American evangelicals were always big believers in democracy -- until it reached the Arab world.
Most American evangelicals view democracy much like Yankees fans view their beloved Bronx Bombers: as a human institution that has its flaws, but one that God clearly prefers to the alternatives and has destined for world domination. No less an authority than Billy Graham called free elections a "blessing from God."
Yet the Arab Spring has caught them up short. The editors at the evangelical magazine Christianity Today are biting their nails over what will happen if the Syrians topple Assad; to the Baptist Press News, things don’t look so rosy in newly liberated Egypt. In World, a Christian magazine, Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky warned that the region may be headed not for a new era of freedom, but smack into "a different tyranny."
Given many evangelicals’ commitment to baptizing the Founding Fathers and praising the cross as a "statue of liberty," it may seem strange that they have greeted the pro-democracy movements agitating the Middle East and North Africa with distinct ambivalence. But if it’s surprising, that’s only because so many observers of American politics are out of touch with the evangelical worldview, particularly evangelicals’ understanding of themselves as embattled outsiders who have much to lose when democracy doesn’t go their way.
Whenever evangelicals show heightened interest in the Middle East, pundits tend to suspect two motives: evangelicals’ supposedly blind loyalty to Israel, and their view of the region’s population as pawns in God’s great apocalyptic endgame. But grasping for reasons that free elections might delay Armageddon brings us no closer to understanding evangelicals’ true concerns. Their uncertainty over whose side to take in the Arab Spring has little to do with whether Hosni Mubarak should count as one of the heads of the scarlet beast in the Book of Revelation, and a lot to do with the hardships facing their fellow Christians — as well as that malleable ideal and political tool, religious freedom.
Evangelicals spend far more time worrying over the persecution of Christians here and now than they do parsing the Bible’s predictions about the end of the world. And it’s no secret that the Arab Spring revolutions have not done any favors for the roughly 25 million embattled Christians in the region (a precise head count is hard to come by). In the wake of Mubarak’s fall, hard-line Islamists in Egypt rioted against Christians and vandalized churches. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has hardly been a poster child for religious freedom, but approximately 2.3 million Christians there view him as a protector whose wobbling regime is the only thing standing between them and hordes of Salafists who aren’t so interested in keeping up the appearance of a modern, secular state. And a half-million of those Christians are Iraqi refugees who fled the bloody fight between contending Muslim factions in their homeland and have no desire to relive that experience. "Pray for the believers in Syria …[who] are there trying to bring Jesus into this very dangerous and chaotic place," one missionary told Mission Network News, an evangelical missionary news service.
Evangelicals are hardly the only ones worried about the fate of religious freedom — or freedom in general, for that matter — in the Middle East and North Africa. But they devote a remarkable amount of energy to aiding the region’s Christians, giving funds, supplies, and Bibles through a web of organizations like Christian Freedom International, the Voice of the Martyrs, Persecuted Christians Care Fund, and others (though the Catholics do give them a run for their money.)
The diffuse nature of evangelical charitable giving makes fundraising figures elusive, but anyone who spends a little time reading, talking, or worshipping with evangelicals can’t miss the fact that they have a zeal for honoring martyrs and connecting with persecuted Christians abroad. They love a good sermon on the afflictions of the righteous. Their churches sponsor persecuted congregations abroad and screen movies with titles like Tortured for Christ. To give the youngsters a more vivid taste of virtual martyrdom, one organization offers an activity kit called "Locked Up," "a 12-hour simulation of a prison-like setting" to challenge youth groups "to live their role in God’s great story of the Church around the world."
Although homegrown martyrs are scant these days, American evangelicals never stop feting the few they have: One of the most famous evangelical women of the 20th century is ex-missionary Elisabeth Elliot, whose 1957 account of her husband’s martyrdom at the hands of a hostile Ecuadorean tribe is still selling briskly a half-century later. And evangelicals have lobbied hard in Washington on behalf of oppressed Christians, playing an important role in the 1998 passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. All this is to say that when American evangelicals think of the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, it’s a good bet that for many, the plight of persecuted Christians is the first thing that comes to mind.
Secular commentators, however, tend to focus on the alleged influence of apocalyptic belief on evangelicals’ views and votes. Yes, theories of the end times do have some bearing on evangelicals’ reactions to world affairs. But brooding over the end of the world is hardly unorthodox or unusual in the history of the faith: Christianity was born in a frothy mix of Greek philosophy and Jewish apocalypticism. End-times mania reached a modern apogee after an Anglo-Irish evangelist named John Nelson Darby toured the United States in the mid-19th century, preaching an intricate doomsday theory called dispensational premillennialism. Darby and his followers approached the Bible like a code book that, once properly understood, would allow even the untutored layman to decipher newspaper headlines for signs of the Antichrist and the mark of the beast. Darby’s theory also found room for an old idea: a special role for the Jews, who had to reclaim their biblical patrimony and have one more chance to embrace the true God before Jesus himself would descend to lead the saints in battle with the Antichrist.
Dispensationalism became wildly popular in the early 20th century, but in recent decades its hold on evangelical culture has waned. Evangelicals still take the Second Coming of Christ seriously, but have become increasingly preoccupied with the Bible’s earthly themes, such as social justice and the burden of Christian "dominion" over the natural world and in human society. Meticulous forecasting of the end of days is out of style (Hal Lindsey’s prognosticating book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was a bestselling sensation in 1970, but mainstream evangelicals considered Harold Camping’s more recent efforts an embarrassment). The massive popularity of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind series, which follows the basic schema of Darby’s theology to chronicle the travails of protagonists who are stuck on Earth after the Rapture and must battle the Antichrist (who happens to be the secretary-general of the United Nations), might suggest that the series’s 65 million readers are all counting down the days until Armageddon. At least one survey, however, found that half of Left Behind readers aren’t even evangelical Christians. Most of them probably want a thrilling read more than a Bible lesson.
The Holy Land’s bustling Christian tourism industry confirms evangelicals’ fascination with the Middle East. But most of the evangelicals who spend their summer vacations on a "Footsteps of Our Lord Tour" or the "Lands of the Bible Cruise" are far more interested in walking where Jesus walked than in visiting the future site of the Antichrist’s assembled armies in the Valley of Megiddo. Then what about Christian Zionism, evangelicals’ infamous zeal for the ingathering of the Jews? It’s true that evangelicals tend to be friends of Israel and believe that God has a special relationship with the Jews. But polls show that a plurality of evangelical leaders worldwide sympathizes equally with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And much of American evangelical support for Israel derives from nonsupernatural sources shared by many Americans: friendship for and strategic dependence on what was once (and may yet remain) the only democratic country in the Middle East, seasoned with a dash of well-deserved, post-Holocaust guilt.
Prophecy talk has been conspicuously absent from mainstream evangelical coverage of the Arab Spring. In its place we read scores of interviews with terrified Copts, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants on the streets of Cairo and Damascus. Those heart-rending photos and news reports have played an enormous role in shaping evangelical opinions of Islam and U.S. foreign policy. Evangelicals’ fixation on the mistreatment of their co-believers has a history as old as the Christian religion itself: Christianity began as the faith of a persecuted minority, of martyrs shredded by lions in the Colosseum.
But if these stories have a place in every Christian’s heritage, American evangelicals have taken spiritual and ideological empathy with the persecuted to new heights. Despite centuries in the American mainstream — and the fact that there are about 100 million of them today — many conservative evangelicals in the United States think of themselves as a persecuted minority. They are the few faithful who refuse to bow down before Obamicus Maximus (or Sultan Barack the Magnificent, as a disturbing number of crazies believe). The war on Christmas is old news; now half of Americans also believe that Christians are "being persecuted" at the hands of advocates of same-sex marriage. It’s little wonder they are reaching out to Christians thousands of miles away (the ones who are actually being tortured — in places where torture means more than being forced to watch a gay pride parade).
This is not to say that American evangelicals publicize the persecution of Christians abroad and work to advance their rights only to bolster their own self-image. Evangelical concern for persecution overseas is completely genuine — though too often lumped together with more dubious causes. "Religious freedom" has become a kind of shorthand in American political rhetoric, useful for prescribing some domestic policies (prayer meetings in public schools, intelligent design in the curriculum), decrying others (same-sex marriage, the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell"), and contributing to an ambivalent view of democracy — whether in the United States, or in the Muslim world — if the principle of "one voice, one vote" happens to threaten evangelical priorities. Every time evangelicals indulge in hysterics about the persecution of American evangelicals and "how liberals are waging war against Christians," they weaken their own case against the tyranny of the majority in the Middle East and insult those congregations huddling behind drawn curtains in Egypt and Libya.
But then, scholars of evangelicalism have long observed that cultivating a persecution complex — even one that is mostly a self-perpetuating fiction — is not a bad way to maintain authority and stoke followers’ sense of divine purpose. The trouble is that this mindset may make evangelicals look less like their oppressed brethren and more like the very despots they hate.