Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Engaging the Domestic Church over Religious Persecution

Kevin R. den Dulk


By Kevin R. den Dulk

June 16, 2014 

In the past few years, think tanks and advocacy groups have sounded renewed alarms about the prospects for religious freedom across the globe. The Christian church’s experience in particular has been a key trigger for their concerns. The scourge of religious persecution has arguably affected Christians disproportionately, and the situation appears to be worsening. 

While North Americans face their own challenges to religious freedom, their experience of serious persecution is largely vicarious. Nearly every denomination or large non-denominational church has an outreach abroad. These international efforts in traditional evangelistic missions, development work, and media ministry entail staff and other resources in the regions a church wishes to serve. This physical presence can expose people and infrastructure to threat when religious freedom protections are scarce. As a result, churches have a vital stake in political developments in their ministry fields.

Yet, with a few notable exceptions, churches appear profoundly absent from discussions about religious liberty and persecution abroad. As Allen Hertzke (Freeing God’s Children) tells the story, the coalition of interests in the United States that drives the policy agenda around religious freedom has not included churches and denominations.  My own data about internal denominational practices bear out this narrative. I examined aggregate levels of attention to religious liberty and persecution at twenty-seven of the most prominent denominations and non-denominational churches. While just over half had a discernable formal statement on religious liberty and/or persecution, less than a third had committed any serious organizational resources to these issues (e.g., an office or dedicated staff member) and less than a fifth provided liturgies, prayer guidance, or other resources that could be used to raise awareness in their member churches.

Given the stakes, this absence is puzzling. But several factors draw the church’s attention away.  Some denominations frame the issues as “political,” and their theology teaches them to eschew politics as useless or even dangerous. Others may see a role for politics but not for international affairs, opting instead to commit scarce resources to a more popular domestic agenda. Still others may not envision the underlying issues in terms of religious freedom at all. (My data suggest that mainline denominations, for example, are much more likely to speak in terms of “interfaith” outreach than religious freedom, while evangelical denominations take the opposite tack.)

There are also external impediments. Religious freedom and persecution are deeply complex, intertwined issues, so some denominations prefer to cede the territory to organizations with a greater focus and expertise. But even denominations with some political sophistication face the law of unintended consequences. When lobbying in North America incurs the wrath of a host country, then seeking to open space for ministry could in fact close it off. 

Still, the absence of churches from the discussion is an unfortunate missed opportunity, partly because they have a unique set of competencies and resources. 

For example, churches have unusual access to key information and reasons to use it. When churches send people abroad, the direction of influence goes both ways. Field staff send information back to sponsoring churches and denominations about their ministry, including the obstacles that impede it. This is high-impact civic education for the North American church that can quicken a call to participation. Scholars of social capital know that this kind of regular information flow within networks of trust can be a seedbed for collective action.

So ordinary parishioners have both motive (countering threats to people they trust) and means (rich sources of information) to address religious persecution. The problem is that denominations and churches have not linked motive and means to real opportunities to act.

The range of such opportunities, of course, is not unlimited. A church-based opportunity to act on religious freedom/persecution need not – indeed, under most circumstances, should not – look like the work of Voice of the Martyrs or the Institute for Global Engagement.  But other options include strengthening church-based information flows, providing greater resources in worship and corporate prayer for highlighting religious freedom/persecution, equipping field staff to address restrictions on religious freedom, and deepening interfaith networks or joining advocacy networks. 

But whatever the church does, it must respond to some key questions. How might the church address the conditions for intergroup conflict that often give rise to persecution?  How should believers respond to the call to love their enemies?  Does the church have anything distinctive to say or do about the structural dimensions of persecution?  How can the church confront states that condone or perpetrate systematic abuse of religious groups?

While these questions defy easy answers, their difficulty does not absolve the church from attempting to answer them.

- Kevin R. den Dulk is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”