Dateline Texas

Outside the Box


No one in the Bush administration seems to want to talk about how U.S. foreign policy has put us in the crosshairs of terrorism. Yet, at least one dissenting note has been sounded by an unlikely source: Bush spiritual advisor James Robison, the Euless televangelist who speaks and prays with the President on a regular basis. In a September 15 New York Times story, Robison outlines an argument worthy of Noam Chomsky. “Arrogance in relationships with Third World and foreign countries, plundering other countries for resources while supporting their despots, and indifference to others’ poverty and pain,” has brought us to this juncture, the Times paraphrased Robison as saying.

Reached at his ministry in Euless, Robison did not disavow his remarks. His views stand in marked contrast to those of other evangelical Christians, a difference he’s not interested in playing up. “Right now we don’t need to be pitting people against each other,” he says. Yet it’s undeniable that the cause of evangelical Christianity took a hit on September 13, when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson claimed on Falwell’s popular television program that secular, liberal, and homosexual America had angered God so much that He had “lift[ed] His protection from us.” These comments eventually drew a rebuke from President Bush, and Falwell later apologized, claiming he was quoted out of context.

A reading of the full text of Falwell’s comments shows that, in or out of context, the exchange was disturbingly Talibanesque. Yet painting all of evangelical Christianity with that label may be using too broad a brush. Robison’s take demonstrated a much more sophisticated sense of what goes on outside of America’s borders. It’s an unlikely view for an evangelical Christian, according to Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want. Smith points out that most evangelicals focus on individual sins and have little concept of what Smith calls “systemic sins.” At the same time, they’re inclined to help the poor, both at home and abroad. “Lo and behold, some of them end up out in the world,” Smith says. There, they see things that change their minds. For example, much opposition to Ronald Reagan’s support for the contras, Smith points out, came from people of faith who’d worked in Central America and had seen human rights abuses on the ground. Conservative Christians have built coalitions with left-progressive forces before, amalgamating theological and secular, even Marxist, critiques.

James Robison seems to have had a similar experience. He began preaching in 1962, at the age of 18. As he’ll tell you himself, his mother was a rape victim who gave him up for adoption, then retrieved him five years later. The two of them lived behind an East Austin dump. In 1968 he launched a TV ministry, the James Robison Evangelistic Association, which in 1992 became LIFE Outreach International (LOI), a mission aid organization that works in 20 countries, including Mozambique, Rwanda, and the Sudan.

Most Christian missionary groups save souls, not bodies. With LOI Robison promotes the social gospel–feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, clothing the naked. What various Christian groups have dismissed as irrelevant, Robison sees as crucial for evangelical ends. “Jesus made it pretty clear that if you do one, you do the other,” Robison says.

Doing this work has apparently made Robison more sensitive to the systemic sins committed by his own country. Robison, who has travelled to 40 countries, can reel off any number of global hotspots, though he was reluctant to name specific places hurt by U.S. policies. Overall, he says, “We’re going to have to look at diplomatic relations, not just at economic gain. In some instances, it looks like we have sacrificed human rights for economic gain.” Also, his work has inspired–and forced–him into ecumenicism. Once he visited a Muslim-run feeding site on the Somali-Kenya border, where refugees were, as Robison puts it, “compelled, not with force or cruelty, to recite Islamic verses.” What did he do? “I thanked them for saving the children’s lives.”

Robison says he’ll recommend to Bush that the U.S. forgive Third World debt. One of the best weapons against terrorism, he believes, is foreign aid. LOI is currently working on a school feeding program, in which one million African children will be fed and educated. In Bush terms, it might be called a faith-based foreign policy. But Robison isn’t just converting people to Christianity; he’s converting them to America. “We have to let people see the goodness of America,” Robison says. “We need to demonstrate the compassionate character of this country.”

Michael Erard is a writer living in Austin.