Mark Tooley speaks with Lauren Turek, author of To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence of Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations.
MT: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of interviewing Lauren Turek, professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas about her – I’ll call it a new book but it’s been out a couple of years now – To Bring the Good News to All Nations about the influence of evangelicals in American foreign policy over the last half century, a fascinating story. Lauren, thank you for writing the book and for being available for this conversation.
LT: Thank you so much for inviting me! I’m really excited to be here with you today.
MT: First of all, what provoked your interest in evangelical influence in American foreign policy?
LT: So I started to do some research into the history of U.S. foreign policy as a grad student and I was working on the issue of détente, so U.S. efforts to relax tensions with the Soviet Union and also rapprochement with China in the 70s. And I saw the expected groups that I thought would be kind of opposed to détente – there were Jewish activist groups that were really concerned about détente, scientists, and assorted others. But I was very surprised to see evangelical opposition to détente. And I said, usually when I think of evangelical engagement on politics, it’s issues related to abortion or prayer in school, you know, hot button social issues. Or if we’re thinking about foreign policy it’s often relations with Israel. But here are American evangelicals engaging on a very different foreign policy topic; I wonder why. I wonder what else they were interested in. And that just led me down this path to explore all the different ways in which evangelicals in the 70s were getting increasingly engaged in foreign policy, to the point where they became at one point a fairly powerful lobby on a range of policy issues, particularly related to religious freedom and trade issues with repressive countries like the Soviet Union and others. So that just opened the door for me. It really started there with a sort of grad school question and surprise that I found in my research, and it led to this larger book project.
MT: Well that’s fascinating. I’m just old enough to remember those Cold War years and to recall that that was a major under-appreciated incentive for the organizing of the religious right – their concerns over the Soviet Union and over détente, and of course culminating with Reagan’s speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, the famous “Evil empire” speech. Your book traces evangelical influence to the 1960s?
LT: From 1969 up to about 1994, so I’m looking just at that period of time, really focusing in particular on the late 70s and 1980s, but it stretches broadly over the Nixon, through the Reagan, and into the Clinton years.
MT: And who are the major evangelical voices individuals and organizations initially in the 1970s addressing these issues?
LT: So I start by looking at evangelicals involved in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, because in the early 70s Billy Graham is very interested in developing greater connections globally, and his organization hosts a very large international conference, the International Congress on World Evangelization, with the goal of spreading the gospel to the entire world and finding ways to make connections with evangelicals in countries in the global south to help do that. And one of the arguments I make in the book is that that engagement, that effort to engage in world evangelism, is one of the reasons why we start to see evangelicals in the United States learning more about what’s happening abroad and feeling concerned about countries where they can’t evangelize freely. So then from that, organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Billy Graham himself – I also look at the National Religious Broadcasters, so thinking about the way that their radio and TV are involved. I also look at the Fellowship Foundation, which is engaged in efforts sort of behind the scenes lobbying efforts we’ll say, but not just in the United States. There’s been some great interesting work by folks like Jeff Sharlet writing about them, but there’s also this international dimension to their work. I talk a bit about some of the groups that were dissidents, former dissidents from the Soviet Union who came to the United States and became really active in advocating for religious freedom in the Soviet Union, people like Georgi Vins.
So it’s a range of different actors who are here, and then of course politicians. So I look at key members of the Reagan administration, not just Reagan and his assorted policy makers but folks in the departments that handle relations with religious groups or communications. I found a lot of interesting connections there. So it’s a lot of different people involved, different groups, but I see that they are kind of working together in concert even if they’re not tightly connected. There’s loose connections between all of these different groups in this time.
MT: Evangelicals obviously were anti-communist, anti-Soviet, concerned about the persecution of the church behind the Iron Curtain. But is there a wider philosophy of human rights that they either start with or that unfolds across the years?
LT: What I found is that over time they start to articulate a fairly narrow but very specific notion that the core human right that a person can have is religious liberty. If you can’t have your freedom of conscience, if you can’t hear the gospel for example, or whatever that might be – if you are not able to be saved then you can’t enjoy those other rights. They start to articulate a vision wherein religious freedom is the center human right in a hub of other potential rights, and so you need to allow people to have religious freedom in order for them to flourish and have the potential for eternal life.
That’s the kind of basic vision. This is a different vision from what we might think of with organizations like Amnesty International, which have a much broader sort of sense of social and economic rights. They are advocating for different types of rights. So it’s a somewhat narrow vision, but it’s one that then leads evangelicals to advocate not just for religious freedom in the Soviet Union but also for more broadly anti-communist activities elsewhere. So when they look at Central America they’re going to lend support to in some cases some really unsavory, brutal dictators who are anti-communist because there’s a sense that, well maybe they’re authoritarian now, but in time, perhaps they’ll eventually lead to democracies or something, but they’ll respect the rights of Christians to practice their faith as opposed to what they’re seeing in the Soviet Union or other closed societies. And it leads them to advocate for very much gradualism in places like South Africa, because they’re worried about the potential for communists to come into a country like South Africa. And so they’re not firmly on the side of racial justice there. They’re really advocating a slow transition out of apartheid because of their fears about communism.
And these details are all wrapped together, right? This idea of human rights that they’ve developed is very much wrapped in with their sense that they have a mission to spread the Word. That is the core thing that they can give to people, the core freedom that they can extend, is the potential for salvation. And then from that everything would improve. That’s kind of the vision that they have and it’s a very effective way to organize, right? No one wants to be against human rights when you’re debating in Congress, right? So this is a way to say well, we’re supporting human rights. This is our vision for human rights. It is a different one from what we might think of as liberal or secular human rights organizations.
MT: I recall it was a rather brief episode but somewhat unfortunate where Jerry Falwell Sr. in the 1980s was in effect chastising the Reagan administration for undermining the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Are there many cases where evangelicals were just really unwise in their support for authoritarians of the right or was that more the exception than the rule during those final years of the Cold War?
LT: My sense is that lending support to people like General Rios in Guatemala who was committing genocide – it happened too much for it to be just an exception. Because of this particular vision, it did tend to lead them to support some – again, you don’t want to be on the side of a genocidaire, and unfortunately that is what happens in some of these cases where the anti-communism really, I think, shaped their approach to policy. And again, the gradualism on South Africa; it’s hard to look back at that now and not be incredibly critical of the kind of language that they were using. And I think if we look in the mid-90s there is some attempt within South Africa and among South African evangelicals, there’s some attempts at reconciliation and coming to terms with what their engagement had meant, but in the 1980s it’s very troubling to look back at that. Balanced with, of course, they are strong advocates for religious freedom in places like the Soviet Union, where there really is a lot of repression and just awful stuff being reported in the Soviet bloc, Eastern European countries and elsewhere.
MT: Is it fair to say and to credit evangelicals for having a vision of human rights and of democracy and having almost a providential confidence that democracy and human rights would prevail against the Soviet bloc ultimately, a kind of vision that many non-religious experts were lacking?
LT: One of the things that I found very interesting in looking at that was that some of the leadership in the Soviet Union seemed to kind of recognize that vision. I was very surprised. One of the most interesting parts to me of the research that I did on the Soviet Union was as the Soviet Union was starting to collapse, we see evangelicals being invited into the Soviet leadership to talk to the army about building civic institutions, that there was a sense from the Soviet leaders that these religious groups had something to teach them that could be useful for a transition to democracy. And so I have this really interesting story of a few army representatives from the Soviet army coming to the Church of God in Tennessee to talk to Church of God officials about building civic institutions.
It’s a fleeting moment, right? Things do not go exactly the way that evangelicals hope in the Soviet Union. The Orthodox church is not keen to have all sorts of religious groups flooding into the post-Soviet Russia. That’s not something that they are happy to see. But there is this fleeting moment where we see evangelicals really playing a potential role in contributing to a shift to democracy in that context, which is, I think, very interesting.
MT: Now before my time, but my organization in the 1980s sharply criticized Billy Graham for his trip to Moscow, for his trips to North Korea, and the uncritical stances he took towards the Soviet Union, the North Koreans, and others in order to have access to audiences whom he could evangelize in those closed societies. So how does Billy Graham factor into this story?
LT: So he’s a character in the book. He’s more a character early on when I’m talking about the networking that he’s doing, the global network that he’s building of evangelicals. And I did a lot of research at the Billy Graham Center, which is at Wheaton University, and at Wheaton there’s all of these other organizations that I looked at that which had connections with Billy Graham. But my focus often was on less well-known folks. So he plays a role, and I talk about that criticism that he received, and of course he pushed back on that and said he’s aware that they’re presenting him with an idealized picture and he knows, but it’s just an opportunity.
But I was very interested in some of the other smaller groups that were operating – again, often groups of dissidents who had left the Soviet Union and then were doing things like smuggling Bibles back in or using radio technology to share snippets of the Bible spoken over the radio in Russian at dictation speed so people in the Soviet Union could write down parts of the gospel and then put together their own collection and share them or share tapes. So I was actually very interested in those kind of lower level folks. But Billy Graham is a player in the story; he’s involved at a broader organizational level. But he’s not the only person I talk about, and I try to get a lot of the range of different types of people who were engaged in this effort.
MT: And with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, evangelical international activism – how does its perspective on human rights evolve and change?
LT: They continue to be engaged in this issue, because of course the Soviet Union is not the only closed society. So there’s interest in continuing to reach out to countries like China. There’s a particular interest, of course, in the Middle East, which they also see as perhaps hostile to their missionary work. And then we also see their continued engagement with Congress. So one of the broader bookends of the book is the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act which passes Congress during the Clinton administration, and evangelicals and a range of other religious groups were really involved in advocating for the creation of a more institutional basis for promoting religious freedom within the federal government. The International Religious Freedom Act established an agency within the State Department to promote religious freedom. And so there they continued to be engaged with that through the 90s, and I think the connections and the lobbying that they developed during the Reagan years really allowed them to be at the table for some of those later discussions in the 90s.
So they don’t go away; it doesn’t end just because the Soviet Union has collapsed. In fact, they’re still very engaged and promoting religious freedom there, and very worried about it. Into the late 90s they’re still writing about what’s happening in the Commonwealth of Independent States and then Russia and the other states around it. So they’re still concerned and active on those issues.
There’s also you activism on human trafficking and a range of other concerns. We’re even now, thinking back to the Trump administration with Mike Pompeo was very engaged in efforts related to promoting the idea that U.S. human rights should be centered on the idea of promoting religious freedom and property rights. Very narrow, again super narrowly that he elevated those rights above others he put – he had his Commission on Inalienable Rights and that was one of the points that they put forth. So I think there’s a strand or a thread that connects some of these back to that early lobby that we started to see in the 70s. So it hasn’t gone away. It has developed in different ways and there has been continued activism. I think we’ve heard a little bit less of it recently because there have been other issues that the evangelicals are engaged with, but I don’t think that foreign policy interest has disappeared completely, and I think we’re still seeing echoes of it into today.
MT: And sharing your own personal perspective, do you think evangelicals overall over the last half century have been a positive force in the world in terms of advocating for human rights?
LT: I think because it’s a very narrow vision for human rights, it has not been as positive as it could be. My personal perspective is that we want to have as capacious of promotion of rights as possible, because – we’ve been talking mostly about U.S. evangelicals; we haven’t talked as much about evangelicals in the global south – but they have tended to promote a much broader vision for human rights. So folks like C. René Padilla and others who have said, even in the 70s, they were chiding the evangelicals in the U.S., saying well of course evangelism matters and religious freedom matters, but how can you reach somebody if they don’t have food to eat or clothes to wear or a safe place to sleep or if they’re not free from the threat that they’ll be tortured or disappeared or killed, right? And so if you don’t have all of those rights working together in concert, you’re not really in a place where you can be receptive. So I think to me that that is a broader picture of human rights that we’re seeing from evangelicals in the global south. That’s more the vision that I would say is mine – that we want to make sure that people are not going hungry, that people are not suffering from torture, that they’re not unfairly imprisoned. That’s the vision of human rights that I want to see, not a very narrow one just focused on one thing. Religious freedom matters, but it’s not elevated above all others. We need all of those rights.
MT: Certainly evangelicals have been intensely involved in delivering humanitarian relief.
LT: Yeah, and I’ve started to write a bit about that the kind of disaster relief that evangelicals have been engaged with. They’re a key; I think in terms of U.S. aid distribution – so the U.S. Agency for International Development, a lot of the aid that they distribute actually does go through religious groups. I think six of the nine largest agencies that USAID works with are religious. They’re not all evangelical but they are religious. So there’s a huge network of religious organizations who do that distribution.
MT: Lauren, do you have a copy of the book you can hold up?
LT: I do; it is right here.
MT: Lauren Turek, author of To Bring the Good News to All Nations. Thank you very much for an enjoyable and insightful conversation.
LT: Thank you so much for having me. It was wonderful to get to talk to you.