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

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.

Dancing with Dictators

As was outlined in part one of this series, evidence shows that American corporate entities are taking advantage of the U.S. Christian Right’s pre-existing relationships with political, religious, and business leaders in Africa in order to advance their economic goals. The dynamic serves to benefit expansion-hungry corporations with increased access to cheap labor and natural resources, and their financial investment (even if the in-country benefactors are primarily the pre-existing economic elite) ingratiates constituents to the pre-existing political elite. But what’s in it for the evangelical brokers in the middle? Here in part two, we examine their curious role.

Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church, September 4, 2005. (Photo: Pastor Rick Warren / Wiki Commons)

California megachurch pastor Rick Warren has played an especially key role in supporting this convergence of church, state, and business on the continent as part of his PEACE Plan development model. According to a report published by the conservative think tank, Hudson Institute, Warren has been “centrally involved” in the process of ushering U.S. corporate interests into Rwanda thanks in large part to his relationships with Christian evangelical businessmen like Joe Ritchie and Dan Cooper.

Warren is quick to distance himself from the trappings of wealth, reminding people, “I drive a 12 year old Ford, have lived in the same house for the last 22 years, bought my watch at Wal-Mart, and I don’t own a boat or a jet.” Nonetheless, he enjoys substantial closeness with many of America’s business elite.

Given this closeness, it’s not surprising that he would be unfazed by the wealth of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (Kagame ranks among the top ten richest leaders in Africa, with an estimated net worth of $500 million). However, it is concerning that Warren relentlessly defends Kagame, even as accusations of human rights violations continually mount against him.

President Kagame’s repressive and anti-democratic rule in Rwanda wins him attention from such groups as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Global Witness. In its 2017 report on Rwanda, Human Rights Watch wrote,

The Rwandan government continues to limit the ability of civil society groups, media, and international human rights organizations to function freely and independently and criticize its policies or practices.

Military and police arbitrarily arrested and detained people in unofficial detention centers, torturing and ill-treating some of them.

The international community’s concern over political repression under Kagame’s leadership was amplified after he successfully altered the Rwandan constitution in 2015 in order to extend his presidency (Kagame has already been in office since 2000). The European Union and the U.S. State Department both condemned the vote, saying Kagame should step down and “foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda.” In August 2017 Kagame will run for a third seven-year term, and under the newly amended constitution, he has the option of running for two additional five-year terms after that.

The Rwandan constitution also includes Article 114, which states, “A former President of the Republic cannot be prosecuted for treason or serious and deliberate violation of the Constitution when no legal proceedings in respect of that offence were brought against him or her while in office.” This essentially creates lifelong immunity for Kagame — but only in Rwanda. As Stephen Smith, professor of African studies at Duke University, reported in The New York Times, “Mr. Kagame can’t leave office without risking arraignment by the International Criminal Court.” This no doubt serves as further motivation for the extension of his hold on the presidency.

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, June 11, 2009. (Photo: Copyright World Economic Forum / Eric Miller)

Kagame’s previous election in 2010 was marred by murder, censorship, and a concerning lack of significant opposition or audible dissent. In the lead up to the election, the opposition Green Party’s deputy leader, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was murdered, as was Jean-Léonard Rugambage, deputy editor of Umuvugizi, a local newspaper that was suspended from publication by the state-run Media High Council after printing a story alleging government involvement in the shooting of a former Rwandan army commander in South Africa. The BBC reported in a 2014 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” that in the last 15 years, a dozen prominent Rwandan exiles have been killed or have disappeared.

Nonetheless, Warren remains relentless in his defense of Kagame and insistently denies any corruption or wrongdoing in the country. His support for Kagame serves to help generate support for Kagame’s business goals and give the appearance that he is an upright Christian despite his human rights abuses and anti-democratic efforts.

In 2009, Warren hosted Kagame at Saddleback Church, honoring him with the “International Medal of Peace,” an award that has also been presented to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President George W. Bush. Recently, Warren participated as a keynote speaker at the annual “Rwanda Cultural Day” in San Francisco in September 2016. During his remarks, Warren doubled down in his defense of Kagame, outlining and dispelling what he’s determined to be the main factors motivating Rwanda’s critics (a group that he describes as small, but loud), including guilt, envy, shame, and resentment.

In 2013, Forbes published a feature on Warren in which he explains his relationship to money: “The Bible teaches that we are to love people and use money, but we often get that reversed and you start loving money and using people to get more money. Money is simply a tool to be used for good.”

Kagame’s human rights violations, along with his calculated efforts to disintegrate Rwanda’s democracy, are a clear contradiction to most any definition of “good.” So what motivates Warren’s steadfast support? His 12-year-old Ford suggests that he isn’t getting any major financial kick-backs out of the deal, but money isn’t the only motivator.

Just as the Christian Right has developed alliances with unlikely political comrades here in the U.S. in order to advance its social agenda, American culture warriors like Rick Warren are angling for increased political access in geographies that offer promising opportunities for dominionist expansion. (For more on dominionism, see PRA Senior Fellow Frederick Clarkson’s Public Eye article, “Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight.”)

While Warren helps facilitate connections for Rwanda with U.S. corporations, Kagame is helping to connect Warren with other African leaders. Thanks to these links, Warren has already launched PEACE Plan campaigns in 11 additional countries, furthering the advancement of a development model that could have disastrous effects on the human rights of LGBTQI people and women.

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.


Dominionism Disguised as Aid: Rick Warren’s Expanding Influence in Rwanda

Expanding access to basic healthcare is an important and valuable goal, but what happens when those made responsible for providing the care also hold conservative religious ideologies? What sort of sexual and health education is being taught? How safe do LGBTQ people feel when seeking services? Are gay men able to access the information and resources they need in order to stay healthy? What options are available to women with unwanted pregnancies?

These concerns were amplified in May when megachurch pastor Rick Warren announced that he will return to Africa yet again in August 2015, this time to host an “All-Africa Purpose Driven Church Leadership Training Conference” in Kigali, Rwanda. He is calling for leading African evangelicals from each of the continent’s 54 countries to join him. Warren is also is enlisting 54 American pastors, who will join him in Rwanda, to “adopt” these new “purpose driven” recruits.

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Rick Warren presents himself as a moderate but is actually a right-wing fundamentalist known for his staunch opposition to LGBTQ equality and women’s reproductive freedom. Sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” Warren—who claims Rwanda as his “home” and points to his Rwandan diplomatic passport as proof—is also arguably aspiring to be “Africa’s pastor”: he travels extensively in Africa as part of his dominionist agenda,¹ spreading his dangerous right-wing ideologies wherever he goes. The millionaire pastor has been especially active in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, where he has built close relationships with members of the political, business, and religious elite, including many prominent anti-LGBTQ pastors.

Rwanda, ranked among the world’s poorest countries, has been the focus of much of Warren’s international work since he first visited at the invitation of President Paul Kagame in 2005. Kagame enlisted Warren’s help in making the small African nation the first “purpose driven country” after reading the famous pastor’s bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life.

The book found its way into Kagame’s hands thanks to Joe Ritchie, a Chicago-area businessman, who first partnered with the President in 2003 on economic development efforts in the wake of the 1994 genocide. It was while visiting Ritchie’s Chicago home that Kagame was initially introduced to Warren’s book. The pastor subsequently received a letter from the President stating, “I’m a man of purpose. Can you come help us rebuild our nation?”

Since their first meeting, the two have become close friends and colleagues.

That Kagame has been accused of numerous human rights violations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others seems not to have deterred Warren, who has hosted him multiple times as a guest of honor at Saddleback Church’s main campus in Lake Forest, CA. This isn’t terribly surprising considering Warren’s close ties to Martin Ssempa, an aggressively anti-LGBTQ pastor in Uganda who was responsible for helping to draft and promote the infamous “Kill the Gays” bill.

While Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was ultimately signed into law earlier this year, similar efforts were thwarted in Rwanda in 2009, when penal code revisions that would have criminalized homosexuality were rejected as violations of basic human rights.

In the nine years since his first visit, Warren has returned to Rwanda countless times. He is a member of Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council and has developed an extensive relationship with hundreds of congregations in Rwanda through Saddleback’s PEACE Plan, which is described as “an initiative of Purpose Driven Ministries that brings together all Christian churches in Rwanda with the ultimate purpose of building peace within our community.”²

Specifically, Warren’s PEACE Plan endeavors to tackle what he refers to as the five “Global Giants”:

P – Plant churches and promote reconciliation – to address spiritual emptiness
E – Equip leaders – to address corrupt leadership
A – Assist the poor – to address extreme poverty
C – Care for the sick – to address pandemic diseases and suffering they cause
E – Educate the next generation – to address illiteracy and lack of education

Because the HIV/AIDS crisis is a primary focus of Warren’s work in Africa, one of the major PEACE Plan projects launched in Rwanda is the Rwanda Healthcare Initiative, a “grassroots effort to mobilize volunteers in community health who are proficient in home visits and health promotion, with a focus on the early identification, treatment care and support of people living with HIV through the local church.” Citing a lack of hospitals and clinics in the country, Warren has used the Rwanda Healthcare Initiative to promote the use of churches as distribution centers for medicine and basic healthcare.

Which returns us to the question, what happens when those made responsible for providing healthcare and other social services also hold conservative religious ideologies? What happens when the gatekeepers charged with distributing antiretrovirals also promote reparative therapy? Or when those responsible for teaching young people about safer sex insist that condoms are sinful? And where will women turn when the only people resourced to provide safe abortions refuse to do so?

In addition to these concerns, Rwanda is a signatory to the African Union Maputo Protocol, which obligates African nations to ensure women’s health and reproductive rights (including safe abortions). Given that Warren has advanced an explicitly anti-women agenda in the U.S. (earlier this year, Warren referred to Planned Parenthood as the “McDonalds of abortion” and declared it to be the “#1 baby killing franchise”), it is most likely that Warren aims to pursue a similar anti-SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) agenda in Rwanda, and his close ties to political and religious leadership in the country will assuredly pave the way for increased attacks on women and reproductive freedom.

The connections between religious fundamentalism and international aid were further strengthened when the Rwanda PEACE Plan experienced a leadership transition in April of this year, appointing Apostle Dr. Paul Gitwaza as its new director. Gitwaza—who condemns abortion and describes homosexuality as an abomination—is a member of the International Coalition of Apostles, now known as the International Coalition of Apostolic Leaders and the primary organizational structure of C. Peter Wagner’s New Apostolic Reformation.

Wagner, who also served as Rick Warren’s dissertation advisor and mentor at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes in his book Dominion! that the PEACE Plan fits into “the 7-M mandate”―the idea that Christians need to take charge of a country by “capturing” the seven “mountains” that represent cultural aspects of society: business, government, family, religion, media, education, and entertainment. This suggests that rather than actually being interested in the empowerment and self-determination of Rwandan people, Warren’s primary interest is controlling the destiny and rights of others.

Warren often explains this multi-pronged approach to development (bringing together business, government, and church) with his “three-legged stool” metaphor. He says that public-private sector partnerships are equivalent to a two-legged stool, which will fall over without a third leg—that of the church. According to Warren, the church is the critical missing link affecting a country’s development.

Unfortunately, Warren’s stool—presented as an instrument of benevolent humanitarianism—is actually more like a soap box for his white savior neocolonial agenda. And as a relatively small country (Rwanda is approximately the size of Maryland) with a population of just over 12 million people (94% of whom are Christian), Rwanda is the perfect test site for this Wagner-inspired, Warren-driven quest for global dominionism.

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[1] Dominionism: The theocratic idea heterosexual Christian men are called by God to exercise dominion over secular society by taking control of political and cultural institutions. This competes in Christianity with the idea of stewardship, which suggests custodial care rather than absolute power.

[2] Warren’s PEACE Plan has since grown, expanding to targeted “Gateway Cities” around the world in order to “live out the Great Commandment and Commission in 12 key cities and all unreached people groups by 2020.”