Foreign Policy
Spring 1999

The Christian Right and American Foreign Policy

By William Martin *


This abstract is adapted from an article appearing in the Spring 1999 issue of Foreign Policy.

“Some may ask why a guy like me, who talks about family issues, would go to a place like Harvard to discuss foreign policy,” Gary Bauer mused in one of his daily radio addresses broadcast to more than 400 U.S. stations nationwide. A fair question. At first glance, Bauer seems an unlikely choice to speak about international affairs. For more than a decade, his influential religious-political organization, the Washington-based Family Research Council, has first and foremost dedicated itself to promoting “Biblical principles” in American culture. Issues such as school prayer and abortion typically top the organization’s agenda.

But Bauer, now a presidential candidate, has proved himself a force to be reckoned with when it comes to American foreign policy. He has testified before Congress to deny China most-favored-nation trading status and has campaigned on behalf of legislation to protect religious freedoms abroad. Through such actions, Bauer and other members of the so-called Christian Right have put the United States, and indeed the rest of the world, on notice that religious conservatives will not limit their agenda to the water’s edge. The very term by which most conservative Protestants identify themselves — “evangelical” — announces their intention to carry their message, as Jesus instructed, “unto all the world.” They are actively and increasingly involved in efforts to influence a wide range of U.S. policy initiatives, prompting at least one foreign newspaper to comment that “the religious card” has suddenly gained a “startling frequency of use” in the American government. But anyone who expects to make sense of U.S. politics, domestic or foreign, over the short or long term, must accept that religious conservatives have become an enduring and important part of the social landscape.

Some of the Religious Right’s causes-opposition to the UN global warming treaty, support for NAFTA, skepticism regarding the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and encouragement of stronger missile defense systems-seem generated mainly by its close alliance with the not- necessarily-religious New Right. Both movements share preferences for a free market, limited government, strong defense, and national sovereignty, as well as a deep-running contempt for the Clinton administration. But in many other cases, the same values that underlie the Christian Right’s domestic policies also drive its international agenda. Religious activists have consistently opposed any foreign-policy initiative that might weaken parental control over children, facilitate abortion, expand the rights of homosexuals, or devalue the role of the conventional homemaker and mother.

In 1998, social conservatives in the House of Representatives nearly blocked $18 billion in funding for the IMF, in part because the fund channels money to countries and organizations that regard abortion as an acceptable part of family planning or population control. The United Nations is also a favorite whipping boy. The Religious Right has criticized the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, arguing that the treaty contains dubious provisions that would guarantee children the right to access pornography and other age-inappropriate media or to express their sexuality without having to answer to their parents. “The humanist element of such documents,” a Family Research Council position paper declared, interfere with the sacred parent-child relationship and have “the potential to destroy all that is best in Christian civilization, replacing it with a profoundly chaotic, harmful and ultimately evil empire.”

Similarly, the Christian Right not only sees the United Nations as a threat to the American family but as a mechanism that allows a secular élite to threaten family values worldwide. They deride programs that promote abortion, sterilization, or contraception as a form of “population imperialism” that seeks to “globalize the safe-sex ideology.” The campaign against the United Nations has had an impact. In large measure because of opposition from the Religious Right, the United States did not contribute to the UN Population Fund in 1998, jeopardizing a program that provides contraceptives to nearly 1.4 million women in 150 countries.

Members of the Christian Right also threw themselves behind the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, which targeted nations accused of religious persecution for economic sanctions. In the end, Congress passed a watered-down version of the legislation in late 1998. The International Religious Freedom Act gives the president considerable flexibility in determining where and when unilateral sanctions should be imposed, but the legislation could impact as many as 77 countries, including close American allies and trading partners such as Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

So where do matters stand as we approach a new millennium, with or without a Second Coming? For nearly 20 years, pundits have periodically weighed in with declarations that the Religious Right has passed its peak. But it is patently mistaken to imagine that religious conservatives will soon give up the fight to reshape American domestic and foreign policy to fit their vision of what a godly nation should stand for. Americans have long believed that their success in engaging the world can best be measured by the triumph of their values abroad. The tricky part is determining how those values are defined and implemented. The American government has offered its interpretation. The Christian Right will always stand ready to offer theirs.

Onward Christian Voters

Faithful Lobbyists


Further Reading

Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992)

David Cantor’s The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1994)

Frederick Clarkson’s Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1997)

Michael Cromartie, ed., No Longer Exiles: The Religious New Right in American Politics (Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1993)

Sara Diamond’s Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (Boston: South End Press, 1989)

Diamond’s Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (New York: Guilford Publications, 1995)

John Green, et al., Religion and the Culture Wars: Dispatches from the Front (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996)

William Martin’s With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996)

Clyde Wilcox’s Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996)



*: William Martin is Harry and Hazel Chavanne professor of religion and public policy in the department of sociology at Rice University.  Back.