Trading Principles for Power: The U.S. Christian Right’s Endorsement of Authoritarian Leaders

About Cole Parke

Building on parts one and two of this series, Cole Parke examines the relationship between the U.S. Christian Right and authoritarian leaders.

On Friday, August 4, Paul Kagame celebrated a landslide victory in Rwanda’s presidential election, securing his third seven-year term as the small, East African country’s leader with nearly 99% of the vote. It was an unsurprising result, given that his candidacy was essentially uncontested. The two individuals who attempted to challenge Kagame’s reign, Frank Habineza, head of the opposing Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR), and Diane Rwigara, a human rights activist, have accused Kagame’s party, the Royal Patriotic Front (RPF), of using “indirect” methods of intimidation to push its opponents out of the political race, effectively nullifying their efforts toward a fair and open democratic process.

As I reported in part two of this series, Kagame set the terms of this victory in motion in 2015 when he successfully altered the Rwandan constitution in order to extend his presidency (he has already been in office since 2000, and unofficially assumed the role six years earlier in 1994). Under the newly amended constitution, he has the option of running for two additional five-year terms. The European Union and the U.S. State Department both condemned the revision, saying Kagame should step down and “foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda,” but the president continues to be defended, supported, and often times venerated by American religious, business, and political leaders, including megachurch pastor Rick Warren, Chicago-area businessman and multimillionaire Joe Ritchie, and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.

Rick Warren with Paul Kagame at Saddleback Church — Saddleback Church Photo

This team of American promoters—all of whom are conservative, evangelical Christians—provides a degree of immunity for a man whose leadership is described as repressive and anti-democratic, and whose actions have earned him accusations of human rights violations from groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Global Witness. Warren, Ritchie, and Inhofe have unprecedented access to Kagame (both Warren and Ritchie actually serve on his Presidential Advisory Council, which meets twice a year), and yet none of them have used their positions to confront or protest Kagame’s gross abuse of power.

The Christian Right has a long history of betraying their principles for the perks of power, and Kagame isn’t the only authoritarian leader benefiting from this sort of endorsement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been hailed a hero by a whole cast of American Christian Right leaders. Bryan Fischer, former spokesperson for the American Family Association, has called Putin a “lion of Christianity;” Scott Lively (infamous for his role in bringing about Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill), has lavished praise upon him; and the World Congress of Families has positioned Putin as a savior of Christianity.

Nearing the end of his second presidential term (the Russian constitution mandates that a person may not hold the position “for more than two terms in a row”), in a maneuver not unlike Kagame’s 2015 constitutional manipulation, Putin realigned the government’s power structure in order to make the Prime Minister the preeminent position, and at the conclusion of his presidential term he stepped into the role. He subsequently resumed the presidency, having worked around the restriction preventing individuals from serving more than two consecutive terms, and is now nearing the conclusion of his third.

In an early July Facebook post, Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan’s Purse and heir to his father’s legacy as CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, rejected the growing mountain of evidence that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. election. “The media and enemies of President Trump have tried to drive a wedge between Russia and the United States,” he wrote. “Our country needs Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Join me in praying for President Trump and President Vladimir Putin.”

After the inauguration, Graham proclaimed, “Donald Trump’s there because God put him there,” Despite clear deviations from what a “model Christian” might look like, President Trump (a man who is twice divorced, rarely attends church, and has bragged about assaulting women) successfully garnered the support of numerous right-wing evangelical leaders who undoubtedly influenced the selection of Christian Right golden child Mike Pence as vice president. The effect of these endorsements was starkly evident: exit polls from last year’s presidential election revealed that Trump managed to win over 81 percent of white, self-described evangelicals.

This propping up of authoritarian leaders under the guise of their election being “God ordained” (even when the democratic merits of the process are questionable) serves to perpetuate some of the gravest violations of human rights in the world.

But power is an addictive drug, and human rights are often deemed expendable, especially for those with dominionist aspirations. (As PRA senior research fellow Frederick Clarkson explains, dominionism is the theocratic idea that “Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.”)

In 2008, TIME’s David Van Biema profiled Rick Warren, describing him as, “the U.S.’s most influential and highest-profile churchman.” Van Biema also observed that Warren is “near giddy over occupying a globetrotting-catalyst status normally reserved for ex-Presidents.” In the interview, Warren boasted, “It’s the most amazing thing; I’ve had to add a new hat: my statesman hat. I had a call the other day from a President in Africa asking me to contact a President in Asia to set up a meeting.”

In the interview, Warren also boasts of his business hat: “I put this unbelievably big deal together. The bottom line was $300 million. A guy called me and asked me, ‘Would you call this person?,’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s not my role or anything I aspire to,’ but out of it came this huge deal.”

What Warren—and other Christian Right leaders—fail to ask is, “Who’s served and who’s harmed in the making of these deals, in the negotiation of political priorities, and in the propping up of dictators?” But this is what dominionism looks like: when a leader of the Christian Right starts wearing a “statesman hat” and a “businessman hat” on top of his “pastoral hat,” and insistently ignores the dangerous, anti-democratic cost of his evangelical convictions.

Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.