The Religious Right that rose and flourished during the 1970s and 1980s has been pilloried for some time and from all sides. Secularists attack it for trying to erect a theocracy in the US of A, forgetting that Baptists like Jerry Falwell were heirs of Roger Williams. Some Evangelicals criticize its blinkered focus on moral and sexual issues—abortion, school prayer, gay rights—and its indifference to systemic injustice. Others equate the Religious Right with white supremacy, charging that it was a rearguard effort by white Christians to shore up their eroding status.
Some of these critiques have some force, but all ignore the crucial role that world evangelism, international and multi-ethnic networks, and activism to protect religious freedom played in the Religious Right’s agenda. Lauren Frances Turek’s 2020 study, To Bring the Good News to All Nations, fills that gap and thus provides the basis for a more complete and accurate assessment of the inspirations, aims, and achievements of the movement.
Turek’s story begins with a 1974 Christianity Today article in which Billy Graham called on Evangelicals to revive world evangelism. Like many, Graham worried that the World Council of Churches’ emphasis on social justice and development sidelined the central theme of the gospel—the reconciliation of sinners with God. Graham’s essay was part of an effort to coordinate evangelists and evangelistic ministries worldwide. This project came to fruition in the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization, which produced the Lausanne Covenant, a fourteen-point manifesto for renewing the missionary enterprise.
According to a report in Christianity Today, the Congress invited “300 non-North American, non-European, non-Caucasian foreign missionary sending agencies . . . to share their insights and to wrestle with problems that are common to any cross-cultural communications of the Good News.” Graham himself raised $3.2 million for the conference, much of which defrayed travel expenses for non-Western attendees. During the Congress, Ecuadoran missiologist C. Rene Padilla sparked intense debate by decrying the “cultural imperialism” of American missionaries, and the Congress also debated the question of social justice, eventually including a statement on justice in the Covenant.
This Lausanne movement was one of the catalysts for the Christian right. It wasn’t the only one. Christians mobilized in response to domestic American issues through organizations like Moral Majority and the later Christian Coalition. Yet, Turek writes, “international and foreign policy concerns also held significance for evangelicals and inspired them to greater involvement in politics.” As a result of the 1974 Congress, buttressed by expanding communications networks, evangelicals began to articulate “a strong internationalist outlook” that matured into an “evangelical foreign policy lobby” during the Reagan years. Through the Clinton and Bush II presidencies, Evangelicals “shaped U.S. policy on global religious freedom, human trafficking, and AIDS.”
The anticommunist stance of Christian leaders had much to do with their desire to defend fellow Christians from repression. Evangelicals turned against Carter in part because they “found Carter’s handling of human rights compliance in the communist world frustrating” and warmed to Reagan’s commitment to protecting religious dissidents: “U.S. evangelicals looked to Reagan, with his promise of a more aggressive stance toward the Soviet Union, to lend visible U.S. support not just to the Christian dissident movement in the USSR, but to the resurgence of Christianity behind the Iron Curtain that the movement revealed.”
By the early 1980s, Evangelical frustration with Carter’s gingerly diplomacy, their awareness of violations of religious freedom, their zeal for missions, and Congressional human rights activities combined to produce a biblically-based vision of human rights, embodied in CREED, the Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents. CREED was founded in 1980 by Sen. Roger Jepson and Rep. Jack Kemp. Its founding documents included a pledge “to affirm the uniqueness of [the] Biblical understanding of human freedom as a divine gift that is differentiated from a gift of the state.” Guided by this understanding of human rights, CREED sought support from Congress, NGOs, and individuals “to influence repressive societies to abide by international agreements and their own national laws regarding religious freedom.”
Evangelical human rights activists didn’t always act with wisdom. Because Guatemalan general and president Efrain Rios Montt had a compelling testimony and promised to protect religious freedom and purge corruption, Evangelicals trusted his assurances that his army wasn’t responsible for attacks on the Guatemalan people. Believing that religious liberty was “the core human right,” they overlooked Rios Montt’s abuses.
And Evangelicals’ role in relation to South Africa was mixed. Billy Graham publicly condemned apartheid and refused to preach in segregated crusades. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell supported the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement,” which many South African Christians saw as an accommodation to brutal racial injustice.
Still, the global achievement of the Religious Right was considerable. Over several decades, they forged worldwide networks; gathered and disseminated information regarding geopolitical issues, particularly when they affected evangelism; pressured the U.S. government to protect religious freedom; and developed a biblically-informed notion of human rights. “Evangelicals,” Turek concludes, “felt a deep sense of belonging to a global mission, believing they had an obligation to protect their brethren.” Inspired by evangelistic zeal, they swayed U.S. foreign policy and, through that influence, affected the world.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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