Strange Bedfellows

Conservative Christians And The Bush Administration Are Aggressively Pushing A Controversial 'Pro-Family' Agenda On the International Stage And They're Teaming Up With Islamic Theocracies To Do It

Sudan, an Islamic theocracy in Northeast Africa, is classified by the U.S. State Department as a "state sponsor of terrorism." The Sudanese earned this status, reserved for only a handful of American adversaries, after providing sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, who operated a network of terrorists from that country from 1993 to 1996 while backing Sudan's theocratic military dictatorship.

Sudan has also drawn the ire of the international community for permitting widespread slavery and repeated human rights abuses. A year ago, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom described the nation as "the world's most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief."

Nevertheless, at the United Nations, Sudan and the United States have repeatedly been on the same page lately. The U.S. has joined with Sudan and a host of other Islamic countries to undercut the international consensus on issues ranging from children's health to women's rights and global family planning.

Since his inauguration, President George W. Bush has adopted a firm stance on the U.S. relationship with countries around the globe. In an approach some have labeled the "Bush Doctrine," the president has made clear that in a post-Sept. 11 world, "you're either with us, or you're against us."

Since the terrorist attacks of last fall, the U.S. has had little trouble differentiating between our friends and foes on the global effort to prevent terrorism. Countries like England, Canada and France have offered reliable support for our military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In contrast, several countries, including Sudan, Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq the latter two composing part of what Bush calls an "axis of evil" maintain strained relations with the United States for their suspected part in aiding terrorism.

On a growing number of international policy issues, however, the roles are entirely reversed. Under pressure from the Religious Right and its cohorts, the Bush administration has made allies of our enemies and adversaries of our friends.

This new international dynamic is part of a concerted strategy. Most of the Religious Right's international goals undermining children's and women's rights while limiting access to abortion and family planning are now formally being adopted by the White House, which is promoting these objectives at international forums.

In the process, the Bush administration is blurring the line between religious dogma and governmental policy. While these tactics are beginning to raise the ire of many Americans and U.S. allies, the developments are welcome news to American fundamentalist Christians, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and several Islamic theocracies, which are delighted to see the Bush White House embrace such a controversial agenda.

Since Bush became president, many have recognized the Religious Right's high-profile role as "insiders" in Washington's official government corridors. What is less well known is the Religious Right's success in translating its White House access into international policy at venues such as the United Nations. By collaborating with the Bush administration and Islamic and Catholic allies, the Religious Right has turned its U.S. "culture war" into an international battle that impacts families around the world.

The shift in focus to foreign policy concerns came about as Christian conservatives realized that some of their key issues were being debated in other countries, and with an ideological ally in the Oval Office, they could exert influence to help shape the debate to their liking. In some cases, Religious Right leaders learned they could work on these issues with less effort and greater success than has been true on the domestic front.

"The American electorate was split right down the middle on these cultural wars, and nobody was going to win them," Richard Cizik, Washington director of the National Association of Evangelicals, told The New York Times. Explaining a shift in emphasis to international policies, Cizik said conservative Christians' work overseas is "going gangbusters."

Political pragmatism also leads domestic religious strategists to work with countries and leaders they might otherwise abhor.

"We look at [Islamic theocracies] as allies, not necessarily as friends," Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, told The Washington Post. "We have realized that without countries like Sudan, abortion would have been recognized as a universal human right in a U.N. document."

The most startling difference between domestic fights over social issues and international debates is the opposition the Religious Right and its government allies face in this country.

In the United States, when the Bush administration works in concert with the Religious Right on legislative proposals, an organized opposition including progressive politicians, non-profit organizations and an inquisitive media exists to criticize the efforts. White House officials and right-wing religious leaders realize that an aggressive agenda that reflects a rigid religious ideology will face stiff resistance.

At the United Nations and on the international stage, the dynamics are far different. The United States is the world's strongest superpower. Its influence is unparalleled. When the Bush administration unites with fundamentalist Islamic theocracies and the Vatican at the U.N. under a shared religiously grounded worldview, as is becoming increasingly common, the result is an alliance that can dictate the outcome of several policy debates.

Many in the Religious Right are taking notice of this remarkable ability to shape world affairs. Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, believes the political movement he helped forge should take advantage of the opportunity.

"Christians have the potential to be the most effective constituency influencing a foreign policy since the end of the cold war," Reed, now chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, told The New York Times.

That influence was on full display in May when the Bush administration sent a delegation to a United Nations meeting on the rights of children. Countries gathered to expand on earlier work and create a new document, titled "A World Fit For Children." Tommy Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, led America's delegation. He was joined by a five-member group of "special private sector advisers" four of whom are committed Religious Right activists creating what some have called the most conservative delegation the United States has ever sent to the United Nations.

While America's traditional allies in Europe were advocating greater health and educational benefits and increased safety for children, the U.S. delegation instigated a polarizing debate over sex education and reproductive rights.

In a private meeting, delegations from European allies such as Sweden and Norway spoke with Thompson and complained about America being unnecessarily "intransigent" on social issues, according to a report in the conservative Washington Times. Thompson reportedly replied that the U.S. delegation was acting on the wishes of Bush and that there would be no compromise.

The most controversial element of the conference for U.S. representatives was proposed language to support access to "reproductive health services." The Americans labeled the provision unacceptable and argued that the language was "code" for abortion rights.

Debate grew fairly intense. Towards the end of the gathering, America's representatives threatened to pull out of the conference altogether unless the language on reproductive health services was changed. Realizing the difficulties in acting alone, America's delegation sought and received assistance from the Vatican's representatives at the U.N., as well as delegations from many fundamentalist Islamic countries, including Syria, Libya and Pakistan, who agreed with the approach favored by the Americans.

Other countries begrudgingly went along, and the word "services" was removed from the final document. The U.N. member nations, therefore, ultimately endorsed young people's access to reproductive health, but not any methods or mechanisms to get it. The move was hailed by the Family Research Council, which called the change a "huge pro-family, pro-life victory."

The U.S., the Vatican and Muslim countries also worked together to promote proposals to instruct children on the benefits of abstinence for all young women.

Critics noted several practical problems with the approach. According to a report in the Village Voice, 82 million women under the age of 18 are already married, and many of them are getting pregnant. Tens of millions more young women are sexually active outside of marriage. With that in mind, many countries were arguing that young women must receive access to birth control and education on sexual health to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

"How can we talk about a plan of action for children that doesn't deal with sex education and information?" asked Brazilian negotiator Fernando Coimbra. "To face the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS and early pregnancy, we have to keep our children informed. To wait until they're over 18 is too late."

The U.S. delegation flatly rejected these arguments. To understand why, one need look no further than whom the Bush administration selected to represent America at the conference. Among those "helping" Secretary Thompson at the U.N. were employees of several Religious Right powerhouses. The Family Research Council's William Saunders and Concerned Women for America's (CWA) Janice Crouse were on hand, as was Paul Bonicelli, a dean at Patrick Henry College, a Christian private school in Virginia created by Religious Right activist Michael Farris to cater to students from fundamentalist Christian home schools.

Bolstering the relationship between the Bush administration and the Vatican, John Klink, who has done negotiating work at the U.N. on behalf of numerous Holy See delegations, was asked to join Thompson and the Religious Right staffers at the children's summit. Klink is widely recognized for promoting the Vatican's anti-abortion positions, including opposition to giving the "morning after" pill to rape victims in refugee camps and all use of birth control.

Wendy Wright, senior policy director for CWA, told the Village Voice that America had to promote abstinence at the meeting because it "is just a plain healthier way to live." She added that her group opposed U.N. resolutions extending too many rights to children because it could lead to minors suing their parents and a general disruption of the "natural order."

"When we go outside the order set by God," Wright explained, "it's harmful to us."

Throughout the conference, America's proposals reflected a right-wing ideology, while ideas from our traditional allies were met with hostility from the U.S. delegation.

For example, America's representatives, once done undermining access to reproductive health services, then successfully persuaded other nations to defeat a proposal that opposed the execution of children under the age of 18.

Time and again, countries anxious to protect children and produce a worthwhile document conceded to U.S. demands. For these countries, the challenges facing children were too great to risk threatening the overall success of the conference. After all, they noted that one in three children in the world is malnourished, one in four fails to receive basic immunization against childhood diseases and one in five has never seen the inside of a classroom. With these figures in mind, most countries were willing to capitulate to American concerns about sex and abortion if it meant helping more children in need, particularly in developing nations.

Their submission, however, comes with a price.

"The U.S. position on health issues and international instruments has been so combative and isolationist we've ended up alienating traditional friends, especially Europeans," a former U.S. senior official, speaking anonymously, told the Los Angeles Times.

Despite the concerns of our closest allies, Religious Right groups and their friends were thrilled with the conference. The National Right to Life Committee said the U.S. delegation did a "brilliant job." Family Research Council President Ken Connor said "pro-family forces should savor this victory."

Undermining U.N. efforts to improve children's health is not the only project the Religious Right considers an important international priority. Like their new politically expedient allies in the Middle East, Christian conservative activists are bent on undermining U.N. treaties on women's rights, as well.

Over 20 years ago, for example, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was endorsed by the U.N. Since then, 169 countries, including every industrial power in the world, has ratified it except the United States. That leaves America in the same category as Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. (President Jimmy Carter signed CEDAW in 1980, but the U.S. Senate never ratified it.)

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers began work this year on changing that. Several U.S. senators, led by Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), began laying the groundwork for a vote on CEDAW.

Initially, President Bush and the State Department offered support for the proposal. In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, the White House listed CEDAW among a group of treaties that the "administration believes are generally desirable and should be approved."

The Convention endorses the principle of legal gender equality, recognition of a woman's right to work and gender equity in education. CEDAW does not address gay rights, abortion or international law superceding national sovereignty, but that hasn't stopped the Religious Right from using distortions and demagoguery to discredit the proposal.

Concerned Women for America, for example, labeled CEDAW "the Equal Rights Amendment on steroids," and claimed that those who promote it are "radical feminists." FRC's Connor said that if the U.S. ratified CEDAW, this year's celebration of Mother's Day "will be our last." The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute's Ruse, who closely monitors the U.N., described the Convention as "just about the most dangerous treaty that the U.S. government has ever considered ratifying."

Thomas Jacobson, Focus on the Family's United Nations manager, took the hyperbole one step further. He claimed CEDAW "seems to pit wives against husbands, girls against fathers, and to attempt to remove [women] from under any male authority."

Some supporters of CEDAW believe fundamentalist opposition to women's rights is a natural outgrowth of a Religious Right worldview.

"Where women have opportunities, they tend to balance tradition with modernity, and form a bulwark against fundamentalism," Shazia Rafia, a spokesperson for Parliamentarians for Global Action, told the Daily Texan. "That's why the first thing fundamentalists do is undermine women's freedoms."

The collective lobbying efforts are paying off for the Religious Right. As the conservative attacks on CEDAW grew more intense, White House support evaporated. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced in May that the Justice Department was launching a new "review" of the treaty, which many believe may spell its demise.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) told Salon that Religious Right opposition, and Bush administration apprehension, speak volumes.

"[Religious Right opponents of CEDAW] must prefer women to be barefoot, pregnant and at home," Woolsey said. She added that U.S. ratification of the treaty would strengthen our nation's hand in advocating for stronger women's rights elsewhere.

International observers, meanwhile, have expressed disappointment with the Bush administration's tendency to join with Islamic theocracies on issues such as women's rights.

"This alliance shows the depths of perversity of the [U.S.] position," Adrienne Germaine, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, told The Washington Post. "On the one hand we're presumably blaming these countries for unspeakable acts of terrorism, and at the same time we are allying ourselves with them in the oppression of women."

While Bush's reversal on the U.N.'s treaty on women's rights raised eyebrows, the most glaring example of the Bush administration yielding to Religious Right pressure on international affairs is the president's contradictory actions on global family planning.

For his 2002 federal budget, President Bush appropriated $25 million for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). Since its inception in 1969, the Fund has won widespread recognition for its work in improving the lives of women in developing countries. When the Bush administration announced its intention to further America's support for the program, few considered the move controversial.

In explaining why the administration sought increased support for the Population Fund, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, "We recognize that UNFPA does invaluable work through its programs in maternal and child health care, voluntary family planning, screening for reproductive tract cancers, breast-feeding promotion and HIV/AIDS prevention."

With Powell's endorsement, Congress complied with the administration's request and allocated $34 million for the fund. The vote in the House was 357-66, while Senate support was unanimous.

Once Religious Right groups learned of the appropriation, however, they began putting pressure on the administration to reverse itself. Organizations such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and an anti-abortion group called Population Research Institute made unsubstantiated claims that the Population Fund spent money on forced abortions and sterilization in China. Douglas Johnson at the National Right to Life Committee told The New York Times that UNFPA is "a cheerleader and facilitator for China's birth-quota program, which relies heavily on coerced abortion."

The claims have since been thoroughly debunked. The Population Fund's work in China is limited to 32 counties, all of which follow voluntary family planning programs. International investigations have confirmed that fact. British officials sent a team of officials to China that concluded earlier this year that the U.N. program was actually helping steer China away from draconian policies.

Not satisfied with the report from England or the studies done by 60 other international observers, the Bush administration sent its own team. In May, the American investigators found "no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the [People's Republic of China]" and recommended release of the $34 million appropriation.

Instead of using the information as justification for its original position, the Bush White House suppressed the report, literally hiding it from public view for two months.

In June, the White House announced that it was placing a "hold" on U.S. subsidies for UNFPA.

Lawmakers on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue were displeased. Over 120 members of Congress co-signed a letter to the president, arguing that they considered the agreement on UNFPA to be binding. Bush said he disagreed, and refused to release the funds he had asked for. When Congress announced it would take up legislation that would force release of the money for the Fund, Bush said he would veto the bill.

Even members of Bush's own party expressed frustration that the administration's policy actually promotes the very activities it claims to detest.

The bipartisan attempts to convince the White House were in vain. On July 22, Bush announced it had officially been decided to cut off all U.S. funding for UNFPA.

"The administration is going against the will of Congress and the international community by allowing a small band of extremists to hamstring its foreign policy," Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) told Salon. She added, "This is all about appeasing the far right even at the expense of Bush's credibility and honor."

Critics say Bush's flip-flop on UNFPA has dramatic negative consequences on families around the world. Thanks to the reversal, they charge, fewer women will receive pre-natal care in developing countries, fewer doctors will be trained to deal with pregnancy complications, fewer HIV prevention programs will be able to operate and less medical equipment will be made available to expectant mothers in the Third World. All told, the U.N. estimates that by withholding once promised funds, Bush's new anti-UNFPA policy will result in 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 4,800 maternal deaths, 77,000 more deaths among children under the age of 5 and almost 1 million abortions.

Thoraya Obaid, executive director of UNFPA, said plainly, "Women and children will die because of this decision."

Bush's tendency to yield to Religious Right pressure on foreign policy issues seems unlikely to change anytime soon. In fact, Christian conservatives, conscious of their powerful political role, are becoming increasingly organized in order to more effectively lobby on international issues.

Under the umbrella of the "World Congress of Families," a number of Religious Right groups are working in coalition with representatives from fundamentalist Muslim nations who share their politically conservative worldview to expand the groups' influence.

The first meeting of the World Congress was held in Prague in 1997, at which delegates issued a Religious Right-style declaration that included predictable criticism of public schools, divorce, abortion and gay rights.

In October 2001, the coalition featuring evangelical Christians, right-wing Catholics, Muslims and Mormons followed a similar agenda at a meeting in Washington, D.C.

President Bush welcomed delegates to the Washington gathering with a letter noting that he has "committed my administration to work hard to help parents and encourage the formation and maintenance of loving families."

Attending the gathering were participants from several of the nation's most prominent conservative and Religious Right organizations, including the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation and Concerned Women for America.

Alongside the Christian conservatives was a representative from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which includes 53 officially or predominantly Muslim nations, among them repressive regimes such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Mokhtar Lamani, a Moroccan diplomat who represents the OIC at the United Nations, told The Washington Post that a common approach to family issues unites the groups.

"The main issue that brings us all together is defending the family values, the natural family," Lamani said. "The Republican administration is so clear in defending the family values."

The Religious Right and representatives from Muslim nations are already looking ahead toward greater cooperation in the future. At an annual meeting of the World Health Organization in May, the two began pressing delegations from other countries on more abortion restrictions. Similar behind-the-scenes lobbying was taking place recently at pre-conference negotiations for a U.N. meeting on sustainable development to be held in Indonesia.

In the meantime, countries that have historically looked to America to represent steps forward for the rights of women, children and diverse families are now seeing an unwelcome change.

Wanda Nowicka with the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Warsaw, told the Village Voice that she sees America's shift to the right as a sign of things getting worse for families around the world.

"We used to be able to say, 'Look at those progressive countries like the U.S.,'" Nowicka said. "But now I'm afraid...progress is headed in a different direction."