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Foreign Policy Evangelists

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
August 23, 2006

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Evangelical Christians have long played a prominent role in U.S. public life, contributing to a tension between the country's religious impulses and secular leanings. The Atlantic's Ross Douthat calls the religious influences a mixed blessing, "giving us Prohibition [of alcohol] as well as abolition" of slavery (First Things). But today's American evangelicals, numbering at least 40 million, are expanding their traditionally domestic focus and starting to wield some clout beyond U.S. borders (CSMonitor). Views are mixed on what that means for the direction of U.S. foreign policy. This new Backgrounder looks at the rising foreign policy activism of evangelicals.

For President Bush, known for open expressions of his Christian faith, evangelicals have been a boon during difficult times. With domestic support generally flagging for the war in Iraq, evangelicals continue to back the Bush administration more than any group. They also tend to broadly support his global democracy-promotion initiatives. But New Republic editor John B. Judis, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, worries about an "apocalyptic" religious mentality taking hold in U.S. policy circles that embrace revolutionary rather than evolutionary change. Judis believes such a mentality was "evident in the administration's belief that invading Iraq would set off a chain reaction that would transform the entire Middle East" (PDF). Kevin Phillips, author of a book warning of an American theocracy, says the White House is playing with fire by "courting end-times theologians and electorates for whom the Holy Lands are a battleground of Christian destiny" (WashPost). Even some conservatives, such as the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald, are worried about too sharp a drift toward religious conformity in the governing party: "Our Republican president says that he bases 'a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions' on his belief in 'the Almighty' and in the Almighty's 'great gifts' to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement?" (The American Conservative)

But a number of experts caution against misinterpreting the impact of evangelicals on Bush's foreign policy. CFR Senior Fellow Walter Russell Mead writes in the latest Foreign Affairs: "Religion in the United States is too pluralistic for any single current to dominate." Mead does note a rising evangelical foreign policy establishment but says "it is likely to prove a valuable, if not always easy, partner for the mostly secular or liberal Christian establishment." Experts point out it was evangelicals' ability to forge a coalition with non-Christians and secular liberals that helped propel some notable human rights legislation, including the North Korean Human Rights Act (PDF) and the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors freedom of worship worldwide. Similar coalitions put pressure on the administration to broker peace in Sudan and get serious on AIDS prevention in Africa. On the question of policy toward Israel, evangelicals have differed on issues such as whether to support the administration's backing for a two-state solution, and whether to stop the flow of aid to Palestinians under the rule of Hamas.

Most recently, some in the evangelical movement have taken a stand on global warming. A group earlier this year formed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, releasing a statement that said Christians have a moral duty to urgently address the problem with actions such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

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