Religion has continued to have an impact on international concerns in the modern era. While Islam has been under the microscope in recent years, Christianity has also been influential in ways that often fly beneath the radar.
This book is a gripping exposé of the power of the Christian Right worldwide—and in particular their influence within the United Nations. A former NGO representative at the United Nations, Jennifer S. Butler provides the first insider's account of the strategies and effectiveness of Christian Right lobbying campaigns within the United Nations. Drawing on personal interviews with Christian Right leaders, she analyzes the impact they have already had—and what the future may hold.
Butler reveals how today's most powerful Christian Right organizations are building interfaith coalitions. At the United Nations, groups like Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America are working with Catholic, Mormon, and Muslim allies to advance a conservative social policy agenda. The United States has recently joined that alliance. President George W. Bush has given them a significant voice in shaping U.S. positions on issues including women's rights, reproductive health, human cloning, children's rights, and AIDS.
In short, the Christian Right is globalizing—a phenomenon that promises to challenge progressive social policy on a worldwide scale—as well as transform the Christian Right itself.
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About the Author
Rev. Jennifer Butler is Executive Director of Faith in Public Life. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rev. Butler most recently served as the Presbyterian Church (USA) Representative to the United Nations. During her nine years at the U.N., she represented the denomination on issues ranging from women's rights to the Iraq war. She also taught courses at New York University's graduate program in Global Studies. Rev. Butler served in the Peace Corps from 1989 to 1991 in Belize, Central America. She earned a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Master of Social Work from Rutgers University.
Read an Excerpt
Born Again: Three Reasons the Christian Right is Globalizing
Journalists, activists and scholars have predicted the demise of the Christian Right several times since the 1970s. Needless to say, the Christian Right never died out. Each time the end was predicted, Christian Right leaders defied the journalists and experts by finding new causes to champion. Rather than collapse in the face of modernity, the Christian Right's influence has grown over the past decade and its interests have broadened. Once concerned largely with state and national issues, the Christian Right, just like many other social and political movements, is now developing international networks, initiatives and interests.
The Christian Right's most surprising shift in tactics is its recent decision to advocate its concerns at the United Nations, an organization that some continue to demonize as one of the possible stomping grounds of the Antichrist. Christian Right NGOs such as Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America are now accredited with the U.N. so that they can attend and influence U.N. meetings. Christian Right leaders now lobby U.N. Ambassadors and rent offices in the U.N. neighborhood rather than solely working in Washington to block funding for the U.N.
The Christian Right's interest in the U.N. is not a temporary or isolated foray into international organizing: it is part of a trend of growing Christian Right involvement in international concerns. Over the past two decades, conservative evangelicals have expanded their concerns from a focus on anti-communism to an interest in global concerns ranging from the AIDS pandemic, sex trafficking, and opposition to reproductive rights, human cloning and the expansion of women's rights language in treaties, to support for Israel and religious freedom.
As they have expanded their vision, Christian Right leaders have continued to build new alliances, laying the foundation for a global, possibly even an interfaith movement. The Christian Right is no longer a handful of leaders and their organizations with a largely evangelical membership: it is now led by a number of organizations, many of which are Catholic and Mormon as well as evangelical. And its membership is equally distributed among all three communities. This is especially the case in the loose Christian Right coalition operating at the U.N. Not only is it ecumenical: it is increasingly international. Some leaders even hope to make it interfaith by bringing Muslims into the coalition.
Why and how did the Christian Right begin to globalize? A complete answer requires not only understanding the background of these organizations, but also the persuasive assumptions that resulted in these organizations not being noticed until recently. Simply put, one must first problematize commonly held beliefs about religion and modernity that have been held by scholars and intellectual elites for decades. The theory of secularization held that as societies modernized, they would become more secular. Even those who were its foremost proponents are now questioning this theory. In fact, some would say modernity carries within it the seeds of religious revitalization. The rise of fundamentalist movements in all world religions is one of the major developments that called the theory of secularization into question.
Second, it is important to reexamine a common misperception that Christianity is moribund. On the contrary, Christianity, particularly in the global South, is experiencing a revitalization that may rival that of Islam. As the center of Christianity moves to the global South, its global leadership is becoming more socially conservative. Related to this point, despite being a modern superpower, the United States itself remains very religious. While the liberal wing of media and progressive activists often express surprise at the Christian Right's continued influence, religious activism ought not be viewed as an aberration in American politics. From Prohibition to the civil rights movement, evangelicals have long been influential in important social movements. Many journalists tend to cover the Christian Right through the lens of church-state issues, portraying the culture war as a conflict between fundamentalists and secularists. They therefore often overlook a second dimension of the conflict: the struggle within Christianity itself. Both the media and the Christian Right tend to characterize Christianity as being defined by the conservative social views expressed by the Christian Right rather than being a faith characterized by diversity.
Finally, globalization is helping to extend the Christian Right's influence. Once the Christian Right is no longer viewed as an anomaly that somehow survived modernity, its global expansion can be seen as a result of the all-encompassing strength of the forces of globalization itself. A brief examination of conservative evangelical and Christian Right activism on issues of religious freedom, the global AIDS pandemic and sex trafficking reveals that such activism may have progressive as well as conservative results.
Reason 1: Secularism (Despite Predictions) Never Completely Banished Religion
Secularization Theory Reexamined
In the 1940s and 1950s sociologists generally asserted that religion would increasingly play less of a role in both politics and modern life. Social theorists largely doubted that religion could survive the impact of the Age of Reason: scientific research, humanistic education, pluralism, democracy, technology, bureaucratic organizational life among other elements would undermine societal interest and need for religion. As one sociologist reflected, "From its inception, [sociology] was committed to the positivist view that religion in the modern world is merely a survival from man's primitive past, and doomed to disappear in an era of science and general enlightenment. From the positivist standpoint, religion is, basically, institutionalized ignorance and superstition." At best, religion was a relic of barbarism treasured by the less educated, part of a prior stage of human evolution that would crumble under the weight of this post-Enlightenment trend towards secularization.
Even some theologians during the social revolutions of the 1960s and early 1970s proclaimed "God is dead," holding that Westerners no longer found the idea of a radically transcendent God meaningful and that particular change in attitude could be seen in a positive light. Secularity, if not secularism, was to be embraced. An enthusiastic style of religion (Baptists and Pentecostals) in particular was held suspect in favor of more rationalized, philosophical or post-Christian versions of religious practice (such as mainline Protestantism, Buddhism, New Age religion). In the name of cultural sensitivity, African-American religious experience might be tolerated, or even Islam, but Christianity was viewed categorically as the religion of Western colonial oppressors.
Secularization theory was the reigning paradigm in intellectual circles until the mid-1980s. A number of significant events in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that religion had failed to follow the script that social scientists and cultural elites had written for it. World events proved that the secularization theory had to be revised: religion reemerged as a political force in nearly every region and major world religion. In 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shi'ite Muslim, ousted the Shah of Iran and established a theocracy. During the 1980s the Mujahadeen waged a battle against communism in Afghanistan and in the 1990s the Taliban wrested much of Afghanistan from the Mujahadeen. Hindu fundamentalism provoked political violence in India. Latin American liberation theology challenged repressive governments. A decade later Pentecostalism began to challenge the hegemony of Catholicism in Latin America. Africa also experienced an evangelical explosion. The Catholic Solidarity movement in Poland helped overthrow communism. The Christian Right in the United States helped elect President Ronald Reagan. As the reality of world events and the predictions of secularization theory increasingly could not be matched up, some critics of the theory pointed out that it had never been based on a body of research findings. Some scholars even suggested that the theory had been an ideology rather than a scientific theory all along, a value judgment rather than an analytical tool.
Secularism's Nemesis: Global Fundamentalism
Religious traditionalism or fundamentalism is said to be on the rise in all of the world's religions, yet debates continue over how to define the phenomenon. First, the term "fundamentalism" is a relatively new term. During the early part of the twentieth century, Protestant evangelicals who wanted their churches to return to the "fundamentals" of the faith called themselves fundamentalists to distinguish themselves from liberal evangelical Protestants. In 1979, the term was appropriated by the mass media to label the Iranian Shi'ite followers of Ayatollah Khomeini who led an Islamic revolution in Iran and ousted the Shah of Iran. It quickly caught on as a term to describe radical Muslim groups throughout the Middle East (despite objections both from the Muslim world and fundamentalist leaders in the United States). The term has been broadly applied to diverse movements in many different religious traditions as well as used pejoratively as a term synonymous with "backwards," or "crazy."
Some have even suggested that defining fundamentalism has been challenging because such efforts are rooted in the scholarly tendency to see religious vitality as aberrant, rather than the norm. Well-known sociologist Peter Berger once quipped, "The difficult-to-understand phenomenon is not Iranian mullahs but American university professors – it might be worth a multi-million-dollar project to try to explain that!"
Despite the term's limitations, scholarship on fundamentalism can provide insights into the globalization of the American Christian Right. Fundamentalists oppose at least three dimensions of modernity: its preference for secular rationality, the adoption of religious tolerance with accompanying tendencies towards moral relativism, and individualism. As societies modernize, religion becomes more compartmentalized. For instance, state constitutions separate religion and state, or create public school systems that displaced the centrality of religious instruction. Fundamentalists oppose this, seeking to restore religion to a central place in society. Accelerated and dramatic changes wrought by globalization threaten traditional cultures, social structures and livelihoods. Responding to rapid change and the destabilization of traditional cultures and family structures, fundamentalist movements offer stability by reclaiming and protecting religious and cultural identity. Ironically, the very process of secularization inspires fundamentalist movements.
While fundamentalists oppose modernity, they are in many ways paradoxically modern, choosing to fight modernity often with the best of modern tools at their disposal. Religious identity thus renewed becomes the exclusive and absolute basis for a recreated political and social order that is oriented to the future rather than the past. While at times choosing to withdraw quietly from modern society, more often fundamentalists fight back. They fight modernity in God's name, seeking to replace it with a "pure," idealized reconstruction of the past. The struggle and enemies are viewed in cosmic, dualistic and apocalyptic terms. Strongly held beliefs, clearly identified enemies and the cosmic nature of the struggle help reinforce the group's identity (thus making it impenetrable) and unify its members.
When the Christian Right seeks to restore prayer in public schools or speaks of America as a Christian nation, it is opposing the secularizing tendencies of modernity. Its enemies are those who seek to secularize society: secular humanists, academic elites, feminists who upset traditional gender roles, judges who mandate secular classrooms, the federal government and the like. It seeks to return the nation to a mythic past (sometimes represented by the Victorian age, or the 1950s) in which society was Christian and operated along more strict moral lines. Its leaders seek to save Christianity itself from liberal interpreters and to embrace orthodoxy or what they view as the true faith of Jesus Christ.
The Christian Right draws millions of supporters with its response to modern twentieth-century concerns like abortion, individual liberties and the welfare state. It appeals to groups alienated by rapid urbanization and industrialization, in particular those deeply disturbed by the 1963 Supreme Court decision to ban prayer in schools and the 1973 Supreme Court decision making abortion legal. In many ways its response to modernity – its cutting-edge usage of radio, the internet and television – is more innovative than that of the secular Left's.
Gender and Fundamentalism
One of the most striking components of fundamentalism is that it defines tradition and evil in gendered terms, resulting in a zeal to circumscribe women's roles in society. In many societies, women are viewed as bearers of culture because of their role in raising children, and in many cultures, the changes wrought by modernity are most visible in women's changing social roles. When these changes provoke reaction, "the modern woman" often becomes a symbol for fundamentalist movements of the evils of modernity and secularization. In the case of colonized nations in particular, where aspects of modernity were imported and often imposed by communism and/or Western powers, women's liberation often became identified with colonization or occupation. Here, the "modern woman" is feared because she is the Westernized woman. In restricting women's role in society, fundamentalists dramatize their effort to rid society of the vestiges of domination by outsiders and return to an ideal past (one which may never have existed). The control of women is viewed as the key to controlling what is the essential building-block of many societies: the family. The Taliban's treatment of women in Afghanistan may be the most dramatic and visible recent example. Highly educated Afghan women, who helped lead the country under the Soviet Union's puppet regime, found their modern lives and freedoms stripped away when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and sought to rid the country of all aspects of the former communist regime.
Surprisingly women themselves embrace and even lead fundamentalist movements, a fact still under-explored in the academy and by activists. For instance, Concerned Women for America, which describes itself as anti-feminist and pro-family, is not only one of the largest Christian Right organizations in the U.S.; it is also one of the largest women's advocacy organizations in the country.
Feminists have largely failed to come to terms with conservative and religious women, often viewing them as "dupes" or "pawns" of a "patriarchal system." Women's leadership and involvement in conservative movements cannot be so easily dismissed, however. While neither conservatives nor feminists truly address economic strains faced by today's American families, conservatives rhetorically appeal to Americans by addressing family concerns, the area where economic pressure is most keen. The agenda of feminist movement leaders in the U.S. is focused on reproductive and sexual rights rather than economic discrimination. Feminists tend to characterize modernization as granting women greater freedoms rather than having a mixed impact due to such strains as rapid urbanization and social fragmentation. This may blind them to the burdens experienced by women trying to support and raise families under immense economic and social pressure. While they have programs designed to help poor single mothers with children, few domestically focused feminist organizations analyze the economic stress on American families in general.
In the developing world, the impact of modernity on women's lives may wreak greater havoc. Rapid urbanization often tears families apart as economic changes force spouses and even children to leave close-knit communities and support systems to work in cities. Tensions wrought by globalization with its attendant economic, political and cultural strains may lead to conflict, health crises and the assimilation of traditional cultures and communities. Women from the developing world have helped to challenge many of the assumptions of white feminists from industrialized countries and this might happen again on economic issues. Perhaps this North-South debate over the economic benefits of modernity may help Western secular feminists better understand the perspectives of their opponents among Western conservative women.
Excerpted from "Born Again"
Copyright © 2006 Jennifer S. Butler.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction 1. Born Again: Three Reasons Why The Christian Right Can Globalize Now 2. The Christian Right’s Challenge To Global Democracy’s Status Quo 3. Assembling A Pro-Family Alliance 4. A Global Religious Right?: The Prospects And Challenges Of International, Interfaith Alliances Conclusion: Six Areas Where Conservatives Excel Notes Index