestic issues such as abortion or the Equal Rights Amendment. And to the extent that this scholarship considers evangelicals’ foreign-policy objectives, the focus tends to fall on their support of Israel. But Turek moves beyond this framing, arguing that evangelicals advanced the cause of religious liberty as a right of all individuals because of their commitment to world evangelism.
The book is organized into two sections, with the first half setting the framework and historical context and the latter half presenting a series of case studies in three regions (Russia, Guatemala, and South Africa) for how evangelicals operated on the foreign stage. Her book illustrates the commendable work evangelicals have done to advance the cause of conscience rights throughout the world. At the same time, it serves as a cautionary tale, showing how evangelicals’ commitment to religious liberty led them to compromise the Good News by supporting authoritarian regimes guilty of human rights abuses.
A Transnational Identity
To Bring the Good News to All Nations begins not with political operatives in back rooms or senators arguing from the halls of Congress but in an evangelism conference: The First International Congress on World Evangelization, held in 1974, which produced the Lausanne Covenant. In this statement, representatives of the various strands of evangelicalism (leaders as different as Billy Graham, John Stott, and René Padilla) affirmed a defense of universal religious liberty and called on the governments of the world “to guarantee freedom of thought and conscience, and freedom to practice and propagate religion in accordance with the will of God and as set forth in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” In the minds of those who signed the Lausanne Covenant, then, the cause of evangelism was inseparable from the fight for religious liberty. As Turek notes, they were advocating not just a narrow freedom to think or believe but a broader freedom to act on their beliefs, primarily through evangelizing others.
In subsequent decades, as evangelicals established further international ties, the global network begun at Lausanne would grow in its commitment to this cause. Missionaries from evangelical churches returned with stories of human rights abuses, which galvanized domestic support for policy intervention. Institutions such as Christianity Today and evangelical seminaries became vocal supporters of Christians living in persecuted countries, especially in the Communist bloc. And in foreign countries, local Christian leaders used their connections through the global network to increase support for their own missionary activities, including radio broadcasts into neighboring closed countries, television ministries, and church plants. The Lausanne Movement had helped create a transnational identity for evangelicals grounded in mutual support and activism.
Turek’s account of the case of the Siberian Seven illustrates the way this global identity could achieve foreign-policy objectives. The Siberian Seven were two Pentecostal families who had tried unsuccessfully to emigrate from the Soviet Union. They eventually fled to the United States embassy, where they were sheltered in the basement for several years.
When news of their plight reached America, evangelical organizations mobilized and urged the United States government to intervene. The National Religious Broadcasters regularly published stories and dispatches from the family. Evangelical human rights organizations testified at numerous congressional hearings on their behalf. And Billy Graham even visited them during a tour of Russia (though some faulted him for being insufficiently critical of the Soviet government’s abuses).
Senator Roger Jepsen, the founder of an evangelical human rights organization, argued in one of the congressional hearings, “At issue is not only the freedom of seven individuals, Mr. Chairman. As leaders of the free world, [the question is whether America will] stand up and speak out against a violation of the most basic human right—the freedom of thought and worship.” Eventually, after the intervention of President Reagan, the families were allowed to leave the Soviet Union and travel to Israel (and then to the United States). The case study demonstrates just how quickly and effectively evangelicals in America had adopted the language of human rights and honed their ability to shape policy decisions in that direction.
However, Turek’s book also reminds us of the political complexities that weakened evangelical commitments to supporting the rights of all peoples. The same Reagan government and evangelical groups responsible for defending the Siberian Seven also supported the dictatorship of José Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala. As Turek explains, this was because they preferred Montt’s authoritarianism to the totalitarian regime the Marxist rebels in that country were likely to institute.
Montt was a professed believer when he took control of the government in 1982. His attendance at a Pentecostal church, el Verbo (an outgrowth of the Jesus People movement of the 1970s), his appointment of church leaders to cabinet positions, and his initial push to root out government corruption all were hopeful signals of a new day in the war-torn country. However, Montt was also guilty of using state power to punish those believed sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, and some thousands of indigenous peoples were killed or “vanished” during his time in office. Many evangelicals took a similar approach to apartheid in South Africa. Fearing the effects of a possible Marxist takeover, they supported a more gradual end to the country’s institutionalized racial segregation.
Every Kind of Oppression
Turek notes that prior to its article on religious liberty, the Lausanne Covenant contains a statement on “Christian Social Responsibility,” which features a call to “share [God’s] concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression.”
As her final chapters show, American evangelicals often failed to live up to this commitment, preferring the strong governments of anti-Communist regimes—human rights abuses notwithstanding—to the possible threat of another country falling to the Red menace. Turek does well to remind us of the difficulties of combining the advance of God’s kingdom with the foreign-policy interests of the United States. If we are to take the Good News to all the world, we cannot simply offer spiritual freedom while neglecting material reality. Nor can we treat certain groups or classes of people as expendable for the sake of larger religious-liberty objectives.
Almost 21 years after the signing of the International Religious Freedom Act, a group of sport fans made national news at an NBA game by holding up signs that read “Google Uighurs.” The signs drew attention to the plight of the persecuted ethnic minority in China, whose members have endured imprisonment, reeducation camps resembling those of the Holocaust, and campaigns of forced sterilization engineered by the Chinese Communist Party as a means of reproductive genocide.
Various religious leaders have spoken out against the injustice, with evangelical leaders calling on the United States government to intervene and impose sanctions under the 1998 law. Although some of these appeals rested on the freedom to evangelize, most focused on the basic rights of the Uighurs to live in accordance with conscience, illustrating how the intervening years have further solidified this mentality among foreign-policy-minded evangelicals. At the same time, there were reports that the Trump administration, which enjoyed support from many evangelicals, was less than forceful in its condemnation because it feared endangering a trade deal.
Turek’s book should remind us that it is not enough simply to seek the right to evangelize or to press the cause of global religious liberty; there needs to be a corresponding commitment to the rights of all peoples to live in freedom, no matter what other political gains are involved. In their foreign-policy outreach, evangelicals should preach good news not just for persecuted Christians but for all who suffer under various forms of oppression.
Alex Ward is pursuing a master of theology in church history from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He works for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.