Religion, Money, & Politics: An (un)Holy Trinity

As with anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion culture wars, the exportation of American economic ideologies to the Global South (and the strategies and tactics employed to impose them on others) has a long history of violence and destruction. From Nestle’s deadly exploitation of African mothers in the 1970s to the United Fruit Company’s role in inciting Guatemala’s 36-year long civil war, American corporations have consistently and relentlessly exploited the Global South for the sake of increased profits and power.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame. Photo: Veni via Flickr.

These two channels of influence — one being religious and one being economic — are typically seen as independent of one another, but evidence suggests that a growing alliance is forming between the U.S. Christian Right, their evangelical allies in the corporate world, and the political leaders they seek to make into pawns of their agenda.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda definitely understands the tagteam value of both religious endorsement and corporate backing. In 2008 he told TIME that he’s not very religious but has “a good sense of what faith is about and the usefulness of it.” Tapping into some of those useful attributes, Kagame includes among his closest allies two extremely powerful conservative American evangelicals: megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Joe Ritchie, a Chicago-based businessman and multimillionaire.

Infamously known for its 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days, Rwanda is now described as a model of stability and economic development. Rwanda has also become the favorite poster child of Rick Warren’s international work. In 2004, he declared Rwanda the first “Purpose Driven” country, affixing his famous branding to one of the world’s most well-known resurrection stories (though it’s still ranked among the most impoverished nations).

Sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” Warren is also arguably aspiring to be “Africa’s pastor.” Though he’s based in Lake Forest, CA, Warren claims Rwanda as his “home,” pointing to his Rwandan diplomatic passport as proof (a perk bestowed upon him by President Kagame for his service on the Presidential Advisory Council). His influence is increasingly expanding across the continent; in May 2014, Warren announced plans to host an “All-Africa Purpose Driven Church Leadership Training Conference” in Kigali, Rwanda. The conference is currently anticipated to be held in the fall of 2018.

Rick Warren. Photo: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.

Rwanda has served as a testing ground for Warren’s “PEACE Plan,” a multi-pronged development model which brings together business, government, and churches, as a “three-legged stool.” Warren emphasizes that he isn’t a politician or a businessman, but in Rwanda he has extensive connections across both sectors, as well as with religious leaders. Through these relationships, Warren is increasingly able to integrate his conservative theological, cultural, and political agenda into all realms of society. Making a case for the blurring of lines between churches, corporations, and the state – a slippery slope with dangerous implications for sexual minorities and women. He argues that without church involvement, public-private partnerships would fall over, like a two-legged stool.

Joe Ritchie, Kagame’s other favorite American evangelical, is the one who originally ushered Warren into the inner circles of the small nation’s business and political elite. In 2003, Ritchie, who serves as the co-chair of Rwanda’s Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) and is the founding CEO of the Rwandan Development Board shared with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame a copy of the famous pastor’s bestseller, A Purpose Driven Life. Kagame subsequently invited Warren to join the PAC, “a special team of Rwandans and friends of Rwanda whose mission is to advise the President on Rwanda’s strategic development, choices and initiatives.” The Council typically meets twice a year, and over the course of its existence has included such notable members as Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, and AT&T board member, Scott Ford (another American evangelical Christian)

In Prospects for Prosperity: Rwanda and the Entrepreneurial Society, a 2008 report published by the conservative think tank Hudson Institute, the authors write, “It would be impossible to fully appreciate current levels of American business interest in Rwanda without understanding the way in which an informal, yet significant, group of peers has facilitated that interest.” This group, led by Joe Ritchie and his business partner at Fox River Financial Services, Dan Cooper, established the U.S.-based “Friends of Rwanda,” a loosely organized group of “like-minded investors, business leaders, and civic leaders who have taken an interest in Rwanda.”

The authors go on to say that Warren “has been centrally involved in coordinating activity with and through this network.”

According to the American Enterprise Institute, Ritchie and Cooper’s Friends of Rwanda network played a critical role in “spreading the idea that Rwanda is a good place to do business, and not just a place for do-gooders to come help.” The two are credited with brokering Rwanda’s first breakthrough deal with retail giant Costco for coffee exports. Not long after, Starbucks followed suit (again, with help from Ritchie and Cooper).

American corporate investment has certainly offered a stabilizing force to Rwanda’s post-genocide economic development, but a marriage between government, business, and religion is one to be wary of.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, which effectively granted individual conscience protections to corporations, expanded the slippery slope of corporate personhood that Citizens United initiated in 2010. The decision made clear how blurry the lines between church, state, and corporate entities have become in the United States. As a result of Hobby Lobby, the Christian Right has secured a loophole by which to manipulate the constitutional right to religious freedom (previously only applicable for individuals and religious institutions) into a right to discriminate that is now being applied in increasingly broad terms, granting businesses and medical providers the ability to deny services and care to otherwise unprotected classes of people (such as LGBTQ people).

American Christian Right organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization based in Arizona, are already developing strategies for how to apply this same anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion tactic internationally. ADF already claims an “active presence in the various regions of Africa.” In countries where the Religious Right enjoys the support of both political and corporate allies, we can anticipate that legalized discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom” will soon become the norm.