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Christian lobbying finds success

Evangelicals help to steer Bush efforts

WASHINGTON -- Days before George W. Bush was elected president, he took a break from his harried campaigning in Florida to have breakfast with evangelist Franklin Graham, whose father, Billy, inspired Bush to ''recommit" his life to Christ.

The candidate and the minister prayed together, and Graham made one request: ''Governor, if you become president, I hope you put Sudan on your radar."

Months later, Charles Colson, the Watergate figure who is also a born-again Christian, conveyed the same message to Bush adviser Karl Rove: Remember Sudan.

Such quiet diplomacy, tinged with religious fervor, helped elevate Sudan to a top foreign policy priority for the Bush administration, which worked to end a two-decade civil war between the Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. Separately, the administration last month declared the killings in the country's Darfur region a ''genocide."

''You did that," Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, said at a recent Christian Coalition convention, speaking of American efforts to end Africa's oldest civil conflict. ''This wasn't on anybody's foreign policy agenda."

Sudan is just one of a number of foreign policy successes for evangelical and conservative Christians during Bush's term. White evangelical Christians, who made up nearly 40 percent of Bush's voter base in 2000, say Christian lobbying has produced half a dozen successful bills in recent years and many more key policy decisions.

Christians helped pass a law that threatens sanctions against Syria, in part, for keeping troops in Lebanon, a country with a substantial Christian minority.

Their advocacy shaped Bush's AIDS initiative, including its emphasis on abstinence, and helped prevent $34 million from reaching the United Nation's Population Fund because it works with groups that implement China's one-child-only policy.

They were the foot soldiers on a bill, passed two weeks ago, urging the State Department to tie humanitarian assistance in North Korea to progress in human rights.

''We haven't had this kind of success on the international front ever before that we're having today," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, head of the National Association of Evangelicals, who worked on the North Korea bill.

David Little, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, said the groups are motivated both by humanitarian concerns and a desire ''to be able to spread their gospel and get converts."

''There are complaints that it becomes special pleading for a particular religious point of view," said Little, who worked with Christian activists on a 1998 law that threatens sanctions against countries that restrict religious freedom. ''That causes some problems because the government is supposed to be religiously neutral and even-handed."

Many of the issues stressed by the Christian lobby make good political sense for Bush, one of the most openly religious presidents in recent US history. The lobbyists often push for humanitarian goals that bolster Bush's image as a compassionate conservative and that resonate with liberals, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, which supports the administration's efforts in Sudan, and gay activist groups that support Bush's ambitious AIDS initiative.

''Bush can point to progress on the Sudan, can point to strong support of Israel, can point to promotion of democracy, at one and the same time he is signaling to his evangelical base that he's with them," said Timothy Shah, senior fellow in religion and international affairs at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

But even on contentious issues, such as the war in Iraq, Bush's foreign policy priorities largely mirror the predilections of this evangelical base.

A survey released in September by the Pew Forum suggests that evangelical Christians are far more supportive of preemptive war than other Americans. According to the survey, 72 percent of all evangelical Protestants and 78 percent of ''traditionalist evangelicals" polled said they believe the United States has a right to attack preemptively, compared to 40 percent of atheists and agnostics who were surveyed.

Increased political savvy among conservative Christians and an increased focus on international affairs have played a role in the success of evangelical lobbying.

Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, has met numerous times with Rove, often to express the group's support for Israel, said Jim Backlein, the Christian Coalition's vice president of legislative affairs. (In 2002, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flew Backlein and Combs to Israel to see the holy sites.)

Rove also talks often with Franklin Graham, whose organization, Samaritan's Purse, has received more than $12 million in federal funds since 2000. Some of the money pays for food distribution in southern Sudan, where Graham's group runs a hospital and conducts ''evangelism outreach," according to recent IRS filings.

Although Rove is not a foreign policy adviser, evangelicals talk to him ''because Karl gets things done," Graham said in an interview. ''You take an issue to Karl and he gets it before the president, quickly. There are a lot of times you hate to bother the president."

Cizik said Christian lobbyists laid the groundwork for the recent successes in the mid-1990s, when they began collaborating with nonevangelical groups on shared international goals like the AIDS initiative and human rights, and focusing less on hot-button ''wedge issues" like abortion and gay rights.

''We began to change the way our own leaders thought about politics," Cizik said. ''We engaged with Tibetan Buddhists in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, feminists on sex trafficking, the Black Caucus on Sudan, . . . gay activist groups on a global AIDS initiative, and the apolitical Korean community to pass the North Korean Freedom Act."

At the Christian Coalition convention, Brownback lauded progress on the international front -- Sudan, tougher laws against sex trafficking, and religious freedom -- before he mentioned domestic issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, that conservative Christians are associated with most.

But although a change in tactics may have helped Christian causes, so did having a sympathetic ear in the White House.

For years, Christian groups lobbied in vain to get President Bill Clinton to appoint a special envoy to Sudan to help end the civil war. But Bush's election saw the swift appointment of John Danforth, a moderate Episcopal priest and former senator, at a Rose Garden ceremony attended by a host of evangelicals.

Graham recalls talking early on to Bush about Sudan, but also said that the president, who was Texas governor at the time, was knowledgeable about the situation. Christian groups in Texas had long spoken of the plight of the Sudanese, with one group in Bush's hometown of Midland erecting a replica of a Sudanese village in 2002 not far from Bush's Texas home.

Graham himself has tried to publicize the plight of Sudan. Samaritan's Purse has flown Senator Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, to Sudan's most desolate outposts seven times over the last seven years. Working with Democrats -- particularly the Black Caucus -- Frist, Brownback, and others helped push legislation through Congress threatening sanctions against both the north and the south of Sudan if they failed to reach a peace agreement, which is in its final stages of negotiation now.

Later, Bush elevated Danforth to ambassador to the UN, where the former special envoy is pressing the Security Council for a solution to the new crisis in Sudan's mostly Muslim Darfur region, where war broke out in the western part just as the north-south peace deal was struck.

Over the years, as other foreign policy priorities arose, evangelicals fretted that Sudan's misery might fall through the cracks as the administration conducted two wars, but it has not.

Graham recalls calling Frist in the midst of preparations for the Iraq invasion, and asking whether Sudan was still on the president's radar screen.

''Frist said, 'Sure,' and I said, 'How do you know?' " Graham recalled. ''He said, 'Franklin, the president brings it up to me.' "

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.

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