In the isolated Swedish island village of Borgholm, on a summer day in 2003, the Rev. Ake Green stepped to the front of his Pentecostal congregation. On this desolate isle, cut off from the mainland and dotted with ruins of a towering stone fortress, Green's church normally attracted few followers; at this service he addressed fewer than 100 people. The conservative preacher, a taciturn figure with a crown of white hair on his balding dome, and a stern, lined face, delivered a searing message. "Sexually twisted people will rape animals," Green thundered. "Sexual abnormalities," including homosexuality, he said, citing Leviticus, are "a deep cancerous tumor in the entire society."
Green's fiery sermon attracted attention throughout Sweden, which has laws against hate speech and maintains some of Europe's most liberal statutes on gay rights. Mainstream Swedish Christian leaders roundly condemned Green. Soon he was sentenced under Sweden's hate-speech laws to a month in jail.
Quickly, a network of American Christian conservative groups, many of which already had connections in Sweden, swung into action to fight his sentence, transforming a small-town preacher into a cause célèbre. Samuel Ericsson, founder of Advocates International, a Virginia-based organization that trains Christian lawyers worldwide and has some 30,000 lawyers in its network, heard about Green's case and connected Advocates-trained lawyers with Green's counsel. They were joined by other American Christian groups, like the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian legal organization with teams of lawyers and more than $25 million in revenue.
Bringing their muscle and financial resources, these lawyers helped Green develop a sophisticated defense, portraying the preacher as a victim of persecution. They attended his trial, filed their own legal briefs, lobbied Swedish diplomats around the world, and brought the case to the attention of the European Court of Human Rights. "Advocates International considers the prosecution … of Pentecostal Pastor Ake Green to be one of the greatest threats to the freedom of religious expression of any current case in the world," noted an Advocates brief.
Advocates International also launched a broad public relations offensive that targeted sympathetic press and Swedish parliamentarians. Its primary message: Sweden would never be able to set a moral example for the world if it punished a pastor, even one who ran afoul of hate-speech laws. Sympathetic articles by lawyers from the U.S., Canada, Portugal, and Bulgaria appeared in the Swedish press.
Green's defenders won the day -- Sweden's Supreme Court ultimately tossed out his case, causing jubilation among major American conservative organizations. "I have no doubt that the man in the street, public opinion in Sweden, had an impact -- and I think we impacted public opinion in Sweden," Ericsson remembers triumphantly. "It was a case study of how we work."
For many progressive activists in Sweden, the engagement of America's powerful Christian right came as a surprise. But it shouldn't have. Over the past 10 years, American Christian conservatives, once focused on the U.S., have begun to take the culture wars global, developing networks of like-minded activists worldwide, delving into legal battles overseas, and taking with them the scorched-earth tactics that have worked so well in the United States. As the Christian right has expanded its base in America, it has secured more resources with which to venture abroad. And as evangelical Christianity and other conservative religious movements gain force in Europe, the American right is finding more allies on the Continent. Cumulatively, their victories may be changing the global climate on some of the biggest social issues of our time.
After years of isolation from the world, America's Christian right began, roughly a decade ago, to engage internationally. It started with the United Nations, which Christian conservatives feared would establish progressive international norms on reproductive rights, gay rights, cloning, and other issues.
With their highly organized, confrontational style, these groups took the genteel U.N. by surprise. One group, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, created in 1997, began releasing "Friday faxes," which it sent to some 50,000 subscribers summarizing the right's concerns about the U.N. and helping to create message discipline. Other groups trained young activists to canvas U.N. delegates at conferences, conduct media outreach, and pack hearing rooms. (A study by Religion Counts, a group of religious scholars, found that at one U.N. meeting, conservative groups tried to get some 350 individuals accredited.) "Europeans and Canadians really had a hard time understanding how the Christian right works -- their effective advocacy, training of young people, their language of values, how they out-message other guys," says Jennifer Butler, author of Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized.
The right also toned down attacks in favor of a soothing message. This message did not denigrate feminism but instead emphasized family values and suggested that the West did not understand developing nations' commitment to the family. This message allowed the Christian right to build close links to Catholic Latin American states like Costa Rica, to the bloc of Islamic countries, and to the Vatican.
And they've had considerable success. In 1994, longtime U.N.–watcher Barbara Crossette notes in a report for the Hewlett Foundation, participants in the U.N. conference on population and development agreed that global development relied on the expansion of women's rights, including liberalizing access to reproductive health services and removing government barriers to contraception. Yet six years later, the U.N.'s new Millennium Development Goals did not reflect all of those same rights the international body had promoted. This was not an accident. Several U.N. insiders told the Prospect that Christian-right organizations had pulled together a bloc of states to prevent the progressive ideas of the 1990s from ever being institutionalized. In fact, one observer said that many progressives at the U.N. now fear holding a new round of global conferences on women's rights because they are convinced conservatives could scuttle any progressive agenda.
What started at the U.N. has now expanded. Many of the issues are the same, but the battle has swung to Europe and Canada. "Christian groups now see Europe as the crossroads, the main venue for conflict, replacing the U.N.," says Allan Carlson, founder of the World Congress of Families, a network of conservatives.
This May, many of the same groups that fought the U.N. wars gathered again. This time, more than 1,000 conservative advocates huddled in Warsaw for three days in the towering Palace of Culture and Science, a Polish Stalinist dream of a building. Inside, at the World Congress of Families, representatives of powerful American groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council created strategies with activists from around the world.
The World Congress of Families, which started in 1997, has met four times in the past decade. The congress was designed, in its own words, in response to the "militantly anti-family ethos prevalent in the ‘post modern' West." This year, the body decided to focus on Europe because, the organizers claimed, "Europe is almost lost to a demographic winter and to secularists." "We see a battle brewing in the EU over the future of family policy," says Carlson. Rather than just hearing speeches, the congress taught attendees how to fight. For three days, participants met in breakout sessions teaching them how to influence political debate on the ground, like advocating for "pro-family" tax policies and learning how to interpret laws to favor home schooling in Europe.
As in the U.S. and at the U.N., the World Congress may prove effective thanks to a growing and impressive global network of like-minded activists in Europe. Several Christian conservative groups have started training sessions on the Continent, teaching young generations of European lawmakers, lawyers, and activists how to pursue American-style messaging, youth training, and advocacy.
The International Human Rights Group, a Christian conservative organization, runs many seminars for European lawyers. Its president, Joel Thornton, says these seminars help European activists, historically reticent on religion, "learn how to bring their faith into politics." They also focus on winning key cultural debates, from abortion to home schooling. The European Center for Law and Justice and Regent University, the American college established by Pat Robertson, also run training programs in Strasbourg, France, for lawyers around the globe.
In Canada, another historically secular nation, American Christian groups assist lawyers and activists, with James Dobson's powerful Focus on the Family operating a Canadian affiliate that fights in Canadian courts. Advocates International, founder Ericsson says, will have some 1,500 lawyers from around the world at their next major meeting. "In 1991, there were only two countries I know of, the U.S. and Canada, that had Christian lawyer groups active in the public square," he says. "Today, we have almost 100 countries with active [Christian] lawyer groups engaged in the public square." Many of those groups received Advocates training.
Meanwhile, the National Right to Life Committee, one of America's most prominent anti-abortion groups, says it has helped support 200 chapters of an anti-abortion movement in Sweden. The group also has built ties to the Parliamentary Forum for Family and Human Values, a Swedish inter-parliament working group that tries to bring Christian values into government. The Forum has brought in American conservatives to help hone Swedish MPs' messaging.
In all of these advocacy efforts, there's a consistent through-line, one that echoes American advocacy: that conservatives stand up for little people against an oppressive, aggressively secular majority, and that average Europeans are the victims of the Continent's embrace of diversity. That message jibes with other warnings over the last decade, especially those from European religious leaders and the Pope, that the Continent is losing its faith. The strategy also can appeal to recent immigrants, who have less experience with Europe's secular traditions. In Sweden, says Soren Juvas of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights, a group that fought the right on the Green case, immigrants have become much more vocal on issues like gay rights, and Swedish conservative parties now make a broader play for their support. The immigrants have clout: Foreign-born residents or people with one foreign-born parent now comprise roughly one-fifth of Sweden, for example, making them a powerful political force.
The appeal, of course, is nuanced for a European audience. "The right sees that you can't be so blunt in Europe -- what works is messages appealing to Europeans' fears that family is breaking down, that Europe is losing its way on cultural issues," says Juvas. "Rather than just demonizing gays, they emphasize children's needs for both a father and a mother, a softer type of approach." Juvas laughs wryly. "Before, they'd say they are just totally opposed to gays and lesbians, and now they'd say they are not against, but they are for preserving better family life."
There are several reasons why the Christian right is now turning to Europe. First of all, it can: Compared with three decades ago, American Christian conservative groups now have the finances to wage global battle. Focus on the Family, for one, now has some $140 million in global revenues. More importantly, Carlson of the World Congress of Families says, the European Union embodies a strong voice for secularism on cultural and sex issues, and so represents an important target. The EU and, to a lesser extent, Canada, also have major global presences and aid programs, so they can spread their message and values, and form alliances with American liberal organizations. "The American Civil Liberties Union and its allies had been active in Europe for a generation … we were very much playing catch-up there," says Benjamin Bull, chief counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund.
Meanwhile, over the past five years courts in America have started to factor European judges' decisions into their thinking. In the landmark 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law using decisions by the European Court of Human Rights to support its ruling. Several months later, Massachusetts' highest court allowed gay marriage, again citing foreign courts' rulings in making its decision.
"The idea [in setting up in Europe] was to establish a critical body of jurisprudence that would have an impact there and also at home [in America]," says Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ), an offshoot of the American Center for Law and Justice, where he is also chief counsel. ACLJ is a powerful conservative organization with more than $50 million in assets. Sekulow was one of four conservative legal experts, dubbed the "four horsemen," who met regularly to advise President Bush on legal decisions, including Supreme Court picks.
At the same time, the decline of Europe's traditional state churches has given rise to a new wave of European evangelical churches and European Muslim organizations, both of which draw upon recent immigrants, according to Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies and history at Pennsylvania State University, in his new book God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis. Evangelical churches are growing in historically secular France, and new ones are springing up from Sweden to Germany. And leaders of Eastern Bloc states, which are generally more religious than the rest of Europe, tend to be more open than other European leaders to the Christian Right.
"We have a conservative period now in history -- a substantial movement to the right around the world," says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum in New York and a prominent thinker on the globalization of the Christian right. Paul argues that democratic/socialist governments around the world, particularly in Europe, are failing to deliver on their promises of growth and social welfare. "The Christian conservatives know this, they're in the ascendancy, and they want to consolidate their power while they have a chance in Europe and the U.N."
On a continent where even mainstream leaders worry about Europe's demographic decline and lack of coherent values, the Christian right's message can resonate. And one of the issues they are trumpeting is home schooling. In Germany, Thornton's International Human Rights Group, Sekulow's European Center for Law and Justice, and other allies have taken up more than a dozen court cases dealing with home schooling. Home schooling is technically illegal in Germany, and they are pushing for parents' right to pull their kids out of state schools. Largely, their message highlights how a secular German government has victimized these parents.
Much of this effort, Thornton explains, follows American Christians' model of working at local and state levels; as they win over individual politicians and judges, he says, they expect to be able to bring home-schooling demands to national prominence in Germany. Earlier this year, in one of the most prominent cases in Germany, Thornton and his local allies fought for a girl named Melissa Busekros to be released from a psychiatric hospital, where she'd been confined by the state because, the state said, being home-schooled had delayed her development and caused emotional disturbances. Home-schooling activists claimed that in fact the government simply was targeting home schooling, and called the girl a "hostage" of the government. Advocates got her story into the German media, major Christian newswires around the world, blogs, and television programs like Pat Robertson's 700 Club, which encouraged viewers to lobby the German authorities. Christian groups from around the world also lobbied the German authorities on her behalf and even organized a boycott of German goods until she was released from the hospital.
According to The Christian Science Monitor, Thornton's group and an affiliate it set up in Europe helped get the German state of Bavaria to allow disciples of Twelve Tribes, a controversial American evangelical group called a cult by some of its ex-members, to set up its own school, which would teach theories -- like creationism -- not sanctioned by the government. Meanwhile, Carlson says American and Czech participants in the World Congress of Families united to help win the battle on home schooling in the Czech Republic, where some lawmakers had wanted to pass legislation severely restricting home education. The groups "visited with members of parliament, brought stats on why this is good for children," he says. "That helped lead to a Czech law allowing home schooling."
American groups have fought other legal battles on the Continent, again highlighting the status of conservatives and Christians as besieged minorities. ECLJ and other groups have helped battle French statutes that might limit evangelicals' missionary activity. "In Europe, you have a fear of the evangelical community, like with the sect law in France" that limits missionary work, says Thornton.
On gay marriage, too, the Christian right is pushing back against what seemed like a Continental trend toward more progressive legislation. As Sweden gears up for a fight over whether to allow gay couples even more rights, Juvas says, conservatives are using their outreach to immigrants to block full marriage privileges.
In Poland, a country where America's Christian right has established deep ties to local churches and political leaders, the government has refused to accept the part of Europe's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which outlaws discrimination against gays and lesbians. Poland's deputy education minister even recently called for a law punishing teachers for promoting "homosexual propaganda" and vowed to fire openly gay educators. European politicians have criticized these efforts, and the Christian right has used its message machine to strike back. At the World Congress of Families, Christian organizations provided a platform for Polish politicians including Minister of Education Roman Giertych, who vowed not to give in to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Christian groups also launched "Homosexual Hands off Poland," a petition to the European Parliament vowing to fight "a blatant attempt to bully the people of Poland." So far, it's worked: Backed by their global allies, the Polish government has refused to give ground to the EU.
Of course, what happens in Europe doesn't stay in Europe. In recent years, Europe has become the world standard on many social issues, dominating the international debate on euthanasia, gay marriage, and many other contentious issues. Quickly, European decisions on these issues come to define Western standards. "In 2001, the Netherlands was debating same-sex marriage, and we were laughing at it," says Thornton of the International Human Rights Group. "Six years later [gay marriage] is one of the biggest fights in America. Gay-rights advocates couldn't get traction in America … and their movement got traction in Europe and the issue rebounded back in America."
During the Bush administration, this effort has had a serious impact. "By taking on the U.N., the [Christian] right stopped the U.N. from pushing for these progressive issues, and now under the Bush administration the U.N. and the U.S. don't take a stand on any of these," says Born Again author Jennifer Butler. "If they can get the EU countries even to be less aggressive, there will basically be no one standing up on this."
It's all a long way from 10 years ago, when Thornton remembers finding almost no one in Europe who understood how to win the culture wars. Now, the Christian right has done well enough in the Old World that it is looking for new, even less hospitable lands. "The next logical place for us is the Middle East, and we'll also be able to have an impact," says Sekulow of the European Center for Law and Justice. "We will succeed there, too."