Focus on the Sudan

How Christian conservative activists turn 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 New York Times, "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 at Vision 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 bellicose Christian conservative leaders James Dobson, D. 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, of course, but let's not confuse our terms. "Democracy" doesn't depend on the gospel or magic. Regardless, Garang was hardly the go-to guy for democratic reform, or Christian leadership for that matter, in Sudan. He did, however, do plenty of magic; according to Amnesty International, his organization "disappeared" thousands of civilians. And 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, for example -- helmed by Brad's brother, Doug Philips, whose 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 which holds that the only legitimate government is Christian, male, and committed to "biblical capitalism." Vision Forum's offerings -- such as "Patriarchy Made Simple" and a 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 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, have all made the Sudan a centerpiece of their fundraising.

While Sudan could certainly use the help, is "help" an accurate description of what the nation is 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.

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 book "Silent 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. And what will my money do? Send some "relief" to Sudan and help fund "broadcasts [of] the gospel through our Breakthrough 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 help Breakthrough explain 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.