Exporting Right-Wing Christianity
By Jean Hardisty and Chip Berlet
Progress in human welfare and peaceful relations is never assured. It is always a struggle, and human rights activists are at the forefront. To join the struggle most effectively, we need to know about the forces that oppose human rights: who they are, what they believe, how they mobilize, what strategies and tactics they employ, and who they intend to target and convert.
In this paper, we examine one anti-human rights sector; right-wing U.S.-based Christians, especially evangelicals and Pentecostals – known in the U.S. as the Christian Right. Newly empowered politically, it is increasingly becoming an international force working to oppose gay rights, women’s rights, and other symptoms of modernity. By promoting traditionalism in other countries, it is exporting “the culture wars.”
Conservative U.S. evangelical churches have broadened a long tradition of international missionary work, intended to convert and “save” individuals, to include political work related to a right-wing political agenda. The resulting assault on human rights is alarming
In thinking and writing about the Christian Right, we are careful not to conflate its work and agenda with that of religious bodies in general. Our brush must not be broad or simplistic. Only if we have accurate information and a thorough understanding of the best means of defending human rights will our liberal, reformist, and progressive work succeed.
A Profile of Right-wing Christianity in the United States.
Although Conservative evangelical Christianity has always been a presence within U.S. Christianity, it has, since the mid-1960s, increased its presence and influence in the political sphere, especially within the Republican Party. As conservative Christians have demanded a place at the political table, the lines between church and state have blurred. The strongest vehicle for this growing influence has been what are known as the “social issues” – including reproductive rights, gay rights, homeschooling, and marriage and divorce.
The U.S. Christian Right is actually a spectrum of ideological and spiritual profiles. But across all sectors there is a focus on the “culture wars,” officially acknowledged in U.S. national politics by right-wing Republican candidate Patrick J. Buchanan in his 1992 “Culture Wars” address to the Republican National Convention. In the transcript below we can see the rhetoric of right-wing populism in service to a claim that liberals are conspiring against God and country. In throwing his support behind the nomination of President George W. Bush for a second term, Buchanan said:
There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton is on the other side, and George Bush is on our side …. [W]e must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.
Buchanan invokes the Culture War frame to support specific right-wing ideological positions on the economy, gender roles, and White racial solidarity. The Culture War also involves a conservative critique of multiculturalism and ‘political correctness’. Much of this ideological substance is compatible with conservative evangelicalism and Pentecostalism and serves as common ground with international conservative Christians. Among Christian conservatives, the most right-wing sectors (Reconstructionism and Dominionism) advocate a civil government based on the teachings of the Bible.
In some cases, U.S. conservative Christians have looked for success for their agenda by establishing a presence in global bodies, such as the United Nations, and in countries with sympathetic adherents. We saw this in the case of Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America, which has established a presence at the United Nations. Another method of establishing an international presence is to do so electronically, as in the case of Rev. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family which, during the 1980s and 1990s, established a global network of radio stations throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America that broadcast his radio talk shows. Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church holds annual electronic events, called Global Leadership Summits that claim to reach “into more than 200 cities in 70+ countries across the globe via videocast.” And a third way is to hold international conferences on “Faith,” “Families,” “Leadership,” and other conservative social themes.
Missionary work has been part of virtually every sector of U.S. Christianity throughout the 20th Century. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon church) are perhaps best known for its long-established missionary work, and the winning of souls for Christ is a long-standing work of Christian virtue. Its missionaries have been met with hostility, welcomed as enlighteners, and ignored as irrelevant. Some people have been converted as a result of this work.
But there was always a limitation in this type of missionary work: often its impact was local and people could ignore its teachings without sanction. As the Culture Wars heated up in the United States, with conservative Christian sectors enmeshed in the conflict, it became increasingly clear, in the U.S. and internationally, that conservative Christian positions on the social issues are best “lobbied” at a national level.
With this understanding – and increasing political standing in the U.S. – conservative Christian organizations have gone into the international arena with new sophistication and greater ambitions. We are now seeing a new form of Christian missionary work around the globe.
The Current Change from Missionary Work to Political Work
Sophisticated as that evangelical work has been, a new approach has strengthened the global reach of U.S.-based right-wing Christianity. Although local and regional evangelizing has been effective, it reaches only those who want to follow conservative Christian dictates. Far more effective is to legislate Christian-friendly laws that apply to all members of the nation state.
This thinking is now widespread among U.S. Christian evangelicals, and African and Latin American nations have been their leading targets for organizing. They have exported the themes of the U.S. “culture wars” that now characterize some international evangelical work. In addition to Christian organizations, a number of pastors of U.S. megachurches, such as Rick Warren, Scott Lively, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar, have actively courted African support for their agendas.
Perhaps the most well-known example is the proposed Ugandan law, “The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009,” which was presented to Parliament on Oct. 14, 2009. While it has not yet been passed into law in Uganda, the proposed law provides a good case study of the influence of right-wing U.S. evangelicalism in the affairs of African nations. Using the well-worn reasoning that homosexuality is a colonial import in Africa and will destroy the nation if left unopposed, Scott Lively, President of Abiding Truth Ministries and a published Holocaust Revisionist author, whipped up Ugandan resentment against homosexuality by holding a seminar in Kampala in May, 2009, soon followed by the development of the legislation.
Outside forces alone could not have done such dramatic political work. In the case of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, a major organizer of the anti-gay conference was Ugandan Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network in Kampala.
Since the end of colonialism, Christianity (especially evangelical and Pentecostal sectors), has grown exponentially across the global South. David Barrett and Todd Johnson found,for instance, that Protestantism in Africa has grown from 30 million in 1945 to 411 million by 2005. Catholicism, on the other hand, has increased merely 1 percent, from 13 to 14 percent. David Martin focusses on the Rise of Pentecostalism in the global South, noting that, whereas in the U.S. and Western Europe Pentecostalism is a subset of evangelicalism, it is its own religion in much of the global South. As such, it can mold itself to the local culture and can appeal to both “have-not” nationals and middle class conservatives.
Increasingly, these conservative Christians in the global South are participating in politics. U.S. evangelical and Pentecostal Christians would like to have an impact on that political work, by joining the local forces and by offering assistance and/or training. When such collaboration occurs, the resulting conservative political activism is felt primarily in the host country. But the U.S. evangelical establishment benefits as its influence grows. A mutual goal of a “win” on the cultural issues is a boost to both the U.S. Right and to its international allies.
Funding Sources for International Right-wing Christian Work
It is very hard to estimate the actual amount of money that U.S.-based evangelical and Christian Right organizations spend on projects outside the United States. Identifying the funding of policy-related initiatives is even more difficult for a number of reasons:
- Reporting requirements of the federal government are loose to begin with, allow churches to be very vague as to what details they must report, and are seldom enforced.
- What an evangelical mission might label as “Humanitarian Aid” could, for example, include programs to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS that stress abstinence from sexual activity and discourage the use of condoms—both considered failed approaches by most of the international public health community.
- Very large churches, dubbed “mega-churches,” can have thousands of members and the financial ability to raise funds to sponsor their own international projects with few if any governmental reporting requirements. The same is true with some smaller churches with parishioners who are very wealthy.
According to Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia and a project director at Political Research Associates:
Conservative funding to Africa is a new development. Historically, churches in Africa depended on financial aid from western mainline churches for most of their operations. … In the 1980s, IRD (Institute for Religion and Democracy) and other renewal movements attacked such U.S. churches as Marxist sympathizers.
Homosexuality has proved a useful for the Right in driving a wedge in this relationship. The accusations of “support for terrorism” or “Marxist leanings” have also proved useful wedges. When U.S. right-wing funders offer to replace the money formerly provided by mainline Protestant sources, it can be difficult for recipients to see the dangers of that money subtly shaping the agenda of the recipient religious bodies.
U.S. Human Rights vs. Global Human Rights
In the United States, the political Left often uses human rights as a reform framework. but it is seldom used in mainstream national policy discussions. When violations of human rights are discussed in the U.S. media, it is usually in reference to torture, execution, and illegal imprisonment of political enemies in other countries. Globally (as discussed at the United Nations, for instance), human rights as a working framework demands individual and group rights in a setting of tolerance and non-violence. A progressive human rights perspective sees liberty, freedom, laws and rights as essential, and envisions justice as the goal.
Without such a framework, U.S. reform efforts are often approached issue by issue. And further, when human rights is not consciously part of the definition of democracy, it can become defined simply as the equal right to vote and to own property.
Globally, reformers often apply the human rights framework to the pillaging of vulnerable communities by international corporations in pursuit of natural resources. Often, corporations manipulate local resentments and tribal rivalries, and even mobilize local militias to gain access to natural resources. U.S. conservative Christianity is silent in criticism of these human rights violations because U. S. conservative Christians often conflate Christian values drawn from the Bible with secular values drawn from ideological “Free Market” capitalism, itself influenced by a distinct form of Protestant Calvinism. This conflation opens the door to the use of religion (especially evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity) as a reliable ally of unregulated capitalism, even its most rapacious practices.
An example is the widespread practice in Nigeria of a Pentecostal practice known as “the gospel of Prosperity,” a form of worship that promises riches in return for faithful Christian worship. In the U.S., the two largest Prosperity churches are Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Ministries in Houston, Texas, and Creflo Dollar’s Atlanta-based World Changers Church International, a part of Creflo Dollar Ministries. Both have large international practices and ambitions.
In Nigeria, enormous megachurches preach the gospel of Prosperity, prominently, Bishop David Oyedepo’s Living Faith Church, which operates from a 565 acre headquarters called Canaanland. The parallel practice and similar size make the gospel of Prosperity megachurches perfect allies in international collaboration for mutual gain.
Conservative Christians, whose right-wing secular allies have been actively opposed to a human rights framework, include a major U.S. organization, the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) that works to crush liberal forces within U.S. Protestantism, including many that have pursued a human rights perspective. The IRD works at both the national and global levels and seeks allies internationally to oppose liberalism within Protestant denominations. Although a favorite IRD target is the Methodist Church, its best-known work has involved the effort to split the Anglican Congregation (in the U.S, known as the Episcopal church) to prevent the entrance of gay priests and ministers into the clergy.
IRD also agitates against Muslim “extremism” and “terror.” As IRD describes its work on its web site:
Today the worldwide community faces danger such as it has never known before. Radical Islamists are waging a war of violent terrorism, causing chaos and intimidation across the globe. In our writing and speaking, IRD’s Religious Liberty Program highlights the connection between the situation of Christians in the Islamic world and the effect and influence of global jihad/radical Islam on Western civilization in order to both support our brothers and sisters in their ongoing struggle and to learn from their experience.
We connect U.S. Christians and churches with their international partners through our religious liberty work, fostering reasoned, effective social witness on Christian persecution and other human rights issues.
For supporters of human rights, the impact of conservative evangelical and Pentecostal Christians – both those working from the U.S. and those nationally based in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Latin America – is a major obstacle to the protection of minorities and the pursuit of democracy. Through attacks on gay rights, women’s reproductive rights, and even environmentalism (which is seen as a “liberal hoax”), as well as the demonization of Islam and tolerance of non-Christian religions, many right-wing evangelical and Pentecostal Christians stand firmly against democracy, equal rights, and religious freedom.
The Global Roman Catholic Anti-Abortion Network
When in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned restrictive laws on abortion rights in the case Roe v. Wade, U.S. anti-abortion groups such as Roman Catholic-based Human Life International, began a counter- campaign. In 2005, when the Ethiopian legislature legalized abortion, The Guttmacher Institute reported that opposition came from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, while the National Council of Islam did not issue any public statements. According to the report, “the most damaging and vocal opposition came from a group called the Christian Workers Union for Healthcare in Ethiopia which appeared to have been formed solely for the purpose of lobbying against liberalization of the criminal code on abortion.”
Human Life International has a long-term strategy for rolling back liberalized abortion laws such as the one in Ethiopia. It coordinates the group Seminarians for Life International and in its name sends a newsletter “to the world’s seminaries in six different languages.” HLI hosts Summer Seminarian Institutes, including one in 2005 that trained African priests. Father Aloysius Mugisha, for example, graduated from the HLI seminarian program in Kenya and then launched “a new HLI affiliate in his current station in Ethiopia.”
Mugisha is a missionary with the Apostles of Jesus, a relatively new missionary congregation founded in Uganda that is “sending out hundreds of priests in Africa and around the world.” According to the HLI report:
When Fr. Aloysius was sent to Ethiopia by his religious superiors [in 2009] he saw how desperately they need pro-life missionaries and educational activities. He started the “Precious is Life Apostolate” and invited HLI to come for a speaking tour.”
The report condemned the Ethiopian legislature for legalizing abortion in 2005, saying it “opened a floodgate of preborn baby killing” which it describes as “diabolical.” The report claimed that “Ethiopia’s seminarians and nuns are eager to receive HLI materials,” and “condoms sink Ethiopia deeper into the AIDS crisis.”
The Apostles of Jesus Missionaries, another anti-abortion Catholic group, today engages “in direct pastoral work in more than 60 apostolic communities in more than 30 dioceses in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, South Africa, Djibouti and Ethiopia.” The mission that coordinates and fundraises for the Apostles of Jesus is based in the United States, with the Apostles of Jesus Mission Offices in the cities of Shenandoah and Northampton in Pennsylvania and with the Development Office in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania.
The U.S. is not the source of all right-wing religious activity in the Global South. Nor is it uninvolved in the rise of a global right-wing religious wave of cultural, economic, and social conservatism. The growing collaboration between the U.S. religious Right and conservative Christians internationally benefits each, and both threaten the pursuit of human rights.
We urge you to study the presence of anti-human rights forces in your country, so that you and your allies closely monitor and regularly challenge their work.
During 30 years of studying the U.S. Right, we have developed some rules of the road for activists challenging the Right that can apply as well to the Right internationally:
- Do not imagine Christianity or any other religion to be monolithic. Try to examine each situation with a researcher’s dispassionate eye.
- Do not generalize and demonize the followers of right-wing leaders. Their motives are complex and it will do no good to denigrate or insult them.
- Remember that, while not all money is dirty money, enriching oneself with public funds should be exposed, even when the corrupt individual supports human rights goals.
- It can be enlightening and educational for people to learn the theological, ideological, financial, and valid critiques of the organizations that have attracted them. That may be new information for them.
We believe that democracy thrives where people defend human rights and honor justice as a collective goal of society.
1 Two reports summarizing large databases on the beliefs of evangelicals are: “Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders” (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), 2011, http://pewforum.org; and Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), which reports on research from their Faith Matters Survey.
2 Patrick J. Buchanan, “Address to the Republican National Convention,” Houston, Texas: delivered 17 August 1992, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/.
3 Ellen Messer-Davidow, “Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education,” Social Text, Vol. 36, 1993, pp. 40-80; Ellen Messer–Davidow, “Who (ac)counts and how,” MMLA (The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association) vol. 27, no. 1, 1994, pp. 26–41; Valerie L. Scatamburlo, Soldiers of Misfortune: The New Right’s Culture War and the Politics of Political Correctness, Counterpoints series, no. 25, (New York: Peter Lang, 1998); Debra L. Schultz, To Reclaim a Legacy of Diversity: Analyzing the Political Correctness Debates in Higher Education, (New York: National Council for Research on Women, 1993).
4 Christian Reconstructionism is a totalitarian U.S. Protestant Calvinist theology that seeks to impose on nations Old Testament Biblical Law, primarily from Leviticus. This includes maximum of the death penalty for adulterers, homosexuals, and recalcitrant children. Christian Reconstructionism is not related to the Jewish Reconstructionist movement. Dominionism is a broad umbrella term used by scholars to group Christian theo-political tendencies that seek formal Christian Nationalism. Find more details at http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/9/4/8954/17253.
5 The Global Leadership Summit is a project of the Willow Creek Community Church, the third largest evangelical mega-church in the United States with over 23,000 members. It is located in Barrington, Illinois, USA, a suburb of Chicago. The pastor, Bill Hybels, is a political ally of President Barack Obama on the issue of immigration reform. According to the group’s website: “The Global Leadership Summit telecasts live from the campus of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, reaching more than 185 host sites across the United States.” It is then rebroadcast internationally as a videocast. The next Summit is scheduled for 9-10 August 2012, http://www.willowcreek.com/events/leadership/locations2012.asp. See also: Laurie Goodstein, Obama Wins Unlikely Allies in Immigration,” The New York Times, 19 July 2010, p. A1, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/19/us/politics/19evangelicals.html; Christian News Wire, “Outreach Magazine Special Report: 100 Largest and Fastest-Growing U.S. Churches,” 13 September, 2011, http://www.christiannewswire.com/news/5135517754.html; Verla Wallace, “Community Is Their Middle Name,” Christianity Today, 13 November 2000, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/november13/1.48.html. Find more details at http://www.buildinghumanrights.net/usa/global-christian-right.pdf#gls.
6 See for example the events of the World Conference of Families at http://www.worldcongress.org Find more details at http://www.buildinghumanrights.net/usa/global-christian-right.pdf#wcf. See also the Human Life International’s global conferences, such as one held in Poland November 18, 2011, http://www.hliworldwatch.org/?p=1037, and others listed on the HLI calendar: http://www.hli.org/index.php/news/hli-events-calendar. Find more details at http://www.buildinghumanrights.net/usa/global-christian-right.pdf#hli.
7 Scott Lively and Kevin Abrams, The Pink Swastikas: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party, (Keizer. OR: Founders Publishing Corporation), 4th edition, 2001.
8 Kapya Kaoma, Globalizing the Culture Wars: U. S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia, (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, 2009), http://www.publiceye.org/publications/globalizing-the-culture-wars/.
9 David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission, 2004,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 28 (January, 2004), p. 28.
10 Robert Dudley Woodberry and Timothy Samuel Shah, “The Pioneering Protestants,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 15, no. 2, p. 49;
11 David Martin, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 2002.
12 Find more details at http://www.buildinghumanrights.net/usa/global-christian-right.pdf#funding.
13 Funding the Culture Wars: Philanthropy, Church, and State. (National Committee on Responsive Philanhropy, 2005), p. 9.
14 Kapya Kaoma, Globalizing the Culture Wars, p. 9.
15 For an example of the use of these accusations, see: Parker T. Williamson, Broken Covenant: Signs of a Shattered Covenant, (Lenoir, North Carolina: Reformation Press, 2007).
16 The authors are using the following definition of human rights in this paper, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes the inherent dignity of all members of the human family: Human Rights are the rights that humans enjoy and deserve, regardless of race, creed, gender, social/economic status, or ability. These rights are equal and inalienable. Human Rights are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. A progressive human rights perspective sees liberty, freedom, laws, and rights as an essential framework, but envisions justice as the goal.
17 Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), pp. 57-60.
18 See: Miranda K. Hassett, Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism, (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2007).
19 From the IRD web site: www.theird.org.
20 See: Terence O. Ranger, ed., Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
21 Susheela Singh, Rubina Hussain, Akinrinola Bankole and Gilda Sedgh, 2009, Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress, (Washington, DC: Guttmacher Institute), p. 14, http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/Abortion-Worldwide.pdf.
22 Human Life International, 2011, “Seminarians for Life International,” http://www.hli.org/index.php/about-sfli.
23 Joseph Meaney, 2010, “Missionary Trip to Ethiopia,” HLI Mission Report, no. 307, July, p. 6, http://www.hli.org/files/HLI_SR_307_web.pdf.
24 Ibid., p. 6.
25 Ibid., p. 6.
26 Ibid., p. 1.
27 Apostles of Jesus, 2011, “Welcome to the Apostles of Jesus Community!” http://www.apostlesofjesus.org/community.htm. Find more details at http://www.buildinghumanrights.net/usa/global-christian-right.pdf#aoj.
28 For more detailed guidelines for challenging the Right, see: “Ground Rules and Tips for Challenging the Right” at http://www.publiceye.org/ark/tips.html.
More detailed information on funding and four key groups (Human Life International, Apostles of Jesus, World Congress of Families, and Global Leadership Summit) is available online at http://www.buildinghumanrights.net/usa/global-christian-right.pdf
About the Authors
Jean Hardisty holds a Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University. She is the author of Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to The Promise Keepers (Beacon Press, 1999). After eight years in academia, she left to found Political Research Associates (PRA) and served as its Executive Director for 24 years until she retired in 2005. Dr. Hardisty is a well-known speaker and widely published author on the U.S. political Right. She is a feminist who has served on many boards, including The Ms. Foundation for Women, the Highlander Center, the Massachusetts ACLU, and the Center for Women Policy Studies. She is currently a Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her web site is http://www.jeanhardisty.com
Chip Berlet, an investigative journalist and independent scholar, coauthored the book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (Guilford 2000). From 1981-2011 he was senior analyst at Political Research Associates. He wrote “The United States: Messianism, Apocalypticism, and Political Religion” in The Sacred in Twentieth Century Politics: Essays in Honour of Professor Stanley G. Payne (Palgrave Macmillan 2007); and “The New Political Right in the United States: Reaction, Rollback, and Resentment,” in Confronting the New Conservatism: The Rise of the Right in America, (NYU Press, 2008). Berlet co-authored the Encyclopaedia Judaica’s entry on “Neo-Nazism.” His website is http://www.chipberlet.net.