In matters of foreign policy and international diplomacy, the spectrum of moral and strategic choices often ranges from bad to worse. You have to balance the goods worth pursuing with the ills that accompany them, and painful tradeoffs are all but unavoidable.
Evangelicals have sometimes learned this lesson the hard way in the course of their advocacy for religious liberty around the world. As historian Lauren Frances Turek demonstrates in To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations, efforts on behalf of persecuted believers have occasionally coexisted with at least partial support for unsavory leaders and regimes. Alex Ward, a church history graduate student working at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, reviewed the book for CT.
“Turek’s account of the case of the Siberian Seven illustrates the way [evangelical global networks] could achieve foreign-policy objectives,” he writes. “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.”
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