Christians and Statecraft: Taking stock of the new evangelical internationalism

The day after the 2008 presidential election, Andrew J. Bacevich wrote in an op-ed column in The Boston Globe that “with Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, the evangelical moment in U.S. foreign policy has come to an end.” And for Mr. Bacevich, the evangelical moment did not end a moment too soon. What brought him particular relief was that, in his view, “the religious sensibility informing American statecraft will no longer find expression in an urge to launch crusades against evil-doers.” Instead of the allegedly simplistic moralism of the outgoing evangelical president George W. Bush, the sensibility of Barack Obama would be that of Christian realism, the philosophy that although power is necessary in a fallen world, its use must be constrained by an acute awareness of human fallibility and corruptibility.

Mr. Bacevich was undoubtedly not the only critic of the Bush administration who felt a sense of optimism at the thought of conservative evangelicals losing influence in foreign affairs. Nor was it just evangelical support of the Bush Doctrine (the policy of fighting terrorism pre-emptively, pursuing ambitious nation-building in the greater Middle East and defending and advancing democracy around the world) that critics were hoping would be sidelined. Conservative evangelicals have long had distinctive proclivities in foreign policy, and typically these have been associated with right-wing and/or neoconservative politics.


Anyone interested in advancing a centrist or even moderately progressive posture for U.S. foreign policy should think twice, however, before banishing all evangelical influence. There is growing diversity in the evangelical engagement of global issues and a rising generation of evangelicals whose practical and global mindset does not necessarily fit into any ideological box. And while this movement toward a different kind of evangelical internationalism is “new,” it is not brand new. It actually predates the George W. Bush administration.

The Christian-Right Worldview

To understand the new evangelical internationalism, one must first understand the “old” evangelical (read: Christian Right) approach to international affairs and its contemporary context. This stream of evangelicalism manifests a number of dispositions. The fundamental one is the tendency to embrace American exceptionalism and American civil religion—the idea of America as a kind of “New Israel” specially favored by God and responsible for bringing the blessings of democracy, human rights and free markets to all the people of the world. This distinctively American version of Christian nationalism is not derived from evangelical theology per se, but it has resonated more strongly with the American evangelical tradition than with most other American religious traditions.

Related proclivities of conservative evangelicalism include:

• Support for the idea that America has a special destiny in the world and therefore must be a world leader, not just another nation subject to conventional expectations and limits;

• Opposition to communism specifically and suspicion of state-centered economic policy approaches in general;

• Resistance to the idea of trying to solve international problems with international institutions, such as the League of Nations and later the United Nations; and

• A tendency to see foes of the United States as unambiguously evil.

Israel and Islam

Another longstanding characteristic of many evangelicals, especially those of a fundamentalist bent, is unwavering support for the State of Israel. This derives in part from a particular theological tradition called dispensational premillennialism, which leads many evangelicals to interpret the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and as a sign of Jesus’ Second Coming. Evangelical Zionists have swelled the ranks of a variety of pro-Israel advocacy organizations like Stand for Israel, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Churches United With Israel, American Alliance of Jews and Christians and Christians United for Israel.

Then there is Islam. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, publications critical of Islam have circulated in conservative evangelical circles. Various high-profile conservative evangelical leaders have also made incendiary anti-Muslim public statements. Perhaps the most widely covered of these rhetorical bombs was the one dropped by the preacher Franklin Graham, who in 2001 famously called Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.” Shortly thereafter, the conservative evangelical magazine World honored Mr. Graham as its “Daniel of the Year” for his public stand on Islam. By stoking explicitly antagonistic sentiment, evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham at the very least reinforced a predisposition among many rank-and-file evangelicals to support tough U.S. measures against radical Islamist threats.

For some observers, the Bush presidency (and George W. Bush personally) seemed to be the virtual embodiment, almost in caricature form, of everything that is wrong and dangerous about letting “fundamentalists” influence foreign policy. This was a fairly widespread bias. It contributed to the collective sigh of relief uttered in 2008 at the alleged passing of “evangelical foreign policy,” which critics often took to be synonymous with unilateral, militant, nationalistic and right-wing.

The New Internationalism

This narrative of what an evangelical foreign policy must look like remains commonplace. Yet for over a decade now a competing narrative has been gaining strength, a narrative of the “new evangelical internationalism,” which deserves a wider hearing. Whereas evangelicals were once thought to have a rather narrow and predictably right-wing agenda in foreign affairs (and to devote far more attention to domestic “culture war” politics), the new view is that evangelicals today are increasingly likely to have a global mindset and an ideologically diverse array of foreign policy priorities and positions. 

The new evangelical internationalists are diverging in important ways from the fundamentalist stereotype. They are active on a broad range of international human rights, humanitarian and environmental issues, and they are joining coalitions diverse in ideology, religion and party allegiance. While they are not entirely displacing the old Christian Right constituency in foreign policy, they have coalesced to the point of providing a genuine evangelical alternative.

To my knowledge, the first person to attach the label “new internationalist” to this movement was the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. In a column on May 21, 2002, titled “Following God Abroad,” he announced that “the old religious right led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, trying to battle Satan with school prayers and right-to-life amendments, is on the ropes.” Kristof suggested that a new generation of evangelical leaders is emerging, interested in battling sex trafficking, slavery, AIDS, poverty and global warming.

Then in a column on Feb. 3, 2008, titled “Evangelicals a Liberal Can Love,” Mr. Kristof profiled the Rev. Rick Warren, one of the key new-internationalist leaders:

Today, many evangelicals are powerful internationalists and humanitarians, and liberals haven’t awakened to the transformation. The new face of evangelicals is somebody like the Rev. Rick Warren, the California pastor who wrote The Purpose Driven Life. Mr. Warren acknowledges that for most of his life he wasn’t much concerned with issues of poverty or disease. But on a visit to South Africa in 2003, he came across a tiny church operating from a dilapidated tent—yet sheltering 25 children orphaned by AIDS. “I realized they were doing more for the poor than my entire megachurch,” Mr. Warren said, with cheerful exaggeration. “It was like a knife in the heart.” So Mr. Warren mobilized his vast Saddleback Church to fight AIDS, malaria and poverty in 68 countries.

Religious Freedom and Human Rights

In addition to church-based humanitarianism, the new evangelical internationalism has also found expression in specific foreign policy issues and specific legislative campaigns on those issues. The best account of this dimension of the movement is Allen Hertzke’s book Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights (2004). In it he chronicles how the movement first began to crystallize in the mid-1990s over the issue of international religious freedom. Evangelicals had always been keenly aware of religious persecution as it affected missionaries, but in the 1990s evangelicals began to approach the issue in a more systematic and multifaith way, and to insist that the U.S. foreign policy establishment do the same. In one of the most remarkable instances of religious lobbying on foreign policy in U.S. history, evangelicals provided critical leadership in a coalition that successfully pressed for passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (see the article by Thomas Farr in this issue, pg. 11).

The energy and networks catalyzed by that campaign led to evangelical activism in several successful legislative campaigns on other foreign policy issues. The efforts led to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000), the Sudan Peace Act (2002) and the North Korea Human Rights Act (2004), among other achievements. And the list of evangelical involvements that fit the new-internationalist narrative just keeps growing. Here is a sampling:

Energy. The Evangelical Environmental Network has sponsored a “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign related to fuel efficiency.

Global Warming. The Evangelical Climate Initiative has issued major statements and run television ads supporting concerted action on global warming.

Torture. Evangelicals for Human Rights has issued an “Evangelical Declaration Against Torture” and joined multifaith coalitions on the issue.

Global Health. Evangelicals (especially Michael Gerson, who was a senior adviser to President Bush) supported the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the President’s Malaria Initiative.

Israel-Palestine. Major evangelical scholars and leaders have issued open letters supporting a two-state solution.

Christian-Muslim Relations. Prominent evangelical scholars and leaders have participated in major Christian-Muslim dialogues, like a conference series at Georgetown University co-sponsored by the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the Institute for Global Engagement. The “Common Word” dialogues have also attracted key evangelical participants.

Immigration. The National Association of Evangelicals has published a full-page ad in the Washington, D.C., newspaper Roll Call, advocating for comprehensive immigration reform that includes providing a path to legal status for undocumented migrants.

Changing Views

Finally, it is important to note that evangelical support for new-internationalist issues is not limited to a clutch of moderate and left-leaning evangelical elites, but extends to a significant proportion of evangelicals at the mass level (see sidebar).

Across these diverse indicators, a majority or near-majority of evangelicals supports what could be described as new-internationalist views.

In short, American evangelicalism today is not your father’s fundamentalism. Rather, there is now a growing diversity of issues, leaders and perspectives in play. Evangelicals’ engagement of foreign policy and global affairs is not likely to end anytime soon, regardless of who occupies the White House. Indeed U.S. foreign policy in both the near term and the long term might be stronger precisely because of, rather than in spite of, evangelical participation.

Thomas Farr answers questions on religious freedom and the new evangelicals.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Native American protestors hold hands with parishioner Nathanial Hall, right, during a group prayer outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The furor over a chance meeting between Catholic high school students and Native American protesters underscores the need to listen and learn from indigenous voices.
Marlene LangJanuary 23, 2019
The staggering parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May, seen here leaving 10 Downing Street on Jan. 23, pushed the country even further from safe dry land. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
After the stunning defeat of Theresa May's exit deal, Scotland is looking anew at independence, and the U.K. government fears economic disaster.
David StewartJanuary 23, 2019
Michael Osborne, a film director, documents the damage from a mud slide next to his home in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, after three days of heavy rain. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The conceit of California-as-disaster-movie is ridiculous. But maybe watching our fires and mudslides helps other states consider both their own fragility and their underlying strength.
Jim McDermottJanuary 23, 2019
A commitment to religious liberty demands that effort be devoted to resolving, rather than exacerbating, any real or apparent tension between religious obligation and civil duty.
The EditorsJanuary 23, 2019