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The Rhetoric of Religious Freedom in Conservative Christian Activism

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The world is understandably focused on the COVID-19 crisis right now, as deaths mount and leaders struggle to respond with effective political, economic, and public health policies. In the United States, the slow and disorganized federal response has stymied efforts to implement widespread testing. Ongoing ideological polarization has shaped public perceptions of various government interventions to try to slow the spread of the disease and mitigate the financial costs of attempting to “flatten the curve.” Conservatives have rallied to support President Trump despite his failure to bolster needed stockpiles of medical supplies and to ensure that the country established an adequate and effective regime of testing and contact tracing.

Conservatives have also expressed considerable dismay at stay-at-home orders, focusing particular ire on orders that prevented churches from worshipping in-person. Right-wing organizations have bankrolled protests at state capitols and some conservative Christian churches have either remained open despite stay-at-home orders, or have received exemptions after lobbying their state lawmakers. Many of those angered by potential limits on in-person church services have argued that such restrictions violate their constitutional right to religious liberty, the “first freedom.”

The rhetoric of religious liberty is a powerful one, and conservative Christians in the United States have long used it in their political advocacy — whether in calling for churches to remain open during the pandemic, seeking to outlaw abortion, or attempting to restrict access to contraceptives.

The rhetoric of religious liberty is a powerful one, and conservative Christians in the United States have long used it in their political advocacy.

Indeed, the story of the U.S. religious right emerging as a significant political force by the late 1970s and using that influence to advocate for conservative domestic policies is a familiar one, and one that in some ways is particular to the American context.

But there is also an international dimension to the political rhetoric of U.S. religious liberty — and to conservative evangelical Christian lobbying — that stretches back to the 1970s. 

But there is also an international dimension to the political rhetoric of U.S. religious liberty — and to conservative evangelical Christian lobbying — that stretches back to the 1970s.

That is where my book comes into the picture. To Bring the Good News to All Nations tells the story of how and why politically-conservative evangelical groups in the United States became an influential lobbying force on issues related to U.S. foreign relations, especially human rights and religious freedom.

Evangelicals viewed the social upheaval of the late 1960s with grave concern, and believed that only Christian salvation could rescue humanity. Yet billions of people throughout the world had never been evangelized, and thus had not had the opportunity to experience salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. With their belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God, evangelicals took seriously the scriptural mandate to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” in order to “make disciples of all nations.” In the 1970s, evangelicals from the United States flocked to Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe to evangelize.

While abroad, they forged close relationships with the people they encountered. They also witnessed religious persecution, state violence, and acts of genocide against inhabitants in their mission fields. When they returned to the United States, they shared details about their evangelistic experiences with their churches, prayer groups, and friends. Their experiences and interactions, along with their staunch anti-communism, shaped their opinions about other countries.

As conservative white evangelicals gained political power during the 1970s, they used their influence to advocate for policies that they believed would promote religious liberty abroad. Evangelicals, focused on what they saw as their duty to spread the Gospel, privileged religious freedom and the freedom to evangelize as the most fundamental human rights. Concerns about religious persecution led these groups to advocate for a “Christian” U.S. foreign policy — one that would promote religious values and protect American missionaries and those they evangelized in other nations. Yet these views also led many evangelicals to perceive authoritarian and other anti-communist regimes as friendly to their objectives. This perception enabled evangelicals to interpret repression and state violence in authoritarian countries as an acceptable or even desirable effort to combat the spread of communism, and to describe these countries as bastions of religious liberty.

As conservative white evangelicals gained political power during the 1970s, they used their influence to advocate for policies that they believed would promote religious liberty abroad.

My book explains how evangelical lobbyists influenced U.S. relations with the Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe, Central America, and Southern Africa in the 1970s through the 1990s. The rhetoric of religious liberty proved tremendously powerful as conservative Christians lobbied for foreign policies that they hoped would make the world safe for evangelism, and it is not surprising that this rhetoric remains influential today in shaping U.S. domestic and foreign policy.


Lauren Turek is an assistant professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, where she teaches courses on modern United States history, U.S. foreign relations, and public history and serves as the director of the museum studies minor. Her research centers on transnational religious networks and the influence of non-state religious actors on international politics, U.S. foreign policy, and domestic political culture. Turek’s articles on religion in American politics and foreign policy have appeared in Diplomatic History, the Journal of American Studies, and Religions.

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