After three long years of war in Iraq, a growing number of Americans are deciding that the U.S. should turn its attention inward. An October poll found that since 2002 the percentage of Americans who think that the nation "should mind its own business internationally" has risen from 30% to 42%. Likewise, trade protectionism and nativism are on the rise. Is the United States destined to enter a period of isolationism? Probably not. That's because evangelical Christians, who make up somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the U.S. population, won't let it happen.
Surprised? You may characterize evangelicals only by way of hot-button domestic issues -- abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage. But it's at least as interesting to look at them in terms of global issues. Once upon a time, they were among the most isolationist of Americans, but no more. If that weren't true, we'd see much higher figures when it came to those who think the United States should merely be minding "its own business."
"Bible-believing" Christians have, in a way, always been internationalists. After all, "evangelism" means spreading the Gospel and missionary work around the world is central to their faith. But before the last quarter of the 20th century, most evangelical leaders eschewed real-world politics and foreign policy strategizing for more otherworldly concerns. In 1965, Jerry Falwell gave a now famous sermon, "Ministers and Marchers," in which he declared that evangelicals' duty was to "preach the Word" and not to "reform the externals."
But that was when conservative Christians felt that their culture was America's culture. It was the liberal shift during the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s that pushed them into the public square, at the same time that they felt themselves becoming marginalized. Politicized, activist evangelism, as sociologist Christian Smith observed, "thrives on distinction, engagement, tension, conflict and threat."
This sense of "minorityness" became an important element in pushing evangelical engagement with global human rights issues. One of their initial forays into foreign policy was driven by their concern for the persecution of fellow Christians overseas.
In 1998, U.S. evangelical activists scored a major foreign policy victory with the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, one of the most comprehensive human rights laws on the books. It established an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and mandated that the State Department publish an annual report on the status of religious freedom around the world. The fruits of such activism were on display last week as the State Department spoke out against the impending execution of a Christian convert in Afghanistan.
In recent years, evangelicals such as Charles Colson have turned their attention to efforts to halt human trafficking. Last March, the National Evangelical Association, which represents 30 million Americans from 56 denominations, published a call to civic responsibility, which emphasized evangelicals' global involvement in activities such as disaster relief, refugee resettlement, the fight against AIDS and poverty, and the need for greater international aid.
More recently, evangelical lobbying has pushed President Bush to pay attention to the genocide and famine in the Darfur region in Sudan. Last month, 80 prominent evangelical leaders launched a campaign to persuade their congregants that more should be done to combat global warming.
As U.S. evangelicalism has grown in scope and strength, its most fundamentalist branches have become less central to the movement. "It's not just Jerry Falwell in Virginia anymore," says Dennis Hoover, vice president for research and publications at the Institute for Global Engagement. "Now it's also Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Rick Warren in California and huge megachurches in middle America."
This broader profile coupled with a growing interest in foreign affairs has forged alliances that once would have been impossible to imagine. One example: Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a leading evangelical figure, has teamed with California Sen. Barbara Boxer on women's rights in Afghanistan.
Evangelicals are among the Americans who believe most strongly in this nation's providential role in history. And because they make up one-quarter of the U.S. electorate, they see themselves positioned to help it along.
"Never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy in ways that could contribute to the well-being of the entire world," wrote the board of the National Evangelical Association. in its call to civic responsibility. "Disengagement is not an option."
Copyright 2006, Los Angeles Times