As Allen Hertzke spelled out recently in FIRST THINGS (see "The Shame of Darfur," October), one of the great changes of recent years has been the determination of evangelical Protestants in this country to get serious about human rights, and about religious freedom in particular. Michael Cromartie, who also heads up evangelical studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, is chairman of the Commission on International Religious Freedom. This week, the commission, which operates out of the State Department, issued a blistering report on religious persecution in North Korea.

Based on eyewitness accounts of those who have fled the North Korean dictatorship, the stories curdle the blood. For instance, in the building of a highway near Pyongyang, a house was demolished and a Bible was discovered hidden between bricks. Along with it was a list identifying a Christian pastor, two assistant pastors, two elders, and 20 members of the congregation.

All were rounded up and the five Christian leaders were told they could avoid death if they denied their faith and swore to serve only Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist dictatorship. Refusing to do so, they were forced to lie down and a steamroller used in the highway construction was driven over them. The report continues, “Fellow parishioners who had been assembled to watch the execution cried, screamed out, or fainted when the skulls made a popping sound as they were crushed beneath the steamroller.”

The persecution, imprisonment, and killings of Christians in North Korea involve hundreds of thousands. President Bush this week spoke out forcefully on human rights and religious freedom in North Korea, as well as China, in his visit to Asia. Many of the details on concentration camps and other horrors in North Korea were collected by the intrepid human rights activist David Hawk. Credit for leading congressional concern goes to Representatives Chris Smith of New Jersey and Frank Wolf of Virginia, who were also instrumental in establishing the religious freedom commission in the State Department.

Insiders say that the commission has over the years been marginalized in the department, since professional foreign service officers tend to view human rights and religious freedom as nuisances that distract attention from the “real business” of conducting foreign affairs. With Michael Cromartie heading the commission, backed by the support of Smith, Wolf, and others in Congress, it seems we will be hearing more about religious persecution, and not only in North Korea.

A crucial test case is Saudi Arabia. Those who call themselves “realists” in the foreign policy establishment have for decades given the Saudis a pass, not only in turning a blind eye to its persecution of any religious expression that violates its established Wahhabist version of Islam but also in ignoring its export of Islamic radicalism around the world.


Speaking of realism, one is reminded of the quip by Herbert Butterfield: “Realism is not a school of thought. It is simply a boast.” There is realism and then there is realism. In one sense, everybody wants to think of himself as a realist. Who wants to be known as a fantasist?

In the last century, realism was associated in Christian circles and beyond with Reinhold Niebuhr. In the 1930s, Niebuhr argued against pacifists and sundry utopians that the West had to muster its nerve to challenge Hitler, and during the Cold War he was counted among the liberal anti-Communists who opposed the reigning fashion of anti-anti-Communism. (Admittedly, some thought that in his last years he wavered in his support for the “long twilight struggle” against the evil empire that finally succumbed under the combined forces of John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.)

The realist label is dusted off in a long interview in The New Yorker with Brent Scowcroft, adviser to the first President Bush and a student of Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik. Scowcroft says, “I’m a realist in the sense that I’m a cynic about human nature.” Scowcroft attacks what he views as the idealism and moralism of the current Bush administration.

It was also a mistake, he says, for Reagan to have called the Soviet Union an evil empire. He bemoans even hopeful signs of freedom in the Middle East, such as the end of Syria’s control over Lebanon. His essential message is that freedom is destabilizing. The U.S. should prop up dictators and tyrants wherever it serves our national interests. In the Middle East and elsewhere, it is none of our business whether people are free or not, and, anyway, they don’t really want freedom and wouldn’t now what to do with it if they had it.

I’m afraid that is not an over-simplification of Scowcroft’s views. Against his argument, one must underscore that realism is not cynicism. That was a point made again and again by Niebuhr. He persistently contended against the twin errors of moralism and cynicism. Moralism in politics among nations is the naive belief that, because something is morally desirable, it should and can be done. Cynicism claims that politics among nations is about power and national interests and nothing else.

Realists have a deep appreciation of original¯meaning radical¯sin. A moral policy takes that reality into account. In that respect, it is different from a moralistic policy that is ever ready to sacrifice the better in pursuit of the best. There has been historically, and there is in the present administration, a strong and articulated sense of moral purpose in U.S. foreign policy. One may disagree with specific policies without repudiating that moral purpose. If one may risk a much abused term, Scowcraft’s cynicism is deeply un-American.

We may not know what to do about it, and sometimes there is little that we can do, but people held in thrall to terrorism, suicide bombings of innocent civilians, the denial of the right to pray in public, thousands dying in concentration camps, and popping skulls under steamrollers are not, and should not be, matters of indifference to the government of the United States in its conduct of foreign affairs.


Today I am off to Spain to lecture on “The Catholic Case for a Secular State” at a political science conference in Madrid. This spot will be in the very capable hands of FIRST THINGS editor Joseph Bottum. Stay tuned.

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