Last week, the organization In Defense of Christians held a conference meant to bring attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East, but the laudable goal of the event was to some degree overshadowed by one of the keynote speakers, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, a Republican and darling of the Tea Party movement. In his speech, Cruz claimed that support for persecuted Christians in the Middle East should also mean support for the state of Israel, stating that “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.” This comment elicited boos from a portion of the audience, to which Cruz responded, “I will say this: I’m saddened to see that some here, not everyone, are so consumed with hate. . . . I will say this: If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you. Thank you, and God bless you,” and then he walked off the stage.
Understandably, Cruz’s comments have proven controversial. Supporters have come to his defense, arguing that Islamist groups persecuting Christians, and in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are also virulently anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, and that at least some of the Middle Eastern Christians attending the event have histories of providing support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Bashar Assad in Syria, for example. Critics have pointed out Cruz’s failure to grasp the complexity of the situation of Middle Eastern Christians, noting that some of them are Palestinians whose lives have been forever disrupted by Israel’s security barriers and uprooting of Palestinian communities, and that Israeli policy has provided fuel for anti-Christian Islamist movements.
Less commented on is that the event represents a turning point in the influence of evangelical Christians on American foreign policy. For several years now, scholars have noted the increased influence of evangelical Christians on American foreign policy, going hand in hand with the increasing prominence of evangelicals in American society beginning in the 1980s. Walter Russell Mead, writing in Foreign Affairs in 2006, noted that this influence had seemed to reach its peak during the presidency of George W. Bush, and was manifest in such causes as HIV/AIDS funding for Africa, working to end the civil war in Sudan, combatting sex trafficking, and support for religious freedom. Evangelical Christians have also long given their support to the state of Israel, in many cases for theological reasons, seeing the establishment of Israel as the result of divine will or as a foreshadowing of apocalyptic events to come, but also because Israel represents a beachhead of democratic, Judeo-Christian beliefs in an otherwise despotic region of the world.
The evangelical concern for religious freedom, and in particular that of Christians, has gained a wider audience as a result of ISIS’s gains in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the increasing audacity of its actions against Christians and other minorities. This widening appeal has also been fueled by other incidents, such as the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram in April and the case of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born U.S. evangelical pastor imprisoned in Iran in 2012. This increased concern for religious freedom is reflected in the widespread adoption of the Arabic equivalent of the letter “n” as a Facebook profile picture, referencing ISIS’s threatening painting of the letter on the homes of Christians, symbolizing the Arabic word for “Nazarene.”
Yet, as Cruz’s speech demonstrates, there is a tension in the evangelical foreign policy vision between this solidarity with the world’s persecuted Christians and evangelical support for Israel. Although it is certainly possible to support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, as part of a two-state solution, and oppose the persecution of Christians at the same time, to do so consistently would require re-examining the typically black-and-white thinking often characteristic of evangelical foreign policy thinking. The typically evangelical values of human dignity and practicality should be supplemented by the characteristically Catholic emphasis on interdependence and solidarity.
While laudable, both support for Israel and opposition to the persecution of Christians become problematic when taken in isolation. As has been said many times before, support for Israel’s right to exist does not mean supporting all of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and the occupied territories. In particular, Christians in the U.S. should oppose Israel’s unjust taking of land in the West Bank for the sake of the Jewish settlements established there. This policy diminishes the chances of establishing a lasting two-state solution with the Palestinians. Likewise, a single-minded focus on the plight of Christians in the Middle East risks neglecting the bigger picture of what the common good requires of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Of course, Christians should show a special concern for the fate of their co-religionists, but this cannot be done to the neglect of the other populations in the Middle East. For example, Cruz’s supporters are right to point out that in some cases Middle Eastern Christians have supported brutal dictators, such as Bashar Assad in Syria and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Although it is certainly understandable that Middle Eastern Christians would be drawn to this position to avoid the worse fate of living under Islamist rule, it is also important to understand that at least part of the current hostility toward Middle Eastern Christians can be attributed to the latter’s failure to support more inclusive and humane governments.
A Catholic approach to foreign policy recognizes that nations, and the ethnic and religious groups that make them up, are to one extent or another interdependent, meaning that their fates are inescapably tied together. Therefore, just and lasting solutions require the virtue of solidarity, the commitment to living together in the midst of differences, of supporting the vulnerable and the victims of injustice whoever they may be. In foreign policy, a useful way of embodying this virtue is to reflect on whether a given policy will make peaceful and flourishing coexistence between conflicting groups more or less likely in the future. U.S. support for current Israeli policy towards Palestine certainly fails this test. Similarly, interventions on behalf of persecuted Christians that fail to take into consideration the broader social grievances racking Middle Eastern nations risk being ineffective or worse. Senator Cruz was wrong to state that the cause of Israel and the cause of Middle Eastern Christians are one and the same, but their causes are linked to one another. Successful policies that will benefit Israelis, Middle Eastern Christians, and the Muslim majorities in the region will only come about when we, in a spirit of solidarity, reflect on how our choices impact all groups, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, especially those who are most vulnerable and oppressed.