Sunday, May 10, 2020

Lauren Frances Turek's "To Bring the Good News to All Nations"

Lauren Frances Turek is an assistant professor of history at Trinity University. A diplomatic historian by training, she has research interests in the history of U.S. foreign relations, religion, and the international human rights movement. At Trinity, she teaches courses on modern United States history, U.S. diplomatic history, and public history. She is also the director of the Museum Studies Minor.

Turek applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations, and reported the following:
I was quite interested to see what might happen when I applied the “Page 99 Test” to my book, and ended up feeling pleased and relieved with the results. My book argues that global political and economic changes in the 1960s and 1970s, such as decolonization, globalization, and Cold War competition, coupled with a renewed concern about overseas missionary work, shaped the foreign policy opinions of politically conservative U.S. evangelical Christians and led them to engage in foreign policy lobbying. A range of factors made their lobbying more effective by time Ronald Reagan came into office.

From page 99:
In speeches and public statements, Reagan often merged this biblical notion of human dignity with “eternal” U.S. values, including the freedom of conscience. He reviled Soviet communism for its atheism as well as its statist repression. Throughout his career as a public speaker and politician, Reagan counterposed the United States as the “shining city upon a hill” against the bleak, totalitarian Soviet Union. He saw the United States as the world’s beacon of freedom and expressed confidence in the broad appeal of U.S. democratic values.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan drew on these core religious and ideological beliefs to mount an attack on President Carter’s approach to international relations and human rights. He railed against détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, advocating for a more muscular foreign policy that would bolster U.S. strength and negotiating power vis-à-vis its major adversary. On human rights , Reagan alleged that Carter had applied foreign policy pressure inconsistently, targeting authoritarian
regimes for their violations yet ignoring abuses in the Soviet Union. In his campaign speeches, he called for a reappraisal of how human rights issues fit into U.S. policymaking—though not for their wholesale removal from the decision-making process.

During his first term as president, Reagan and his advisers advanced a human rights vision that distinguished between and emphasized human rights violations in totalitarian as opposed to authoritarian regimes, and sought change through quiet diplomacy rather than congressional pressure. In an interview with Walter Cronkite on CBS News in March 1981, Reagan explained his position: “I think human rights is very much a part of our American idealism.... My criticism of them, in the last few years, was that we were selective with regard to human rights. We took countries that were pro-Western, that were maybe authoritarian in government, but not totalitarian ... and we punished them at the same time that we were claiming détente with countries where there are no human rights. The Soviet Union is the greatest violator today of human rights in all the world.” In downplaying the abuses of authoritarian regimes, this distinction troubled many liberal human rights activists. For evangelical groups such as CREED, however, Reagan’s statements aligned with their policy objectives and seemed to indicate that he planned to champion religious liberty abroad while in office.

Eager to protect their brethren behind the Iron Curtain, evangelicals rallied during the first months of Reagan’s presidency to defend his administration’s stated plan to prioritize human rights abuses in totalitarian rather than authoritarian regimes.
Page 99 captures the themes and argument of the book well. The book explores how conservative evangelicals grappled with issues related to human rights and human rights abuses. I found that the groups I wrote about often used human rights language when writing about foreign policy issues such as trade or military aid. They tended to define human rights narrowly, emphasizing the freedom of religion or freedom of conscience as a primary human right from which all others would stem. I make the case that their definition of human rights reflected their missionary agenda: they believed that it was their spiritual duty to spread the Christian gospel, and thus they wanted a foreign policy that would protect their freedom to evangelize (and the freedom of the “unreached” to hear that gospel). For evangelicals, no earthly privation compared to the loss of the potential for salvation through Jesus Christ, and as such they advocated primarily for religious liberty rather than for the more expansive human rights that secular and politically-liberal organizations such as Amnesty International promoted.

U.S. evangelicals expressed considerable concern about Christian suffering in communist nations, and lobbied policymakers to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on those countries that persecuted Christians, such as the Soviet Union. Similarly, when evangelicals identified anti-communist or pro-evangelical leaders in other parts of the world, they pushed the United States to implement policies that would benefit those regimes—even when they were extremely authoritarian and repressive, such as in Guatemala.

Page 99 shows the intersection of these evangelical ideas about human rights and foreign relations with Reagan administration foreign policy priorities. I think readers that turned to this page would find it provided a good hint as to the historical argument I build over the course of the book.
Visit Lauren Frances Turek's website.

--Marshal Zeringue