The Common Good
May-June 1998

Seeking Moral Consistency

by Jim Wallis | May-June 1998

Religious persecution. It’s becoming a hot topic, with a protest against it
gathering strong momentum around the world. It’s about time.

Religious persecution. It’s becoming a hot topic, with a protest against it gathering strong momentum around the world. It’s about time.

The effort was initiated mostly by those active on the Religious Right, and their particular focus started with the persecution of Christians in particular at the hands of radical Islamic and Communist regimes. The stories coming out are indeed harrowing, including torture, rape, and summary executions for simple acts of prayer and worship. Christian identity itself has become a crime punishable by death in some places. A dedicated group of conservative religious activists has led this campaign and challenged other Christian groups to stand up for their imperiled brothers and sisters.

In his book Their Blood Cries Out, Paul Marshall extensively documents the widespread scope and brutal character of modern religious persecution. He also takes to task Christian groups that have not made the religious persecution he describes a priority, and accuses them of selective concern for human rights based on their own political preferences. Sojourners and myself are among those singled out for criticism.

It’s a fair criticism, in part. I must admit to not realizing how serious and widespread such persecution of Christian believers had become. At a recent summit on religious persecution in Washington, D.C., Chuck Colson spoke for others of us in the room when he said that, until recently, many of us simply didn’t know the extent of the situation. Those who are leading the new campaign against religious persecution, therefore, deserve credit for bringing such a critical issue to wider attention.

The summit in early February showcased the results of that attention by bringing together Christians from across the political spectrum. And now a religious persecution bill is making its way through Congress. Many of those who have come into this new coalition, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, Evangelicals for Social Action, Sojourners, and others, support a broader focus that includes equal concern for all the victims of religious persecution, not only Christians. I support the new bill, co-sponsored by Democrats such as Tony Hall and Republicans such as Frank Wolf, which will monitor religious persecution in countries around the world and deny U.S. aid to the violators.

Religious freedom and other human rights should never suffer from selective political concern. And if we’re honest, we must admit that both the Religious Right and Left have sometimes been less than consistent in their religious and human rights priorities. During the 1980s, for example, it was mostly those on the Religious Left who defended besieged Christian leaders who were under attack by right-wing governments in places such as El Salvador and South Africa—regimes often supported by conservative Christians in the United States. At the same time, religious dissidents in the Soviet bloc were more likely to find sympathy from those same conservative religious leaders than they were from U.S. Christians in solidarity with the Central American churches.

In our Sojourners coverage, we tried to care as much about murdered priests in Poland as we did about murdered priests in El Salvador, but we did have more connections to the latter than to the former. We’ve also tried to expand the definitions of religious persecution from the captivities of both the Left and the Right. The Right tends to concern itself with the protection of religion’s private expressions—conversion, prayer, and worship; while the Left seems to focus upon religion’s public protest against tyrannical governments. But both definitions are too narrow.

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down while celebrating Mass because he defended the poor and their priests against government death squads. Was he not a victim of religious persecution? What about the arrest and jailing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu for defying an apartheid regime that denied the image of God in black South Africans? Was that not also religious persecution?

These are both instances of religious persecution, unless you believe that defending the poor and resisting racism are not religious obligations. But the Right was virtually silent on those and many other similar instances of brutal religious persecution and, in some cases, attacked such clerics for their "political" involvement. Martin Luther King Jr. defended himself against similar charges from white Southern clergy in his famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

But when Sudan commits unspeakable violence against Christians for simply being believers, or China imprisons church leaders who won’t submit to the control of the state, the Left is seldom heard from. When evangelism, Bible study, worship services, and even prayer are activities that risk your freedom and even your life, the support of other believers around the world becomes most crucial. It’s true, Christians shouldn’t just be concerned about the persecution of other Christians; they should raise their voice of protest on behalf of those of any faith who suffer for their religious beliefs. But standing with our brothers and sisters in Christ in distress is a fundamental obligation of Christians everywhere, regardless of our political convictions and loyalties.

That’s why I’ve joined with religious leaders from across the political divides to challenge religious persecution of anybody, and by any government, regardless of political considerations. And I’m concerned about those who still won’t join in such a campaign because of who else is at the table. It’s time to put such political correctness and captivity aside, while still asking each other hard questions. In the meantime, the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, now before Congress, deserves the active support of Christians from across the political spectrum.

Revealing Our Primary Colors

I saw the movie Primary Colors on its opening night in Washington, D.C., and it was as troubling to me as reading the book. But even more troubling is the conversation in this capital city in the weeks surrounding the release of the Hollywood version of our current public morality play.

Moral consistency seems to be quickly eclipsed by politics. The president, who at first said the American public deserved to hear more answers from him, now says he may never tell the American people any more of the story behind his alleged multiple acts of sexual misconduct. Conservatives who have never had much to say about women’s rights or sexual harassment are now ardent defenders of the growing number of women who have made accusations against Bill Clinton. And liberals who once defended Anita Hill against her attackers are now taking part in character assassinations against the women who have spoken about their sexual experiences with the president. A famous feminist, who once led the way in trying to protect women from the sexual advances of powerful men in the workplace, now writes in The New York Times that as long as Clinton had the consent of a willing intern his daughter’s age, or "took no for an answer" from an unwilling volunteer seeking his help in a time of trouble, his behavior can be forgiven. After all, this article admits, feminists need his support for their political agenda on abortion. All of this is greatly troubling.

Also troubling are the college students who say that Clinton’s problems with his sexual behavior and telling the truth about it make him easier for them to identify with as their president. On one of the Sunday morning news programs, a guest told the story of a friend’s 6-year-old daughter who lied at the dinner table about whether she had cleaned her room, in order to get dessert. Once exposed, she justified her behavior by saying that even the president lies.

We’re all trying to figure out what Clinton’s high approval ratings really mean. Are people just angry (justifiably) at the media’s irresponsible frenzy over this story and Ken Starr’s partisan witch-hunt; or is it that the majority no longer cares about a leader’s personal ethics—especially as long as they’re driving a new sports utility vehicle? Do enough people see in Bill Clinton’s transgressions a mirror of their own and, therefore, feel willing to forgive him? Or worse, is the public shrug over Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey an indication that sexual integrity is less and less important to more and more Americans? If so, that is not only troubling but dangerous to the fabric of our society.

Why have churches and church leaders been so quiet in this crisis of morality? Except for the predictable diatribes from the likes of Jerry Falwell, religious leaders have been curiously silent. Could it be that this too falls out along political lines? Are those church leaders most sympathetic to Clinton’s agenda unlikely to offer much comment on the many ethical issues involved here? Are only those opposed to the president’s political agenda ready to speak challenging words to the White House? What are our primary colors? Will we too suffer the contradictions of political correctness and moral double standards?

After the movie, I overheard people talking about it outside on the sidewalk. One young man was speaking to a group of friends who had just seen the movie. "Is it because we’ve all sold out," he asked, "that we can tolerate his moral sellout? You know, like we’re kinda saying, ‘Sure, he’s a sellout, but he’s our sellout’? I don’t know. It all just makes me feel bad. Really bad." That about says it. This whole thing makes me feel bad, too, really bad.

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