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Christian Rights

On a recent afternoon in Washington, D.C., a group of Christian evangelicals and social activists met at the offices of the conservative Family Research Council to watch a short home movie. The twenty-minute film, smuggled out of the People’s Republic of China, depicted Chinese Christians involved in the illegal faith known as the home church movement. The audience watched scenes of hundreds of worshipers at passionate prayer— swaying, chanting—in the caves and fields where they secretly meet. And they watched Chinese Christians taking part in midnight baptismal rites in icy rivers and copying Bible verses by hand. Finally, they watched Christian priests of the home church movement tell of their arrests and torture. One released prisoner, Brother Peter, was videotaped in a dark room and from behind, so that his face could not be seen. “The persecution is definitely increasing,” he said, in halting English. By the end of the movie, many in the audience were weeping.

The scenes that wrung tears are not ones that Americans are accustomed to seeing. Apart from occasional, isolated condemnations of forced abortions in China, there has been no serious attention devoted to the suppression of religious liberties in the world’s most populous nation by the American government, by conservative groups or by liberal human rights organizations. Neither of the two major political parties has made an issue of Chinese religious persecution, and until now the press has devoted scant attention to the subject.

This may all be about to change, thanks to a small coalition of conservative Christian and Jewish social activists. A number of the leading activists were in attendance at the screening: host Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council; Nina Shea of the human rights group Freedom House; Katherine Ho, a Christian and survivor of two decades in the Chinese gulag; Paul Marshall, author of a new book on human rights violations, Their Blood Cries Out; and Jim Jacobson, president of Christian Solidarity International-USA. These people, and a few others—most notably the Jewish neoconservative Michael Horowitz—have coalesced behind a cause they believe will rejuvenate American conservatism: the cause of religious oppression of Christians. They maintain that Christians have replaced the Jews as the most persecuted group in the world and that, in China, this persecution is reaching historic levels, its highest pitch since Mao’s cultural revolution. They believe in what you could call the liberation-theology of the right; they believe that the Chinese government persecutes Christians because it properly recognizes that religion can destroy it. They believe that this is the next great moral issue of American politics, an issue that can draw from the left and the right and one that has the power to derail the Clinton administration’s China policy.

As that policy faces an imminent test in the congressional vote on June 25 for extending Most Favored Nation (MFN) status for China, the coalition’s strategy appears to be beginning to work. The long-standing, bipartisan assumptions of detente and trade with China have been shattered. Both parties are now split on China, with the Democrats’ unionist left and the Republicans’ Christian right uniting against both parties’ business-dominated center; on this issue, the afl-cio has joined the Christian right. Among conservatives, the China issue has prompted a split on a fundamental question: the meaning of Reaganism. The party’s supply-siders, led by The Wall Street Journal, Farrakhanite loony Jude Wanniski and columnist Robert Novak, argue that Reaganism was essentially Reaganomics, and they therefore champion trade with the middle kingdom over any concerns of the higher kingdom. The Christian right and Jewish neoconservatives retort that Reaganism wasn’t just about opening up foreign markets. It was primarily about morality: the defeat of communism was a sacred mission, not just an imperial one. This split has begun to find expression in practical political terms as Bauer, the Republican editorialist William Kristol and others have started to openly challenge the domination of American foreign policy by corporations—the same corporations that fund and dominate the Republican establishment.

This sort of fissuring and re-forming will continue because there is more at play here than philosophy or policy or party politics; there is also personal politics. In the Democratic Party, Dick Gephardt views the China card as the wedge issue he can use in 2000 to pull primary voters away from Al Gore. In Republican politics, the hot-button issue of persecuted Christians has become a weapon in the battle for primacy between the two most important social conservative groups, Bauer’s Family Research Council and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.

The shifting alliances of China policy have been commented on in the press as if they represent a new and strange post-cold war phenomenon. In fact, there is nothing particularly strange or new going on here. The new anti-China lobby is consciously modeled on the old anti-Soviet one that brought together hawkish Scoop Jackson Democrats with trade unionists and traditional Christian conservatives. Just as the afl-cio, evangelicals and Jewish neoconservatives joined forces against the Soviet Union, so the same groupings are teaming up against China. They may be animated by different motives, but their goal is the same: to force the U.S. government to drop detente with a communist power in favor of containment.

Now, as in the earlier anticommunist effort, much of the coalition’s intellectual force comes from the neoconservatives. The main source of that force is Horowitz. A former Reagan administration official who began his career teaching civil rights law at the University of Mississippi in the 1960s, Horowitz is a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and an indefatigable, behind-the-scenes operator. For Horowitz, China represents a golden opportunity to realize the neoconservative dream of creating a permanent alliance between Jews and evangelicals. “The Bible Belt,” says Horowitz, “is our safety belt.”

The 58-year-old Horowitz has almost single-handedly transformed persecution of Christians into a major issue. New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, who has taken up the cudgels on behalf of Chinese Christians, wrote that Horowitz—a wiry man who talks at a machine-gun pace—”screamed me awake” on the issue. James Dobson, president of the Christian group Focus on the Family, wrote in an April newsletter, “Michael, who is Jewish, was among the first to recognize what was happening to Christians and began a frantic campaign to notify the world.” Horowitz’s strategy has been to start from the bottom, to build a grass-roots church alliance that can be relied on to bombard Congress with letters and phone calls. But Horowitz also lobbies at the top, and he has persuaded Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia and Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, both Republicans, to propose legislation called “The Freedom From Religious Persecution Act.” The act is based on the Jackson-Vanik amendment that was designed to penalize the Soviet Union for violating human rights; it is supposed to be introduced this fall as part of a broader campaign on behalf of Christians.

Horowitz stumbled upon the issue of Christian persecution by way of Ethiopia. After sponsoring for American citizenship an Ethiopian Christian who had been tortured, Horowitz was surprised and incensed to learn from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that religious claims for asylum commanded a very low priority. In an article in the July 5, 1995, Wall Street Journal titled “new intolerance between crescent and cross,” Horowitz detailed the depredations of gangster regimes in Africa and the Middle East against Christians. “For American Jews, who owe our very lives to the open door of `the blessed land,’“ he concluded, “silence should not be an option in the face of persecutions eerily parallel to those committed by Adolf Hitler.”

Horowitz says the response to his piece both from Jewish and Christian organizations was no response. His next step was to “send letters to 150 mission boards. I told them, `I’ll work with you.’“ Horowitz wrote in his letter, “It does seem to me that America’s missions may have a special role in breaking the silence now surrounding these persecutions.” In January 1996, Horowitz joined Nina Shea of Freedom House to put together the new movement’s seminal event, a conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on “Global Persecution of Christians.” Shea, who has been researching the issue for two decades, says that the boom in attention paid to Christians “started with the conference.” In conjunction with the conference, the National Association of Evangelicals released a statement of conscience that was signed by the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Since then, Horowitz has more narrowly and aggressively focused on China, and he has built the network of involved groups and activists from a few to relatively many. His weekly steering committee includes influential activists such as Ann Huiskes, a senior aide to Congressman Wolf, and David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. In recent months, the bandwagon has become crowded, and the competition for public prominence has become intense; Horowitz frets that William Bennett, a relatively recent fellow traveler, may, with his publicity-prone ways, upset the delicate alliances between the various evangelicals.

If Horowitz is the impresario of the anti-China movement, Bauer is its public face. It is in the swirl of people and factions around Bauer that one can see most clearly the conservative power politics at play in the China issue. Like Horowitz, Bauer is a former Reagan official who has always had an aptitude for taking marginal issues and forcing them to public prominence. His ability to do this has enabled him to challenge the preeminence of a larger and wealthier rival within conservative politics, the Christian Coalition. In this regard, the China cause is heaven-sent for Bauer: the Christian Coalition’s Robertson has been quiet on the subject—partly, some suspect, because he has business investments in China.

Bauer also sees the China cause as a chance to revive the strain of moralism in Reaganism that he believes made it both muscular and popular. Bauer himself was initially attracted to Reagan for his strong stand on foreign policy at the 1976 Republican convention, where Reagan pushed through a platform plank repudiating Kissinger’s economics-based detente with the Soviet Union. “I don’t believe capitalism works without being tempered by virtue,” says Bauer. “There is nothing sacred about the marketplace.” Bauer’s moralism has led him into territory and rhetoric unfamiliar to most old Reaganites. At a June 4 press conference on Capitol Hill, Bauer appeared with the afl-cio’s Jeff Fiedler, Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, and Wolf to decry American dealings with China. Bauer’s unexpectedly old-liberal message: “I went up to Wall Street and reminded them that all men are created equal. It’s a universal declaration. That founding principle has to be at the center of democracy and foreign policy. Otherwise, we’re not who we say we are.”

Naturally, this sort of talk sits poorly with the GOP business community and with economic conservatives. Officials at the Heritage Foundation, which has consistently pushed for trade with China, say they regard Bauer as an opportunist who has hit upon a business strategy to raise the Family Research Council’s public profile. Republican congressmen complain to Bauer about the heat they’re starting to feel from religious constituents. The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed on June 11 by Robert A. Sirico, a Paulist priest, complaining that “Mr. Bauer’s position has evolved from a strong moral stand in favor of religious freedom to waging total trade war.” It concluded with what has become the standard dogma: “Just as religious freedom offers the best hope for Christian social influence, economic freedom is the best hope for spreading that influence around the world.”

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, argues that the Republican business establishment’s attacks on Bauer represent a horror at the encroachment of religious conservatism into the business of making money. “It’s amazing that the Journal has this assault on Gary Bauer every day,” Kristol says. “The attitude is, `Who is he to come butting in on our sandbox? He can do his partial birth abortion, but not economics and foreign policy.’“ Kristol’s point is well taken, but here, again, internecine politics are at work. It is not surprising that Kristol would stick up for Bauer. Bauer’s baptism as a China hawk was, in fact, administered by Kristol. Shortly after President Clinton’s re-election, Kristol hosted dinner meetings in Washington and New York to look for foreign policy issues that could reinvigorate conservatives. The one issue that kept popping up, says Kristol, was China. Kristol, who says that he lost a major advertiser over China and who has created a new foreign policy organization called the Project for the New American Century, solicited an article on China policy from Bauer for an issue of the Standard about China. In it, Bauer hoisted the Reaganite flag of crusading for freedom, and he decried the rush “to sell a few more Big Macs.” Bauer’s crusade nicely matched Kristol’s own vision of proper Republicanism. Bauer served as an instrument with which to prevent the social conservatives from becoming foreign policy isolationists. Instead, they could be mobilized as foot soldiers on the foreign policy front. Says Kristol, “Gary saw a chance to broaden his own agenda and to save his own movement from going down the Buchananite path.” Which is exactly Kristol’s agenda, as he tacitly acknowledges: “I think it’s important that Bauer has emerged as the most prominent conservative critic. That was in my mind all along.”

But perhaps the primary reason that the Christian right and neoconservatives have focused on the issue of persecution of Christians by the Chinese government has nothing to do with competing conservative strategies or activists jockeying for primacy. It is simply that the persecution is real, and by all reports getting worse. Christian groups and conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms have long decried China’s official one-child policy and forced abortions, and, in 1987, L. Ladany, S.J. published his illuminating The Catholic Church in China. But in the past decade, as an underground Christian movement has spread, the scale of suppression of religious liberties appears to have increased dramatically. A milestone was reached in 1994, when Prime Minister Li Peng approved decrees 144 and 145, authorizing the Public Security Bureau to crush any religious organizations that refused to register with the state. Since then, the ubiquity of the oppression can hardly be exaggerated.

One weapon has been economic. Steve Snyder, president of International Christian Concern, first visited China in 1991 as part of a delegation led by Congressmen Frank Wolf and Chris Smith. He says that “the situation is more repressive today in many respects. The government has created a witch-hunt for Christians.” Snyder, who met in May with underground church leaders, explains that “because of corruption, local officials see it as an opportunity to gain financial support, to take what little money that the poor peasant Christians have. They take their furniture and sell it.”

The main instrument of the government, however, has been brute, and sometimes lethal, force. On April 18, 1989, for example, several thousand members of the military attacked 1,500 Catholics in Youtong village in the northern Hebei province, killing two worshipers and wounding 300. In December 1994, 200 police officers shut down the evangelical pastor Yang Yudong’s church in Beijing. In 1995, according to a recent amendment sponsored by Congressman Gordon Smith of Washington, Public Security Bureau government thugs raided a meeting of some 500 evangelical Christians in the city of Huaian, “broke up the meeting, beat several participants, imprisoned several of the organizers, and levied severe fines on others.”

Last year seems to have been a particularly busy one for China’s Christian hunters. According to The Far Eastern Economic Review, the police destroyed 15,000 religious sites in the Zhejiang province alone in 1996. In January, Father Guo Bo Le of Shanghai was sentenced to two years of re-education, according to the court decision, for “saying Mass.” In March, during Holy Week, public security officials raided the home of the bishop of Shanghai and confiscated numerous religious texts, and in April, the authorities in Shanghai closed more than 300 home churches or meeting places. In the Jiangxi province, in November 1996, eighty Catholics were beaten and jailed. And in March, according to a June 6 Freedom House report, the Chinese authorities arrested Peter Xu Yongze, an underground Protestant leader who heads the “Full Scope Church.” He is imprisoned in Henan along with 300 other Protestants.

Protestant leaders in China say that 40 percent of the inmates in Henan labor camps are members of the Christian underground. The methods that the authorities reportedly use to re-educate these Christians include starving and beating detainees, binding them in excruciating positions, hanging them from their limbs and torturing them with electric cattle prods and drills. Sometimes, relatives are forced to watch the torture sessions.

The Chinese government’s official position is to allow religious worship, and it is true that official religious organizations, including ones of a Christian nature, do exist in China. These organizations were established by the state in 1979. They are controlled by the Religious Affairs Bureau, which is controlled by the Department for a United Front, which is controlled by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. They include the Catholic Patriotic Association, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants and the Chinese Christian Council. Under these organizations, official Christian churches are allowed, and the Chinese government estimates that these churches are home to 10 million Protestants and 4 million Catholics. But these are not at all free organizations or true Christian churches; they are rigidly managed by the state. Preachers must be registered with the government’s Religious Affairs Bureau. They are not allowed to preach outside their own province. They are not allowed to speak about the second coming of Christ. They are not allowed to baptize anyone under 18 years of age. According to Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, priests from the government-run churches have even testified against members of the underground church and been present during police interrogations. In October 1995, for example, an underground preacher in Henan was jailed after a pastor turned him in. The Catholic Church, for one, does not recognize the state-sanctioned practice of Christianity in China as the true worship of God. In 1996, Pope John Paul II told Chinese Catholics “to remain constant to the faith received and communicated, not giving in to concepts of a Church which does not respond either to the will of the Lord Jesus, nor to the Catholic faith, nor to the sentiment and convictions of the greatest majority of Chinese Catholics.”

The government’s fears are understandable. There are no dissidents left in China who have not been imprisoned. There is no independent labor union. There is no underground press. The only movement that has escaped government control is the burgeoning home church movement, the illegal Christians. The number of Christians in China is clearly higher than the government would have it; most observers estimate that the number ranges between 40 and 60 million, with the home church movement at over 20 million.

The silence from many Jewish and Christian organizations, from the Clinton administration and from the liberal human rights lobby that greeted Horowitz’s initial efforts to turn attention on the plight of Chinese Christians, has turned out to be typical. Gary Bauer and Michael Horowitz find this curious: Why do America’s mainstream churches, human rights organizations and the United States government seem not to care much about what is happening to Christians in China? The reasons seem to be a matter of politics and cultural snobbery. One reason is that organizations such as the National Council of Churches (NCC), which enjoyed a long and dishonorable history of truckling to the Kremlin during the cold war, maintains a similarly appeasenik posture toward Beijing today. NCC Secretary Victor W.C. Hsu returned from a trip in 1996 to China examining church-state relations to report that any persecution was the result of the overzealousness of local cadres. When NCC Associate General Secretary Albert M. Pennybacker appeared before Representative Chris Smith’s Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights on February 17, 1996, he said that the “evangelistic zeal of outsiders” was provoking repression. Acts that appeared to be “persecution” could in some instances really be “the wish to preserve authentic religious and cultural traditions.”

And the National Council of Catholic Bishops (nccb), which opposes renewing MFN, has wavered on dealing with Beijing; in 1996, it lobbied Congress to continue subsidizing exchange programs with the Chinese “Patriotic” churches, and it has enjoyed warm relations with the radical American Muslim Council. The nccb’s John Carr says that the Church seeks “reconciliation” in China. But in the past year, according to Horowitz, Cardinals John O’Connor and Bernard Law have prompted the Pope to pressure the bishops’ council to stop coddling Beijing, and the council is beginning to make a U-turn on China.

Then there is Human Rights Watch, whose silence on this subject has been conspicuous. Pointing to a copy of the 1997 Human Rights Watch World Report, Horowitz flipped to the special initiatives section: “Prisons, Corporations, Academic Freedom, Lesbian and Gay Rights,” he read. “Where’s religion?” It wasn’t there; Human Rights Watch buries religion in isolated sections of the book. Horowitz maintains that Human Rights Watch and other generally liberal human rights organizations suffer from a bias in dealing with religious issues. He said in a February speech: “`They aren’t our sort of people,’ one can almost hear them say—just as many of their counterparts said of my people fifty and sixty years ago.”

Horowitz appears to be right. It certainly seems to be the case that Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, takes a dim view of the focus on Christians. In an interview published in the March 31 issue of New York magazine, Roth airily dismissed the arguments on behalf of Christians as “special pleading” and “an effort to privilege certain classes of victims.” This seems a remarkable attitude for a human rights activist, since, by definition, all arguments on behalf of all persecuted groups—racial minorities, political minorities, ethnic minorities, etc.—are “special pleadings” intended to help “certain classes of victims.” But Roth stood fast. When I interviewed him, he exuded nothing but contempt for the efforts of activists such as Horowitz and Nina Shea. He argued that Human Rights Watch has in fact examined the problem of Christian persecution, but has been unwilling to accord it special status. He said that Horowitz’s criticism that there is no special category for religious persecution in the listing of types of persecution in the 1997 Human Rights Watch World Report is bunk: “If he had read the report, he would have realized how silly it is. He was making the argument on the basis of utter ignorance.... He has his shtick.” But Horowitz rightly notes that Roth can always point to occasional passages addressing Christian persecution; the point is that he is unwilling to acknowledge that the issue commands any urgency. One leading conservative activist says that when House Speaker Newt Gingrich showed a letter to Roth this spring signed by thirty religious leaders that expressed concerns about religious persecution in China, Roth “went over it line by line and attempted to eviscerate it.”

As for Shea, Roth said she is unable to support the claim in her new book, In the Lion’s Den, that more Christians have died for being Christians in this century than in the previous nineteen: “If it were serious, she would have backed it up.” Shea responded, “I don’t think he’s familiar with the issue. They’re playing catch-up. They need to minimize the problem because they missed it. Bigotry against evangelicals and Catholics in America has stalled the story from being told here about persecution abroad.”

Like the liberal human rights lobby, the Clinton administration has shown a marked lack of concern over the persecution of Christians. While the administration is changing federal policy to create new categories of political asylum for victims of spousal abuse and for gays and lesbians, it has viewed religious persecution with indifference. In part, the reason for the administration’s inaction seems to be the same aesthetic distaste for taking seriously religious persecution that pervades the human rights establishment. One recent and revealing example came in the form of testimony by Steven J. Coffey, principal deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May. Coffey stated that “where political freedoms are constrained or repressed, the same is often true for religious freedom ... as we work to expand the family of democracies around the world, to build free societies, to encourage tolerance, and to defend all fundamental human rights, we are also working to promote religious freedom.” Coffey has it exactly backwards: political freedom depends on religious freedom, rather than the reverse. Religious freedom is not incidental to a free society, as Coffey’s remarks would seem to suggest, but an essential foundation for one.

But the larger reason for the administration’s unwillingness to act, or even speak, on the subject would appear to be simply its profound reluctance to permit any human rights issue to gum up trade. The business of the Clinton administration has been business. As Jeffrey Garten, Clinton’s former undersecretary of commerce for international trade, explains in the May/June Foreign Affairs, foreign policy should be focused exclusively on trade: “Many ... still believe that commercial policy is a tool of foreign policy, when it should more often be the other way around—the United States should use all its foreign policy levers to achieve commercial goals.”

The refusal of the Clinton administration, the mainline churches and human rights organizations to recognize the sufferings of Christian believers in China and other countries has created a vacuum that is being filled by Jewish neoconservatives and evangelicals. What is now beginning to worry both Human Rights Watch and the State Department is that the attention the religious right has focused on Christian persecution is growing out of the confines of conferences, memorandums and op-eds, and toward action. In New York, Peter Vallone, the speaker of the City Council, has pushed through a resolution on behalf of Christians, and the city is weighing divestment sanctions toward countries such as China. In California, State Senator Ray Haynes has successfully pushed through a resolution on Chinese religious persecution that calls for denying MFN. There is at least a possibility that the House will reject the extension of MFN when it comes up for a vote next week.

But the most significant bill that the religious right hopes to pass is a measure, due for consideration in the fall of 1997, sponsored by Frank Wolf and Arlen Specter. This bill is a flat-out attempt to pressure the Clinton administration into making religious persecution a major concern. It would establish an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring in the White House, to be headed by a Senateconfirmed director. It would designate three religious groups as deserving special attention: Christians in communist and radical Muslim territories, Tibetan Buddhists and Iranian Baha’is. Countries that were deemed to violate religious rights would be barred from receiving exports from the U.S. that could facilitate persecution and would be barred from export-import bank assistance. The act would further require the U.S. to vote against loans from the International Monetary Fund to sanctioned countries.

The administration, of course, opposes the bill. But opposition may not make it go away. Many congressional Republicans, well to the right of their party’s business lobby, are increasingly enamored of the China issue, or they are at least becoming wary of spurning religious and moral concerns. And, on this issue, the Gephardt wing of the Democratic Party is now closer to Gary Bauer than to President Clinton. Thus, by wishing away a small and annoying and persistent group of moralists, and by ignoring an inconvenient truth about a trading partner, President Clinton may leave something of a foreign policy legacy after all: a law hamstringing his successor in the conduct of a foreign policy that this president never really much cared about.

This article originally ran in the July 7, 1997 issue of the magazine.