Screaming the Country Awake

One of the loudest voices in the struggle to end Christian persecution belongs to a Jewish intellectual

Michael Horowitz, 59, is senior fellow and director of the Project for International Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute, a small conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. A major force behind the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act (the Wolf-Specter bill), Horowitz, who is Jewish, has been described in The New Republic as having “almost single-handedly transformed persecution of Christians into a major issue” by forging an alliance between evangelical Christian groups, conservative Jewish thinkers, Catholics, and non-religious social activists. Recently he spoke with Register correspondent Eleanor Kennelly.

Kennelly: What is the status of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act?

Horowitz: Just recently the leadership of the House placed the act on the House calendar for a vote May 21 (See related story, page 3). This major step follows on the heels of the movement's major victory March 25 when the House International Relations Committee approved it by a stunning 31-5 vote. There was intense opposition from the [Clinton] Administration with threats of a presidential veto. In the two weeks before the committee met, more money was spent on lobbyists working against us than our [the steering committee working to pass the bill] entire budget for the last year. The Chinese, Egyptian, and Saudi embassies got involved, all trying to take the sting out of this movement against Christian persecution. Everyone understood that the committee vote was very significant.

We really mobilized people all over the country to put the pressure on for this vote, and all I can say is, democracy works.

Washington politicians are very sophisticated. They know the difference between real concern and support throughout the country for legislation and phony support generated by a small group. To get people behind the Wolf-Specter bill before the committee vote, the religious broadcasters were remarkable. Chuck Colson did five broadcasts of his Breakpoint show on this. The Anti-Defamation League joined with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in a series of critical meetings with key members of the committee. The Salvation Army newsletter was filled with material on the bill.

But now, with the final vote scheduled for May 21, everything hangs in the balance. We need, no we must have, at least 250,000 telephone calls and letters to members of Congress within this next week if we are to be confident of easing the plight of persecuted Christians and making history.

Please describe the role of Catholic leadership in the initiative.

For our movement, the single most important strategic development came when, earlier this year, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops decided that passage of Wolf-Specter was a high priority. The Conference had already supported it in a qualified way before, but after a few modifications to the bill's language they made it a top priority, which really matters in Washington.

The Conference's support was key to changing the make-up of this movement because we had a movement that was largely evangelical, and the Administration, in a profoundly bigoted way, was making appeals to defeat the bill by saying it was just an obsession of the Christian right and you don't want to work with these people. So a critical element in making the anti-persecution movement a broad-based one was the leadership of the Catholic Conference. Many other Jewish and secular human rights groups became part of the movement in a fully committed way after that.

We now have a situation where there is not one iota of difference of opinion or commitment between the Reformed Jews and the Christian Coalition, between the National Association of Evangelicals and the Campaign for Tibet regarding the importance of the Wolf-Specter Freedom From Religious Persecution Act.

You get a lot of credit for engineering this coalition.

In fact, the real credit goes to Congressional leaders like Frank Wolf, Chris Smith, Nancy Pelosi, Dick Armey, Arlen Specter, and others, who fought for years to keep this issue alive and inspired us all in the process. The real credit also goes to Christian rights activists like Nina Shea, Steve Snyder, and such organizations as Voice of the Martyrs for fighting often lonely battles on this issue during the past decade. My voice on the issue had a certain dramatic effect because I am a Jew and helped make the issue seem like it involved more than a parochial special interest effort. In the end, my greatest contribution has come from playing a part in making it easier for evangelical leaders like Chuck Colson and such Catholic leaders as Cardinal O'Connor to take leadership roles in the movement.

This movement has confounded the experts. Why were you underestimated?

For a long time the Administration and politicians underestimated this group forming around the issue of Christian persecution because the steering committee is the most ragtag, under-financed group Washington has seen in a long time. We have no stationery. We have no executive director. We meet in a ratty room on the fourth floor of the Cannon building. We don't have the trappings of a serious political force and we like it that way. In short, this is an ever-broadening grass roots movement that believes good ideas can beat money and muscle. From the start, our objective was to make history and in the process to shatter the bigotry against people of faith that is prevalent in official Washington. We never worried about the network news programs and concentrated instead on Christian radio stations. We never worried about The Washington Post, but spread our message instead through denominational newsletters and papers like the Register and we operated on the faith that the miracle of democracy could be made to work its way.

Have you had similar experiences in political organizing?

Not personally, but I and everyone else had a perfect model to follow: the campaign against Soviet anti-Semitism of the ‘70s in which Jewish and Christian groups working together forced a reluctant U.S. government to take a stand against Soviet persecutions. From that movement we knew that the power of Christian groups in opposition to tyranny was the A-bomb of American politics.

Much has been made of the fact that, as a Jew, you were able to legitimize the issue of Christian persecution to a wider audience, to bring it to the attention of people like New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal who says you “screamed him awake” on the plight of Christians, particularly in China. How do you see your own role?

I'm in the fascinating position of being someone who doesn't have to be defensive. Some Christians have difficulty defending their virtue in an unbelieving world. When many of the elite in media, politics, and culture imagine Christianity as retrograde, or religion as superstition, I'm in a position to make the point that our Judeo-Christian heritage has been the greatest force in the world for democracy and modernity.

As we depart from a century in which we worshipped the god of politics there is greater hope in a century rooted in faith.

When you think about the drama of the end of this century, everyone talks about two great transformational events, the collapse of communism and the technological revolution and the triumph of computers, but there is a third. The 21st century will also be characterized by a third “C” — Christianity. We are also witnessing the greatest explosion of Christianity in its history. Christianity today in Asia and Africa is beginning to have the very impact and influence on culture, democracy, productivity, values, and morality that it did in Europe during much of European history. Christianity is also a great force for democracy.

Michael Horowitz

Current Positions: Senior fellow at Hudson Institute; director of its Project on Civil Justice Reform and its project on International Religious Liberty.

Background: Recipient of the 1997 William Wilberforce Award of Prison Fellowship Ministries (for efforts to end worldwide persecution of Christians); senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget; chairman of President Reagan's Domestic Policy on Federalism; private law practice; associate professor of law at the University of Mississippi.

Personal: married with two children; LL.B graduate from Yale Law School; honorable discharge from U.S. Marine Corps.

Some people consider religion to be an anti-democratic force.

That's wrong. The reason we have democracy is because we had an imbedded Judeo-Christian tradition that taught all men are created equal before God. The most radical political message of all time. We haven't always lived up to that principle but it has shaped us powerfully and is the shared core belief that made democracy possible. One interesting aspect of the movement against Christian persecution is that it has become a campaign to redefine the Christian faith to an elite world which defines Christianity by the sins committed in its name. I'm in a good position to deal with that because as a child I was beat up by kids from the local Catholic school saying ‘you killed our Christ.’ But I also knew, and have been able to speak of the larger truth: that America's goodness and greatness is based on the rooted faith of its people. I therefore knew that for all the sins committed in its name, I'd be a bar of soap, a lampshade, if America had not been a country whose people are rooted in their Churches.

Which is why you wrote a letter to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. protesting their film on antiSemitism which blames Christianity for the Holocaust?

Right. It's more appropriate to trace Nazism to the anti-religious aspect of Enlightenment thought, than to the rejection of Christianity. In the case of the Holocaust Museum film, you see a libelous, one-sided, historically false thesis suggesting that the Nazi concentration camps directly flowed from medieval Christian anti-Semitism. The recent Vatican statement on this very subject is a powerful shot across the bows of those who have libeled Christian faith and faith in general and many of us intend to keep communicating with the Holocaust Museum until its film reflects the larger truths of We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.

Do you go to synagogue?

Oh yes. In fact, my involvement on behalf of persecuted Christians has powerfully strengthened my faith. If I don't go to synagogue I feel like I've missed something important, something I want to do and need to do.

Do you think the campaign to make worldwide Christian persecution an American political issue has had any effect abroad yet?

Without the slightest doubt. The Chinese government recently invited a delegation to the country in a failed effort to defuse this movement. The Egyptians are all over the place pledging and swearing that there's no persecution of Copts in Egypt and progress is being made. Privately, we have heard from some Muslim groups — senior figures in Muslim countries — saying, ‘Keep it up. Publicly we will denounce the movement but it helps us put pressure on more radical elements.’

The day of the free hunting license on Christian communities is over. Many of the business community groups that opposed the Wolf-Specter bill and wish to maintain good relations with persecuting countries like China are privately telling the persecuting governments that they will never have good relations with the United States as long as Christian persecution continues.

Tell us about China and the underground Christian movement there.

Worshippers and Church leaders have been treated brutally by this regime. Bishop Suzhimin is one of the great heroic figures in the world today. He spent more than 15 years in prison while systematically confronting torture and solitary confinement while the official establishment of the world has done little on his behalf. He's been tortured for refusing to renounce the Pope and the Church. In a mockery of the crucifixion, Chinese officials have beaten this aged bishop then hung him by his wrists from the ceiling while beating him. Our movement pays honor to this great man and many like him in China.

The Chinese government knows that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe largely came from Church movements in general and the Pope in particular. In speaking about evangelical Churches and the Catholic Church, their official policy has been, “to strangle this baby while it is still in the manger” a direct quote from an official Party newspaper. If we don't stand with heroes like Bishop Suzhimin, if America doesn't follow the lead of the Pope in combating religious persecution, years from now people will think of America like the world now thinks of the Swiss — people who cooperated with evil for a few bars of gold. Not only is our virtue at stake in never forgetting people like Bishop Suzhimin, but our long term national interest is also at stake.

How has the Clinton Administration responded to your pressure?

On the one hand, they've opposed it with a vigor that has been surprising and shameful. In fact, the president recently made comments to the National Association of Evangelicals asking them to withdraw their support for the Wolf-Specter bill and threatened to pressure government officials to lie about whether persecution exists if the bill passes. Other government officials from the Secretary of State on down have worked hard, and thus far unsuccessfully, to defeat the bill and defuse our movement. At the same time, the Administration is huffing and puffing to keep up with the parade. They just issued an executive order barring trade with Sudan. There's no doubt this wouldn't have happened without the movement. Sudan is an interesting example of how the Christian persecution issue demonstrates a human rights double standard that gets employed when believers are victims of murder and torture. The same people who fought, as they should, against apartheid in South Africa have been silent about the politically incorrect victims — Christians! — in Sudan. Sudan is a country where Christian communities are being systematically starved, where you can buy a young Christian slave in an open air market for the price of a few chickens, and the Wolf-Specter bill seeks to deal with this by applying the language of the anti-apartheid laws against the anti-faith persecutions in Sudan.

Where have the established human rights groups been in this battle?

All too often, sadly, on the sidelines. Thus, for example, while the current annual report of Human Rights Watch describes some anti-faith persecutions in particular countries, no serious priority is given to the problem. Human Rights Watch has established fully staffed special initiatives on children's rights, women's rights, prisoners' rights, drug-users' rights, media rights, the rights of academics, and the rights of gays and lesbians.

Are you confident that the Freedom From Religious Persecution bill will win passage in the House of Representatives?

It's hard to be anything but heartened, but it's impossible to do anything but redouble our efforts. One thing I know from having read history and from being in Washington: there's a tendency to relax when you're winning. But the stakes are high in this case. Things will go back to the status quo if our movement falters. But let me repeat, this is the week when it all counts. We'll see the battle in the House of Representatives while the Senate will debate this bill in June or September. If hundreds of thousands of American believers and thousands of Church leaders make their views clear to their congressman, senators, and the president about the moderate character of and the historic need for the Wolf-Specter bill, there is no doubt that the bill will become law.

—Eleanor Kennelly