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The Religious Right Determining U.S. Foreign Policy

When Americans ponder why the rest of the world regards it with less respect, they could turn to the recent controversy created by the U.S....

When Americans ponder why the rest of the world regards it with less respect, they could turn to the recent controversy created by the U.S. delegation at the March meeting in New York of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

The issue reveals both the new approach of right-wing fundamentalists to international organizations and the extent to which such groups increasingly determine U.S. foreign policy.

At the two-week meeting, attended by 6,000 women from 130 countries, the U.S. delegation created a furor when it refused to sign a declaration reaffirming the Beijing Platform for Action. Signed by the U.S. and 184 other countries in 1995, the Platform included resolutions asserting the fundamental rights of women and called for ending discrimination against women in 12 important areas.

Before signing a reaffirmation of the Beijing Platform, the U.S. delegation demanded that an amendment rejecting abortion be inserted. Meeting with widespread opposition from international women’s organizations and supported only by Egypt and Qatar, the leader of the U.S. delegation, Ambassador Ellen R. Sauerbrey, eventually relented and signed the declaration.

Before signing, Sauerbrey made it clear that the declaration would not legally bind the U.S. under international law, did not recognize abortion as a method of family planning, or support abortion in its reproductive health assistance, and did not support quotas as a method of advancing women. Sauerbrey, a Republican national committeewoman described as a "conservative stalwart" by National Review magazine, stressed that the U.S. upholds an "ABC" approach to women’s health: abstinence, be faithful, and the use of condoms, "where appropriate" to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to Zonibel Woods, senior adviser for international policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, instead of addressing important human rights issues and determining how to move forward at the conference, the U.S. delegation spent its time attempting to roll back commitments made ten years ago.

"They wasted a lot of time," said Woods. "They claim to defend women’s rights, but they attack women’s rights at every international meeting when they think no one is looking."

Woods observed that other countries are frustrated by U.S. policy that focuses moralistically on abstinence, parental rights, and restricting comprehensive health education. In addition to withholding $34 million earmarked for United Nations Population Fund, used to promote family planning, sexual and reproductive rights, sex education, and condom use, Bush imposed "a global gag rule," which prevents organizations that receive U.S. funds from counseling, referring, or providing information on abortion. The UN estimates that withholding these funds led to an additional 2 million unwanted pregnancies and more than 75,000 infant and child deaths.

According to the conservative National Review, Sauerbrey represents "a very conservative, very pro-family" agenda into UN programs. Sauerbrey told United Families International that she is "fighting the battle" and "expressing what heartland America is really about … moral leadership."

A collection of advocates for right-wing think tanks and fundamentalist groups now populate U.S. delegations to the UN. For example, the official U.S. women’s delegation includes: Nancy Pfotenhauer, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, which is opposed to spending tax dollars to relieve violence against women and opposes women’s comparable pay efforts and affirmative action programs; and Winsome Packer, former executive assistant to the vice president of the Heritage Foundation. Such appointments clearly signaled a change of management at the State Department.

Bush’s appointments to nongovernmental organization (NGO) observer status to the UN come from right-wing religious groups:

  • Janet Parshall, author of Tough Faith: Trusting God in Troubled Times and Light in the City: Why Christians Must Advance and Not Retreat, who hosts a conservative talk show and frequently attacks women’s rights advocates such as Gloria Steinem and Patricia Ireland.
  • A devout Presbyterian, Patricia P. Brister, who served as chairman of the Republican Party of Louisiana and chairman of Bush/Cheney ’04 in Louisiana.
  • Susan B. Hirschmann, a lobbyist, who is a former chief of staff for Tom DeLay and former executive director of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, a conservative political action group that helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and is a vociferous opponent of the feminist movement.

Such appointments illustrate a religious focus on foreign policy that is a break with the traditional separation of church and state, a policy that began to change with Pat Robertson and the creation of the Moral Majority. Backed by social conservatives, neoconservative ideologues, and the religious right, Ronald Reagan declared that foreign policy would henceforth rest on moral clarity combined with military might.

"From the earliest days in America, fundamentalists stuck with separation of church and state and saw no role for fundamentalist Christians in politics," said Wilfred M. McClay, professor of history and humanities at the University of Tennessee. "The Baptists feared that ‘who pays the piper calls the tune.’ But in the 1970s, the Moral Majority broke this pattern."

In the 1980s and 1990s, some estimate that right-wing foundations poured over $1 billion into conservative think tanks, organizations, and lobbying efforts. According to the Media Transparency grants database, in 1994 these conservative "philanthropies" and think tanks controlled $1.1 billion in assets. From 1992 to 1994, they awarded $300 million in grants and targeted $210 million to support a wide variety of projects and institutions.

Approximately 12 foundations fund a network of interconnected groups, which coordinate activities and push similar agendas. Several of these right-wing religious groups stand out for their growing power in foreign policy. They include:

  • The Center for Security Policy, which claims it is "committed to the time-tested philosophy of promoting international peace through American strength." Its website condemns the UN General Assembly for "utopian socialism" and as a haven of anti-Americanism whose members "can only be regarded as enemies." It questions whether the U.S. should be a member of the UN and praises Bush for his willingness "to finish the war (in Iraq) and win at all costs."
  • The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which claims "to reform the social and political witness of the American churches" by countering the "secular agenda of the Left" with "the timeless message of Jesus Christ." In fact, the IRD concentrates on attacking and discrediting church leaders and provoking conflict in mainline Protestant denominations that embrace "leftist crusades" such as feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, multi-culturalism, socialism, sexual liberation, and other movements that "pose a threat to our democracy." The IRD supported the Contra death squads in Central America and right-wing militaristic Zionists, and criticized mainstream Christians that "spout pacifist-sounding slogans." The IRD is closely allied with antifeminist organizations such as Concerned Women for America and the Ecumenical Coalition on Women and Society, who aim to "counter radical feminist ideology and agenda."
  • The Institute for Public Policy and Religion (IPPR), which backs the central role of religion in public life, and is led by Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and an outspoken advocate of democratic capitalism. Since its founding, the IPPR has tried to steer American concern away from human rights toward religious freedom. The institute warns its followers against engaging in global warming issues, supports "just wars," and advocates greater Christian participation in public and foreign policy to promote family life, right-to-life, anti-abortion, and anti-gay marriage programs.
  • The Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), established in 1976, aims "to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues." The EPPC was the first institute to attack "secular humanists" and promote a "cultural war" against liberalism. Ernest Lefever, founder of EPPC, authored America’s Imperial Burden, which justifies American empire building. Convicted felon Elliott Abrams served as president from 1996 to 2001.

A myriad of other groups such as the Independent Women’s Forum, Empower America, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the International Right-to-life Foundation also play a role in promoting a religious right-wing agenda.

The efforts of these groups have paid off in converting the role of the Christian right from one of criticizing the UN as a secular institution to infiltrating and attempting to reshape the UN agenda. According to Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, Bush’s focus on religious issues such as abortion, religious school vouchers, same sex marriage, and Israel helped mobilize his white, evangelical base. Since 9/11, foreign policy has taken on "significant religious dimensions" with "a rhetorical style of America bringing God’s gift of freedom to the planet."

By breaking down the separation of church and state, these groups are bringing religion squarely into the center of government and refocusing governmental policy on their narrowly defined ethical and religious views. Few would disagree with an infusion of ethics into politics, but as always, the devil is in the details. These groups share a belief in the superiority of American religious and economic systems and are quick to force them upon other countries and cultures.

"Ethics that assume the superiority of traditional Judeo-Christian values over other cultures and religions is arrogant," said Tom Barry, policy director for the International Relations Center. "This idea does not facilitate democratic or constructive engagement, but leads to reaction and growth in religious fundamentalism by destabilizing other cultures and societies."

In its Middle East policy, the U.S. follows the direction set by these right-wing religious groups, bringing democracy, capitalism, and American values, backed by military force. While many may agree with the goals, which also eliminate reason as a guide to U.S. foreign policy, the approach of the religious right proves counterproductive.

"We are not facilitating democratic or constructive engagement but fostering a reaction," said Barry. "By threatening people, we drive them back to fundamentalist values. We are leading to a growth in religious fundamentalism."

Don Monkerud is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows religion and politics, and contributes to the Right Web program of the International Relations Center, online at www.irc-online.org.

 

Citations

Don Monkerud, "The Religious Right Determining U.S. Foreign Policy," IRC Right Web (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, April 12, 2005).

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