02 August 2005

By Jeff Sharlet

How some Christian conservative activists are turning killers into cash cows — and why the press never notices.

A few years ago a respected journalist for the mainstream press told a colleague of mine who was investigating the Sri Lankan conflict to disregard the evangelical press. Actually, what this respected journalist — known for left/right balance — said was, in effect, “What evangelical press?”

The last two days of reporting on the untimely death of Sudanese rebel leader John Garang illustrate the folly of such neglect. Overlooked in nearly all the mainstream press’ coverage is Garang’s association with the most theocratically-inclined elements of the American Christian conservative movement.

“The religious dimension to the [Sudanese]conflict,” writes Marc Lacey in Tuesday’s NYT, “captured the attention of many Christian congregations in the United States.”

Perhaps none more so than the Persecution Project Foundation. In a tribute to Garang atVision Forum, a partner organization to the Persecution Project, Vision Forum leader Doug Philips writes of Garang’s work with the Persecution Project over the years. “Dr. Garang,” he writes, “probably did more than any other person in Southern Sudan to open the country to Christian missions.” Given that Southern Sudan was already home to a large Christian population, it’s unclear what “opening” needed to be done — unless you substitute “American” for “Christian.”

The Persecution Project touts its endorsements from some of America’s most verbally bellicose Christian conservative leaders James DobsonD. James Kennedy, and Chuck Colson. It also draws support from the more mainstream conservative movement, including the Institute for Religion and Democracy, an organization dedicated to purging mainline protestantism of liberalism, and the Hudson Institute’s Michael Horowitz, who suggests that through the Persecution Project’s work on behalf of the “magic of democracy,” Sudan will be saved. Unfortunately, the Persecution Project isn’t working on behalf of democracy — it’s an explicitly evangelical organization created to spread the gospel.

Nothing wrong with that, but let’s not confuse our terms. “Democracy” doesn’t depend on the gospel or magic. Regardless, Garang was hardly the man to look to for democratic reform, or Christian leadership, in Sudan. He did, however, do plenty of magic — according to Amnesty International, his organization “disappeared” thousands of civilians. His movement was anything but democratic — even his most loyal aides quietly complained of Garang’s dictatorial tendencies.

Such strong-arm tactics may be what Persecution Project president Brad Philips means by “democracy.” Over at Vision Forum — helmed by Brad’s brother, Doug Philips, who’s eulogy for Garang first caught my attention — one learns that the “biblical family” must be defended by force (see “Polish Your Headship”). Vision forum offers a number of products reflective of its Christian Reconstructionist theology. Reconstructionism holds that the only legitimate government is Christian, male, and committed to “biblical capitalism.” Vision Forum’s offerings — such as “Patriarchy Made Simple” and book of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson‘s relationship advice — reflect “the commitment of others who have drawn a line in the sand and who will fight to the death in defense of Christ’s truth…. Victory or death!”

In Sudan, it was death for John Garang. His own brutalities aside, he really did fight against a murderous regime. But those who reduce it to a Muslim / Christian conflict ignore the realities of power. At the time of his death, Garang was not outside the government, he was the government, having entered into a power-sharing arrangment. He was paid for his cooperation with a tentative peace, and, perhaps, a piece of the action.

But the greatest beneficiaries of John Garang’s life and death may not be in Sudan, but here in the U.S. — organizations such as Persecution Project, Voice of the Martyrs, and Rod Parsley’s radical right-wing network of churches, charities, and political activists, all of which have made the Sudan a centerpiece of their fundraising.

Sudan could certainly use the help. But is “help” what it’s getting? Many of these organizations boast of their aid to southern Sudan — effectively declaring their alliance with one side of a civil war. That is, if the aid is even getting there. Aid organizations are famous for capitalizing on suffering abroad to raise money for salaries and political agendas at home, a syndrome that’s by no means exclusive to the Christian Right. To date, there’s been little journalistic investigation of the groundswell of Christian conservative fundraising in Sudan’s name, but a quick glance at just one of the many organizations supplying aid to co-religionists in Sudan reveals a questionable approach that demands a deeper inquiry.

A few days ago, I received a fundraising letter about Sudan from one of Rod Parsley’s charities. Parsley is one of the rising stars of the Christian Right. He’s the author of the bestselling bookSilent No More and the founder of Ohio’s “Patriot Pastor” network, designed to turn church leaders into “Minute Men” who’ll guarantee conservative rule in Ohio and beyond — all the way to Africa, perhaps.

Parsley’s letter starts, in classic tearjerker form, with a description of a starving Sudanese girl. And only I can save her, he tells me. How? By sending money right away. What will my money do? Send some “relief” to Sudan — and help fund “broadcasts [of] the gospel through ourBreakthrough television program.”

Breakthrough may not be the ideal medium with which to help bring peace to Africa. Its funding comes not just from people who want to help starving little girls in Sudan, but also from folks who want the 2 1/4 foot long actual sword Pastor Rod will send you for your tax deductible gift of $54 or more. But that’s not all — you’ll also receive a CD of “prophetic promises” titled with almost screeching cynicism, “54 Weapons That Win.” And you’ll helpBreakthrough broadcast explanations of what scripture has to say about judicial appointments, homosexuals, and the War on Terror.

Oh, yeah — Sudan. There’ll be a little piece of the pie for that starving girl, too.

Thanks, John Garang.