Sept. 24 1997 3:30 AM


The spurious campaign against the persecution of Christians.


Christians are suddenly the human-rights cause of the hour. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott recently declared that persecution of Christians is an international crisis and Congress' top priority. He predicted that the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, ending foreign aid to the perpetrators, will pass by the end of the year.


It's the mother of all causes: oppression by foreigners of a group that includes a majority of U.S. citizens. What politician would have the nerve to dissent? Plus, it's a genuinely worthy cause: Christians in China, Sudan, and other places are horribly abused because of their religion. Nevertheless, it is a problematic cause, and the bill that speaks to it is simply bad. The Freedom From Religious Persecution Act seems like a well-intentioned, do-nothing bill, riddled with loopholes. But it is worse than that.

The bill works like this: It establishes a White House Office of Religious Persecution to monitor religious freedom in foreign countries. When that office determines that a country kills, tortures, or imprisons people because of their religious affiliation, any aid that country gets from the United States is automatically suspended. The proposed legislation explicitly makes the persecution of evangelicals and Roman Catholics by Communist and Islamic regimes the office's top concern. It also modifies immigration policy so that refugees from religious persecution automatically receive asylum.

The best you can say for this bill is that its bark is worse than its bite. The leading candidates for sanctions--Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Sudan, and China--currently receive little, if any, U.S. aid. In instances where sanctions would punish allies--like Egypt and Saudi Arabia--the president will have ample abjuratory opportunity. The director of the office ordering sanctions will work within the White House, after all, and is unlikely to act against administration policy. And, in any event, a loophole in the bill allows the president to block any sanctions the office imposes.


T he most vociferous champions of the Christian-persecution movement concede the bill won't do much. The New York Times' A.M. Rosenthal, who has made this issue a hobbyhorse, says the proposed law is "too gentle." Nina Shea, a born-again Catholic activist and one of the movement's most important propagandists, has called it "inadequate." These critics complain that the bill does not impose a trade embargo on persecuting regimes. In fact, the bill's impotence is what will assure its passage.


Why has oppression of Christians become a big cause now? The explanation has little to do with oppression of Christians, which has not become noticeably worse lately. (See "The Chinese Chance," by William McGurn, about the situation in China.) The explanation involves the politics of the religious right. Now that the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed has morphed into a consultant (and his mentor, Pat Robertson, has been stuffed in the closet), there is an opening for leadership of the religious right. Contenders, especially Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, have seized on an issue that formerly was a concern mainly of apolitical church groups. Oppression of Christians fits nicely into Reed's game plan for the religious right: Embrace issues with mainstream appeal and use the secular parlance of "rights."

But whatever its explanation, what is wrong with the cause itself? Two things. One involves the position of human rights in the hierarchy of American foreign-policy concerns. The other involves the position of religious persecution among human-rights concerns. In both cases, the question is: Why should persecution of Christians be paramount?

It was conservatives who ridiculed President Jimmy Carter's obsession with human rights as naive, harmful to America's national interests, and self-defeating in its own terms. Jeane Kirkpatrick became a major figure in the 1980s on this very point. And conservatives largely won that battle. The two Republican leaders of Congress, Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both embrace the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act. Yet both have voted repeatedly to renew China's Most Favored Nation trading status. During the MFN debates, they endorsed the notion that friendly relations with China precipitate human-rights improvements. Patience, not pressure, brings democracy. This may be right or wrong, but to support both MFN for China and the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act is hypocrisy, made possible only by the latter bill's essential toothlessness.

However toothless, though, why should there be a special White House office on religious persecution and not one on political persecution? Is not democracy at least as important an American value as religious freedom? This bill implicitly values religious dissidents more than political ones--who suffer equally horrible abuse, and on whose behalf there is no equivalent threat of sanctions. It would convey to a country like China that U.S. favor turns on their treatment of Christians and Tibetans. Never mind political prisoners like Wei Jingsheng, who has festered in prisons for years.

The most troubling feature of the bill is a section tacked on at the end, granting U.S. asylum to anyone who can claim "credible fear" of religious persecution. Membership in a persecuted group, according to the law, automatically gets you in. At a time when the United States is being stingier with political asylum (for which victims of religious oppression now qualify on equal terms), why should victims of one particular form of oppression get favored status?

Proponents of this cause sometimes like to suggest that the failure of the U.S. government to take up with adequate zeal the issue of persecution of Christians reflects religious bigotry and oppression of Christianity in America--that is, bigotry and oppression directed against the majority religion in the world's most religious developed country. On its face, this notion may strike many people as absurd. But it gives white, conservative Christians admission to the Great American Victimization Bazaar--a phenomenon some political leaders are quick to deplore but happy to exploit when the opportunity arises.