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Cooperative Efforts for Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Chris Gersten
Institute for Religious Values

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

This morning you have heard speakers on three very important parts of the struggle to end religious persecution around the world: the question of new technology, the importance of the Internet, and ending religious persecution and expanding the boundaries of freedom throughout the world. You have heard a discussion of the role of international law and of the importance of the media.

What I would like to turn to is another part of the puzzle necessary to expand freedom and end religious persecution. That is the building of a viable working coalition in America and around the world to end religious persecution.

Let me first start with my own personal bias. I believe that America can have a dramatic impact in expanding freedom and reducing religious persecution as the leader of a coalition of free nations supporting religious freedom around the world. Only America has the economic, military, and political strength to be the leader of this effort. Without American leadership, without a powerful coalition in America committed to expanding religious freedom throughout the world, this effort will not succeed.

My whole professional life has been devoted to building coalitions, to bringing groups together to support different kinds of legislative efforts. The organization that I have founded, the Institute for Religious Values, has as one of its components a religious persecution task force. We have brought together over 75 national organizations in Washington to work in support of the Wolf-Specter legislation. We hope to build a consensus among these organizations and their constituents around the country for religious freedom that will go beyond a vote on Wolf-Specter to an attempt to build a national consensus for stronger religious freedom legislation in the future. That coalition includes Christian ministries and religious-based advocacy organizations, the organized Jewish community, and organized labor.

Why do we need a coalition that is this strong in order to pass a piece of legislation to do what all of us agree needs to be done to protect persecuted religious minorities? Because we are up against an extremely powerful coalition of opponents: people who don’t think there is a problem; people who think that there are other ways to deal with the problem of religious persecution; or people who have a different agenda altogether. To begin with, we now have an administration—a White House and a State Department—that is more hostile to religious freedom and less interested in human rights and religious persecution than any administration in recent history.

President Clinton ran against George Bush on human rights. He attacked Bush’s behavior toward China and I agreed with him. I thought that Bush was not strong enough in criticizing China on human rights and religious persecution. But I knew that Clinton would not be any better. His quotes from when he ran against Bush are available for all of us. He said that he would make human rights the cornerstone of his foreign policy. No sooner was he elected to office than that lofty goal was completely abandoned. Clinton’s goals toward China were business as usual, not to ruffle any feathers, and to get a couple of nice visits for himself to China and bring Chinese leaders to America. We face a State Department that has come out in opposition to the Wolf-Specter legislation. The State Department does not want to be told how to do its business. The State Department’s business toward China and countries in the Middle East that persecute religious minorities is not to change their behavior and not to criticize their behavior, but simply to have the best relations possible.

You can’t have the best relations possible with tyrants if you criticize their behavior. You cannot do business with Egypt on a daily basis if you are criticizing its behavior toward its Christian minority. You can’t have the best relations with Saudi Arabia if you criticize its treatment of Christians. You can’t have the best relations with Pakistan, you can’t have trade with and sell arms to Pakistan, if you criticize the treatment of religious minorities there. You can’t increase trade with China if you are criticizing its behavior and human rights abuses.

So this administration has decided that business is the business of the American government. The Clinton administration has a very powerful ally in a large part of the American corporate community. Not all of the American corporate community is opposed to Wolf-Specter, but the only part of the American corporate community whose voice is heard on Capitol Hill on the issue of religious persecution opposes legislation that involves any economic sanctions whatsoever.

It does not have to be all of the business community; it doesn’t have to be 20 percent of the business community. But there is enough of a voice, there are enough lobbyists with enough clout on Capitol Hill, that, in combination with a hostile administration, they are an extremely formidable opponent. The corporate community and the Clinton administration have made it extremely difficult to pass any legislation. I don’t believe that we will get any legislation this year. I think we made a very good beginning, and we may get something out of the House of Representatives.

If we get Wolf-Specter, we need to look at this legislation as the beginning. The movement of religious freedom in America is in its infancy. We have just begun to make this an issue that should be a priority for American decision-makers. There are also apologists in the American religious community who travel to China, Egypt, and other persecuting nations and come back and say things are really all right. I believe that these are well-intentioned men who like the prestige and status of meeting with foreign leaders. Some are also men who do business in China and the Middle East and who have a stake in coming back and saying things really aren’t so bad.

We should really applaud the Chinese government for the improvements that have been made, because things aren’t as bad as they used to be. We are not in the middle of a Cultural Revolution, and millions of Christians aren’t being murdered. But thousands of Christian leaders are imprisoned. There is systematic torture of home church pastors in China, and our government is saying almost nothing about it at the top levels.

We need to create a grassroots movement. We need to take meetings like this out of the nation’s capital and all across the country. We need to create a massive coalition in Washington, around the country, and in other nations. We obviously need to do this throughout the world. We need to start with the Christian ministries that have been the building blocks of the Wolf-Specter legislation: the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and a host of other Christian ministries.

Their efforts need to be strengthened, redoubled, and redoubled again. We need to add to them religious advocacy groups such as the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, the Eagle Forum, and the traditional values coalition. These groups all support the Wolf-Specter legislation, and their efforts need to be encouraged and increased.

We need to add to that the American-based ethnic communities from persecuting nations. Middle East Christians, Americans of Chinese ancestry, and Chinese dissidents need to be encouraged to be involved and mobilized. To these groups we need to add some new organizations, such as the organized Jewish community. The Jewish community has been involved in supporting the Wolf-Specter legislation through the Reformed movement arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which has endorsed the legislation. We need to add B’nai Brith, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the National Jewish Coalition.

These groups all come to meetings of the Institute for Religious Values’ Religious Task Force here in Washington. But they are not involved around the country in coalitions with Christian ministries and Christian advocacy groups at the grassroots level. They need to be encouraged to become involved, because the moral authority of the Jewish community is very strong and has a lot of power on Capitol Hill. The Jewish community is involved because of its 3,000-year history of persecution and because of the debt of gratitude it owes to the American Christian community for help they received in the fight to free Soviet Jewry.

Organized labor is the next institution that must become involved in a national movement to build a consensus for religious freedom throughout the world. Conservatives need to learn to work with institutions that are associated with democratic and liberal politics in America. What most conservatives don’t know is that organized labor was in the forefront of the effort to fight the spread of communism. George Meany, the founder of the AFL-CIO, played a leading role in fighting a communist takeover of the labor movement in Europe after World War II. The AFL-CIO was heavily involved and made tremendous financial commitments to help Solidarity in Poland in 1981. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, unique in his understanding of the role of organized labor, addressed an AFL-CIO convention as his first speech when he got out of the Soviet Union; I believe it was in 1981. Now labor is fighting human rights abuses in China. The AFL-CIO Food and Allied Trade Services Department is playing the lead role and has founded the Lauga Institute, headed by former Chinese dissident Harry Wu.

Organized labor has a voice inside Washington on these issues and can play a leading role. The local labor councils of state federations of labor are not involved in this issue, however. It is at the local level that this coalition must grow if there is to become a consensus among elected officials to support really strong legislation. So labor unions must be added to the organized Jewish community and the Christian community in fighting for religious freedom.

Finally, I would add one more institution to this mix, and that is the entertainment industry. The media are extremely important. The entertainment industry is the best vehicle to generate media attention. The entertainment industry is a left-wing industry that has had tremendous power on a series of issues from the environment to AIDS over the last 30 years. Hollywood supports religious freedom in part because of the strong Buddhist tendencies and affiliations of many of Hollywood’s leaders. Richard Gere has been a leader in the movement to free Tibet. There is a concert in Washington, D.C., on June 13, 1998. The concert “To Free Tibet” will generate media attention because Hollywood stars will perform.

People who organize, mobilize, and put coalitions together must learn how to reach out to opponents—people who have been on the other side of many issues: the Jewish community, organized labor, and the entertainment industry. I have learned after 25 years in Washington that “there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.” That was said by Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL about 1905.

You create coalitions around issues and learn how to reach out to people you may have been fighting with on other issues for years. You have to create a coalition that holds together on your issues. People may disagree on economic policy or defense policy. They may be fighting each other on the minimum wage. But on this issue—ending religious persecution—everyone can agree. We have to come together. We have to take this coalition out of Washington. Here in the District, there are lots of meetings and conferences. All of Capitol Hill is aware of this issue, but Congress won’t act in a serious way until they know that their constituents are focused on this issue.

Let me wrap up with a little history. Ask yourselves, “On how many foreign policy issues is there an American-based constituency that determines American foreign policy?” It is not our State Department that determines our foreign policy. The American Jewish community has in large part dictated U.S. policy toward the Middle East for the last 25 to 30 years. But that was not true in the 1950s. The Jewish community was not yet organized. It just barely began in the 1960s. But when the big pro-Israel lobby that I was affiliated with, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, started to learn how to organize the Jewish community, U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East changed. Now the Greek-American community has a great deal to say about American policy toward Greece and Turkey. One other group is the Cuban-American community, which is very well organized, very powerful, and well funded. Cuban exiles have until now dictated foreign policy toward Cuba because of their ability to organize politically. On the other hand, the American Vietnamese community has almost no voice on policy toward Vietnam because they are not well organized.

On the issue of religious persecution, there has been no grassroots constituency telling elected officials what they should do and educating them as to how they should look at this issue. In the last year, with the help of Michael Horowitz, Nina Shea, and others, this issue has been moved onto the front burner because of organizing in Washington, but not around the country.

Elected officials know that Michael Horowitz and a dozen other people are going to knock on their doors and talk about issues. Who they don’t hear from is the hundreds and the thousands of their constituents. That is what has to happen. Until then, there won’t be really powerful economic sanctions against the nations that persecute religious minorities.

We need to know that America has tremendous leverage against China with its balance of trade deficit. Any effort that we make to punish the Chinese economically has to be dealt with seriously. China says, “If you try to pressure us, we will just cut off relations.”

I was part of the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970s. The Soviet Union said the same thing: “If you pass Jackson-Vanik; if you try to have economic sanctions against us, we will cut off relations with you.” We knew it was a bluff. We had a White House that was morally committed to free Soviet Jewry. Secretary of State George Shultz, had a policy. Every time he met with his Soviet counterparts, the first thing he said to them was, “When will you free Soviet Jews?” The moral authority of our government at the top level and of our Congress was behind the effort to free Soviet Jewry. We don’t have that from the Clinton administration. We don’t have that moral authority. We don’t have the political support in Congress, and we won’t have it until a coalition comes together in 20, 30, or 40 cities around the country. People at the local level who represent the Christian community, the Jewish community, organized labor, the entertainment industry, and the human rights community, need to come together and figure out how to tell the local media that they care, and how to tell elected officials that they want the strongest possible legislation to protect persecuted religious minorities around the country and around the globe.

Until that happens, it will just be a handful of us in Washington who are working feverishly. So we have our work cut out for us. We have to look at this movement as one that is in its infancy. It may take five years to get one meaningful piece of legislation and another five years before our executive branch implements that legislation effectively. It may be 10 or 20 years. We have to look at this struggle as one that has been going on for thousands of years and yet that is just beginning. We have to redouble our efforts and take events like this all across the country.