Religious Right 'threat to world peace'

Controversial one, this. Is the Christian Right a threat to world peace because of its influence on American foreign policy?

Steven Russell

Controversial one, this. Is the Christian Right a threat to world peace because of its influence on American foreign policy? East Anglian academic Lee Marsden - a former evangelical preacher - sought to find out. Steven Russell reports

WITH Iran, Israel and America involved in a high-stakes “game” of who-blinks-first, Dr Lee Marsden's book could not be better timed - even if its findings are enough to keep us awake at night.

He claims that since 9/11 the Christian Right has enjoyed a better chance than ever before to influence US foreign policy on issues from the war in Iraq to global warming - and not for the better.

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The book, For God's Sake, argues that the religious core values of Middle America have potentially disastrous consequences for both the United States and the planet. For example: the Christian Right “seeks to prevent any resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict on anything other than Israeli terms”. Utterances by presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama fit “exactly with the Christian Right agenda and effectively destroys prospects of a peaceful resolution of the conflict”.

Both candidates have been equally aggressive towards Iran, Dr Marsden says, and conservative evangelicals are disproportionately represented in the US military and private security contractors. “This presents a problem in terms of cultural sensitivity and Muslim perceptions of the US military being a Christian army engaged in a crusade against Islam.”

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The Christian Right movement has also been behind the Bush administration's anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-nuclear family stance, he adds.

What makes the book particularly intriguing is that its author became a born-again Christian in 1981 and spent 16 years as a conservative evangelical with Pentecostal and renewalist churches in Suffolk. He was ordained in a Word of Faith church in Lowestoft - part of an American fellowship of churches - and served as pastor.

“During this time I taught, preached and believed in the Bible literally, including creationism.”

It was only after becoming a mature student in the mid-1990s at the University of East Anglia, that he started to question his beliefs and eventually lost his faith.

Now a lecturer in international relations at the university where he studied, he feels the passage of 10 years or so has allowed him to write with academic objectivity. But even if critics rail, he's convinced it's a discussion the world needs to have. “The issue has become one of the most important and divisive in global politics today.”

He travelled to America to interview leading figures from the Christian Right - including some from the Bush and Clinton administrations - attended conferences and listened to sermons and speeches.

Dr Marsden concludes that, in less than three decades, right-wing Christians have become such influential players in American politics that no politician, Republican or Democrat, can fail to take heed. Conservative evangelicals now form part of the base of the Republican Party and occupy senior positions from local level to the presidency itself.

The movement “flexes its muscles through an efficient lobbying machine honed over three decades. The mobilization of tens of thousands of activists and supporters to email, lobby, write and telephone politicians in Congress and the administration on specific foreign policy concerns constantly raises the profile of issues of concern to the movement”.

The Christian Right has been most effective as a supporter rather than a shaper of US foreign policy, however ­- “largely pushing at an open door” - and Dr Marsden points out that George Bush hasn't been a pushover.

For instance, evangelicals have been unable to persuade the president to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and could not stop support for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The movement could not, either, get Bush to change his view of Islam as a religion of peace.

“They have also, at the time of writing, failed to persuade Bush to attack Iran over its nuclear power programme . . . Should such an attack occur before the end of Bush's term, the Christian Right will rally support and offer legitimation for it, in much the same way as they did before and after the Iraq conflict.”

All in all, however, the movement has been very successful during the Bush II era - though “their influence is damaging to US interests in the short, medium and long term”.

Dr Marsden says the president has committed considerable funding towards HIV and Aids initiatives - “but a third of it is restricted to abstinence-only programmes, which slightly defeats the object: organisations not allowed to work with prostitutes, for example, or give out condoms, which seriously affects the chances of success”.

Other Christian Right standpoints restrict women's rights, he argues.

“The irony is they'll work with whoever will agree with their position; will criticise some Islamic regimes for their human rights records or the way they apply Sharia law, but will vote with them and enlist their support when it comes to anti-gay measures, issues of abortion and stem-cell research.”

Dr Marsden also warns against “religious imperialism”.

“The Christian Right's proselytizing in the Muslim world, evangelization within the US military, and criticism of Muhammad and of Islam as a religion of peace, and unequivocal support for Israel despite its appalling treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, all create the impression within the Muslim world that America is leading a crusade against them.”

But is the movement undemocratic or insidious? These groups are very upfront. The Christians United for Israel web site, for instance, lays out its case clearly: “. . . as Christians we have a Biblical obligation to defend Israel and the Jewish people in their time of need . . . There is a new Hitler in the Middle East - President Ahmadinejad of Iran - who has threatened to wipe out Israel and America and is rapidly acquiring the nuclear technology to make good on his threat . . .”

Dr Marsden feels the Christian Right uses the democratic system better than most other people - communicating well and campaigning effectively. “They may not be the majority, but they come out and vote,” he tells the EADT. The Left, meanwhile, “have generally fallen asleep on a whole heap of issues”.

He acknowledges the vast majority of evangelicals are acting on genuine motives, wanting to save at-risk souls. “I think what they're saying is actually very dangerous, but I don't doubt they're sincere in what they're saying. They see nothing wrong with their approach; they see everyone else as being out of step. But it (the book) allows other people to weigh that and consider whether they're a threat or not.”

His evidence-gathering across the Atlantic wasn't without its lighter moments.

One of the people he met was Janice Shaw Crouse, from Concerned Women for America, which seeks to bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy. She has twice served the president as an official delegate to the United Nations, and during the first Bush administration was a presidential speech writer.

“We had this interview in her office, and she's got this reputation of getting UN officials cowering. She leaned forward, touched me on my knee and said 'Before we start this interview, could I just say I love your dimples. You remind me of my son.' What can you say?!”

Here's a provocative question: is America, influenced by the Christian Right, the greatest current threat to world peace?

“It is provocative!” He weighs his words carefully. “Who's more likely to go to war? Is Iran more likely to attack Israel, or is Israel more likely to attack Iran? Is America more likely to attack Iran than Iran is likely to attack America?”

The former evangelical preacher stresses his criticism is not inspired by his own religious re-conversion.

“What I am concerned about is the 'rogue element', if you like. What people do in church is fine; it's when it starts to impact on what you and I can do, and our prospects of going to war, and how we respond to people of other faith, and no faith . . .”

Some of the rallies he attended left him decidedly uncomfortable, such as the Christians United for Israel conference in Washington DC - a three-day jamboree “presented brilliantly with big flags, video screens and marching bands”.

“What was scary for me was a seven-year-old boy behind me with his family. Every time they had some anti-gay rhetoric, he was whooping and jumping up and down and really getting carried away.

“For me, that was really so insidious and dangerous - that people were growing up in this environment that's so hostile to anyone who's different. I found that very threatening.”

For God's Sake: The Christian Right and US Foreign Policy is published by Zed Books at £17.99 paperback (ISBN 9781842778852) and £55 (9781842778845) hardback.

HE might be a liberal-leaning academic, but Lee Marsden hasn't ever been afraid to challenge the status quo. He remembers writing a school magazine article at Northgate Grammar for Boys in Ipswich in which he called for a Christmas-time invasion of the neighbouring but out-of-bounds girls' school.

Lee was brought up in the Belstead Road area. After leaving Northgate in 1976 he went to university in Sussex at 18, to read English and American history, but dropped out after a year. Back in Ipswich he worked in factories and as a Co-op milkman.

There was also a spell as a Labour councillor in the early 1980s - he was the youngest at the time - but politics proved something of a disappointment in terms of changing the world.

Lee switched jobs to become an estate agent, worked in Ipswich and Lowestoft, and had a young family. At 23 he became a born-again Christian - evangelicals “seemed to have answers to life's problems” - and he was later ordained in a Word of Faith church. His life became wrapped up in religion.

“You want to bring people into a relationship with Jesus, but the reality is that your focus becomes very narrow,” he reflects. “I was finding I didn't read anything other than Christian literature and the Bible for 16 years. Your world view becomes very limited.”

The mid-1990s brought a downturn in the property market and Lee was made redundant from his estate agency job. He looked for something different and spent a year studying at Lowestoft College.

“It opened my whole world. I would read a newspaper, would pay attention to what was going on in the world - without those sort of blinkers, really, of seeing everything from an evangelical perspective.”

It also saw him meet Gill, who would become his second wife.

Lee moved on to the University of East Anglia for a degree in politics. “My life changed dramatically. I had my faith challenged, I guess, for the first time, through the philosophy and sociology I was reading. I found that involvement in evangelical churches was increasingly difficult, because I had different views on the role of women and attitudes towards gay people. So I guess the rot had set in!”

It led to him stopping preaching - quite a traumatic time, but he's glad he went through it. “My life is now far happier and fulfilled.”

He no longer has a Christian faith. “It was as dramatic as that. I have a lot of time for people who do have a faith, providing that faith is not judgemental and critical. I felt the branch of Christianity I was involved with was very judgemental.”

Lee feels many people who proclaim the literal truth of Biblical text are selective in what they quote.

“You have your favourite passages, and you perhaps ignore other passages. You'll be harsh on homosexuality, but not so hard on people who eat shellfish - which are equally problematic if you read scripture.”

Lee went on to do an MA in international relations at UEA, and a PhD with The Open University.

After a spell at City College Norwich - a two-year project working with the voluntary sector - he took a job at Oxford Brookes University, lecturing in international relations: with the proviso from Gill that if a post came up at UEA, rather closer to home, he'd apply for it.

Fortunately, things happened rather more quickly than he expected, and after a year at Oxford he started at UEA last autumn.

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