The Struggle for the Hearts and Minds of the World’s Religious Conservatives: A Voice from the Front Lines

Jennifer Butler
Glenn Zuber

The outcome of the “struggle for the hearts and minds of American evangelicals” described in Boyer’s article will have serious consequences for people around the globe, not just in the Middle East. Until the late 1990s, conservative Protestant activism was largely confined to pro-Israeli and anti-communist policies. But over the past decade, the interest of white conservative evangelicals has broadened dramatically.

Evangelicals in particular have had a significant impact on issues like the global AIDS pandemic, human trafficking, and religious freedom. The average conservative Christian may be apoplectic at the mere mention of the U.N., but over the past five years major conservative evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America have joined the U.N. community, applying for consultative status so that they can influence the U.N. from within. In this arena they have forged alliances with Mormons, conservative Muslims, and conservative Catholics to advance their version of family values. Clearly pre-millennial dispensationalism is not always the driving factor in determining conservative Christian political action. By holding their own international conferences, this conservative religious coalition aims to be a global alliance of conservative religious leaders. But the world’s religious conservatives may not automatically follow the Christian Right’s lead. Liberals might be surprised to find that the world’s evangelicals can be allies on certain issues. This growing constituency is more diverse and dynamic than common stereotypes would suggest.

The fact that the Christian Right has proven itself to be a worthy and strategic opponent in yet another new arena—the U.N.—shows its continued ability to shift strategies and alliances in pragmatic and creative ways to advance its objectives and reach new audiences. Liberal non-governmental organizations (the U.N.’s language for advocacy and humanitarian organizations) through the 1990s advanced their agenda for women’s rights, children’s rights, and reproductive and sexual rights through U.N. conferences and treaties. In the late 1990s, the Christian Right chose to imitate that success. Rather than merely condemn the U.N. as the Antichrist and undermine it through their Washington connections, conservative religious NGOs from evangelical quarters chose to enter the belly of the beast.

This unlikely coalition of Mormons, conservative Catholics, and evangelicals in a few short years assembled a bloc of socially conservative U.N. member states that includes the United States, the Holy See, and a number of Catholic and Muslim countries. This alliance (often called the “unholy alliance” by liberals) has prevented women’s rights activists from advancing new sexual and reproductive rights for women (including the right to choose) and GLBT people. The American culture war has begun to dominate some U.N. proceedings on women and children enough to forestall debate on many important issues that fall outside these hot button issues. The “unholy alliance” has put U.N. agencies like the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF (the U.N. Children’s Fund) on the defensive, successfully pressuring the U.S. government to withhold its annual $34 million contribution from UNFPA. Buoyed by support from the Bush White House, this coalition of conservative religious governments and NGOs has even begun to introduce policy, including a symbolic victory in its struggle to ban all forms of human cloning, including therapeutic cloning.

This alliance of conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and conservative Catholics is developing national and regional networks of conservative religious organizations that will advocate “pro-family” platforms at all levels of government. Showing an amazing ability to build alliances, Mormon organizations, supported by evangelicals and conservative Catholics, co-hosted an international conference on the family with the government of Qatar, then the president of a voting bloc of developing nations (called the G-77).

In response to this coalition of religious conservatives, mainline Protestant representatives to the U.N. (including one of the authors of this article) who have been present at the U.N. for decades, did something novel—we began, somewhat timidly at first, to reclaim our religious voice. We forged an ecumenical coalition to speak in support of women’s rights from a theological and biblical perspective. Accustomed to communicating in secular and human rights language, at first many of us felt a bit awkward and apologetic about speaking publicly about religion. To our surprise, our events drew unprecedented crowds, media, feminist allies, and government delegates from all over the world. Contrary to what you would expect, many of the participants were evangelicals from the developing world interested in resources that would help their work on women’s rights in largely religious communities. The coalition was so popular that an atheist anonymously funded our website because she saw the importance of progressive religious voices vying with American conservatives to represent the world’s religious traditions.

Despite such encouraging responses, we mainliners can’t seem to break the habit of being apologetic about our religious identity. After decades of buying into theories of secularization and blending in with secular activists, many progressive religious leaders find it hard to speak as people of faith. During our recent event hosted at Beijing+10, a major U.N. meeting on women’s rights, a Nigerian Pentecostal took us to task—not for the fact that our panel of church leaders spoke about sex education, AIDS, religion and violence and homosexuality—but for the fact that we didn’t have more resources available for her to take home and no sign-up sheet for our coalition. By not taking ourselves seriously, and by not building alliances with religious conservatives on issues on which we agree, we progressive religious leaders have missed opportunities.

Secular progressives have missed an opportunity as well by treating religion with suspicion. While secular feminists have been willing to build alliances with and support Muslim women countering fundamentalism, they are less willing to do so with Christian women. In the wake of the last two presidential elections, some liberals may be finally waking up to what their secular bias has wrought, yet the awakening is far too slow and might not go nearly far enough.

A Muslim woman from Malaysia working with Mormons and other religious conservatives at Beijing+10 seemed to suggest to me that while she agreed with the values of the pro-family coalition, she wasn’t sure how much they were really willing or able to help the women she was working with in Malaysia. “I don’t know about all this politics,” she confided. Despite her solid fieldwork she would never have made the grade with global feminist activists because she was against legalized abortion. Yet when progressives discount women like this, they are writing off a large percentage of the world’s women.

Too often conservative evangelicals are seen monolithically rather than as a diverse constituency with a range of interests.  On October 18, 2004, one hundred representatives of evangelical organizations from around the world gathered at the United Nations for a press conference. Speaking for the World Evangelical Alliance of three million churches, Gary Edmonds declared, “Governments are given by God and have a moral responsibility. Christians need to hold their governments responsible.”1  The purpose of the press conference? To endorse the Micah Challenge, a campaign to cut in half global poverty by 2015 as called for in the U.N. Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). The campaign, representing 267 Christian relief organizations, the Baptist World Alliance, and World Evangelical Alliance, plans to rally 25 million Christians to support the MDGs, which include eradicating hunger, reducing child mortality, empowering women, combating AIDS, improving maternal health, and ensuring environmental sustainability.

While particular traditions of biblical interpretation inform how evangelicals approach the U.N., scholars have not sufficiently noted the nuance and creativity in what evangelicals actually say about the United Nations. We should take notice of Boyer’s reminder that while evangelicals take to heart Revelation’s warning of an ungodly end-time empire, the identity of the enemy has changed over the past two hundred years, including the papacy, Ottoman Sultan, Soviet Union, and a future U.N.-inspired “one world-government.” Moreover, historian George Marsden notes that fundamentalists were born with an ambivalent attitude toward their own country. They were never sure if America was Babylon or the New Jerusalem, and alternated between the two options. This suggests great fluidity and the potential for change in the future. Who knows, maybe the next Antichrist identified in conservative evangelical literature will be the exploitative CEO of a Fortune 500?

Some scholars have suggested that the new world order in the post–Cold War era will be structured along lines of cultural and religious difference. Many are familiar with Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a clash of between the Muslim and Christian civilizations. What is witnessed on social issues at the U.N. is not a clash between Muslims and Christians (indeed they are allies), but a clash between a secular global north and religious global south along the lines described in Phillip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom. The Christian Right is furthering this process by trying these new alliances. Liberals also have a hand in fostering this divide between the secular and religious worlds. Secular liberals play into this polarity by failing to tolerate religion; religious liberals exacerbate the divide by allowing religious conservatives to dominate the public arena.

Boyer’s conclusion is poignant: “today’s enfeebled liberals… seem struck dumb.” The sad and ironic truth is that today’s religious conservatives are in many ways more progressive organizers than today’s liberals: more willing to try new alliances and to think outside the box of their own worldview. Maybe we could stand to learn a thing or two from the religious conservatives.


1. Robert Parham, “Evangelicals Pledge to Hold Governments Accountable for Poverty,” Ethics Daily, October 18, 2004.

Dr. Glenn Zuber (’91 BA) is a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, New York City. He is currently finishing a book on the Ku Klux Klan and religion.

The Rev. Jennifer Butler is the Presbyterian Church Representative to the United Nations. She is the author of the forthcoming Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized (University of Michigan Press).