American evangelicals and human rights advocates are encouraging the United States to pressure Turkey to release American missionary Andrew Brunson, who faces ridiculous allegations of complicity in Kurdish terrorism.
Are they right to do so, even if the price is estrangement with a key NATO member and harm to US regional interests? How should Christians in their political witness balance Christian causes versus the wider national good?
The president, vice president and secretary of state have all denounced Turkey’s imprisonment of Brunson. Economic sanctions have been levied against Turkish products, and personal sanctions have targeted two Turkish officials. Congress has acted to prevent the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.
Evangelical support for Republicans reputedly explains US actions on Brunson, who belongs to a small evangelical denomination. But congressional votes were strongly bipartisan, with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat from New Hampshire who met with Brunson in Turkey, playing a leading role.
Brunson as a pastor and missionary justifiably generates evangelical advocacy. But he is of course a US citizen. Turkey has detained other US persons under dubious circumstances since the 2016 failed military coup. Erdogan’s despotism has accelerated as he’s exploited the coup to arrest tens of thousands. For Americans, Christian or otherwise, Brunson is an especially sympathetic arrestee as a non-political clergy and family man with a very small congregation and over two decades of devoted ministry in Turkey.
The multifaceted allegations against Brunson of complicity with terrorism, coup plotting, and collaboration with Erdogan’s favorite bête noir are sweepingly absurd. From his Pennsylvania exile, Sufi mystic Fethullah Gülen is the Turkish strongman’s nearly universal explanation for all opposition. Erdogan’s suggestion that Brunson could be exchanged for Gülen recalls another sinister proposal.
Backed by their new Islamist regime, Iranian hostage takers who occupied the US embassy in 1979 offered their captive American diplomats in exchange for the exiled shah. American law, honor, and decency forbade such a bargain, as they similarly would today.
Iran’s regime of mullahs was and remains unequivocally an enemy. Turkey, even under Erdogan, is ostensibly a NATO ally. The Brunson dispute may contribute to the unraveling of Turkey’s 70-year alliance with America. Given its strategic importance, is the loss worth it? And should Brunson’s advocates, Christian or otherwise, adamantly push ahead despite this risk?
There may not be any choice. America is America, and ignoring or minimizing the outrage of such hostage taking, whose Christian victim has already offered public forgiveness in court to his tormentors, contravenes our core national identity.
Yet American denunciations and sanctions, however justified, may only provoke Erdogan into doubling down. As with most despots, exploiting anti-US sentiment is central to his demagoguery. And Turkey’s very small Christian community, particularly its tiny subset of Protestants and evangelicals, could suffer by association.
Even if Turkey releases Brunson, as surely it will do eventually, US-Turkey relations may not fully recover. Erdogan has threatened to shift to “new alliances” (i.e., with China or Russia), although Russia is Turkey’s historical nemesis. Imagining himself an heir to the sultans, Erdogan has subverted Turkish democracy and panders to his nation’s worst instincts. He will continue so long as Turkey allows him.
American-wide resolve against Erdogan’s hostage ploy is unsurprising. Nor is evangelical advocacy for Brunson. Nor is silence from the usual quarters typically indifferent both to American honor and global persecution of Christians. (A word search for “Brunson” finds no mention at Christian, social justice focused Sojourners even after two years, and there is nothing in liberal Protestant Christian Century in a year. But there are many ongoing mentions in evangelical Christianity Today and World.)
With sophistication and discernment, Christian political witness should not automatically conflate Christian interests with American interests. The two overlap in the Brunson case as American character, which is intrinsic to America’s lofty understanding of national purpose, precludes indifference.
But such high-minded notions of national character, pursued in place of more traditional interests, often have a cost. Bearing that cost is part of the price and privilege of being American.
Mark Tooley is co-editor of Providence and president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.