When asked why Christians don’t care more about global religious persecution, religious liberty scholar Timothy Shah becomes nearly apoplectic, calling their lack of engagement on the issue “appalling.”
“It is beyond outrageous that we don’t have a much greater mobilization on the part of Christians in this country about religious liberty. Setting aside the challenges in this country, we live in a world of the most grotesque, outrageous and escalating religious persecution. There is no outrage about this,” says the associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. “What on earth is going on? What worse forms of persecution would have to happen?”
Citing recent attacks on Christians in Egypt, Kenya, India, Sri Lanka and Tanzania — a country the State Department has highlighted as a model of religious tolerance despite this year’s beheading of a Pentecostal pastor and assassination of a Roman Catholic priest — Shah wonders why these publicly known attacks provoke no response. “Who is going to do something about it?” he asks.
Shah spoke on religious liberty concerns at an Oct. 10 panel discussion in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, also on the panel, suggested that it’s difficult for Christians to know exactly how to respond to the global persecution of Christians.
“There is a slight tension in certain ways between the desire to be champions of a completely ecumenical religious liberty at home and the way that people I think naturally think about the persecution of Christians overseas. Most of the persecution you’re describing is happening along the fault line of Christianity and Islam — and so in certain ways the most natural way that American Christians and Western Christians relate to that is not by thinking of it in terms of the somewhat abstract value of religious liberty but thinking of it in terms of the 1400-year-old conflict between Christianity and Islam,” he said. “If you’re sort of an ordinary middle class Christian, your contact with that far-off fault line is maybe through the mosque that’s being built in your town.”
So it’s not that Christians don’t care about the persecution of Christians by Islamists so much as that they aren’t presented with many opportunities to effectively engage the conflict. Rather than join the fray in Kenya, they might fight the Ground Zero mosque.
Or as Douthat put it: “You decide the way to express your solidarity with Christians in Tanzania is to vote for a misguided anti-Sharia bill in your home state.”
Breaking: Christians Highly Focused on Religious Liberty
The day after the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission panel discussion, the 2013 Values Voter Summit, an annual political conference for social conservatives, kicked off. The three-day conference includes a Straw Poll. Most reporters, fascinated with horse race political coverage, focused on the candidate election results. (Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won in a landslide.) But perhaps they also should have paid attention to what attendees listed as their top three issues of concern:
1) Protecting religious liberty
2) Supporting pro-life policies
3) Repealing Obamacare
Social conservatives have been involved in the pro-life movement for decades. And Obamacare isn’t just unpopular among social conservatives, but the country at large. But religious liberty at the top? Last year’s poll — an unscientific query of attendees in a multiple-choice format — had opposition to abortion receiving more than 40 percent of attendees’ votes as the most important issue of concern while religious liberty garnered only 18 percent of the vote.
Undoubtedly much of these social conservatives’ concern is domestic. The Obama administration is being sued by everyone from Wheaton College to the Little Sisters of the Poor over its Health and Human Services’ dictate that they’re not religious enough to avoid providing insurance plans that cover — at no cost to the employee — contraception, abortifacients and sterilization. In fact, there are some 74 cases and over 200 plaintiffs representing hospitals, universities, businesses and schools involved in that key religious liberty battle. And religious liberty and gay rights are on something of a collision course for small business owners and government employees whose religious beliefs hold that sexual complementarity is a key component of marriage.
But as the recent public reaction to Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria on behalf of rebels showed, American Christians are increasingly concerned about global religious persecution as well. This marked a key turning point for conservative Christians. American foreign policy in the George W. Bush era was made by a president closely affiliated with evangelical Christianity. The thrust of his agenda was that the United States should work to democratize the Middle East. To take a bit from a standard Bush speech from 2004:
And to protect America, we will lead the cause of freedom. I believe in the transformational power of liberty. I want the youngsters here to understand what has taken place in a short period of time. Afghanistan was once ruled by the Taliban. Young girls couldn’t go to school. If their mothers didn’t toe the ideological line of the haters, they’d be whipped in the public squares and sometime shot in the stadiums. Because we acted in our own self-defense, millions of Afghan citizens went to the polls to vote for the President, and the first voter was a 19-year-old woman.
Freedom is on the march. Freedom is precious. Freedom is powerful. And we’re better off for it. Iraq will have Presidential elections in January. Think how far that country has come from the days of torture chambers and the brutality of Saddam Hussein. Fifty million people now live in freedom because we acted to secure ourselves. We’re more secure. The world is better off as freedom is on the march. I believe everybody yearns to be free in this world. Freedom is not America’s gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to each man and woman in this world.
Couching U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq as bringing God’s gifts to everyone was great politics. But regardless of what one thinks about the general foreign policy approach the country has been using in various Muslim-dominated countries, the results for Christians have been absolutely disastrous. As Lela Gilbert, a journalist focused on religious liberty in the Middle East, has noted:
Since 2003, more than half of Iraq’s Christian population of 800,000 has fled. One horrific church bombing October 31, 2010, killing 58, made the news. But there was much more…
Since late 2010, Egypt’s Coptic Christian community – 8,000,000 strong – has been under assault – tens of thousands have fled.
In recent months, the Christians have been blamed for the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime.
In the span of just three days, between August 14 and 16, 38 Churches were destroyed; 23 were vandalized. Fifty-eight Coptic homes were burned and looted. Eighty-five Copt-owned shops, 16 pharmacies and 3 hotels were demolished. Six Christians were killed; seven Copts were kidnapped…
Now hundreds of thousands of Syrian Christians have fled; others are bleeding and dying, often targeted by Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels who demand that they convert to Islam or die.
Democratizing Iraq meant replacing a secular dictator who was, somehow, better for Christians than the current leadership. Support for the Arab Spring has included support for new leadership that is frequently much more hostile to the Christian community. In Syria it has meant siding with Al Qaeda-linked rebels who have outright killed Christians for their faith.
And all of this American foreign policy has been practiced in an environment where political leaders respond to every act of Islamist terrorism with increasingly defiant proclamations of Islam’s inherent peacefulness.
Enter Rand Paul
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, spoke at the 2013 Values Voter Summit on October 11. Where most politicians gave remarks on a range of issues of concern to social conservatives, Paul spoke for nearly 20 minutes about one thing and one thing only: changing American foreign policy so it doesn’t contribute to the global persecution of Christians. He began by addressing the reality of the threat:
Ever since 9/11, commentators have tried to avoid pointing fingers at Islam. While it is fair to point out that most Muslims are not committed to violence against Christians, this is not the whole truth and we should not let political correctness stand in the way of the truth. Yes, it is a minority of Muslims who condone killing of Christians. But unfortunately that minority numbers in the tens of millions.
He pointed out that the rebels in Syria who have beheaded and shot Christians for their faith are allies of the Islamic Rebels President Obama is now arming. To that, he said:
American tax dollars should never be spent to prop up a war on Christianity. But that is what is happening right now. As Christians we should take a stand and fight against any of our tax dollars funding the persecution of Christians.
After discussing religious liberty violations in Zanzibar, Kenya, Indonesia, Guinea and Egypt, Paul pointed out that he tried — and failed — to get the Senate to stop giving Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government $1.5 billion in aid earlier this year. He discussed the resolution he introduced in the Senate calling for the immediate release of Saeed Abedini, an American pastor being imprisoned and tortured in Iran with the aim of forcing him to renounce his faith.
Paul discussed how American military and financial aid has gone abroad to regimes that don’t support religious liberty. He mentioned Libya, where “Benghazi militias raided a Christian church rounding up over a hundred Christians accusing them of being missionaries because they possessed Bibles and crosses” and Pakistan, which recently had its deadliest attack on Christians in history. A Pakistani Christian woman named Asia Bibi currently sits on death row on trumped up blasphemy charges.
The speech was noteworthy for how it not only spoke clearly about the threat posed by radical Islamists but also by how it put the onus on fellow Muslims to police them. It also spoke of healthy intellectual traditions within Islam without resorting to the syncretism embraced by many politicians. In fact, he subtly pointed out that a conversion of hearts and the Gospel of Jesus might be part of the peace process. He concluded:
In the meantime, take action. Pray for a solution. Hold your politicians accountable for protecting life and standing up against the war on Christianity.
Given the percentage of the American population that is Christian or otherwise cares about religious liberty and humanitarianism, it’s surprising that no politician until Rand has capitalized on the desire to fight the global persecution of Christians, which has become an epidemic even if the media coverage of it has been lacking or misleading.
Ceasing to fund and arm those who persecute Christians or tolerate the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities isn’t just a fresh idea, it also fits in perfectly with Rand Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy. After a dozen years of wars — costly in terms of the American body count, the toll on military families and the sheer cost — Americans are simply more receptive to a more Constitutionally restrained foreign policy. But Paul is showing that he knows how to talk about such restraint in a compelling and inspirational manner to audiences that have been previously swayed by a more interventionist approach.
The lack of Christian engagement on the global religious persecution of their sisters and brothers in the faith has been, as religious liberty scholar Shah puts it, appalling. Paul’s prescription — acknowledgement of the problem, prayer, and a commitment to stop helping spread the persecution — are steps worthy of consideration.