From Midland with love

Posted: May 06, 2004 12:00 AM

  The Sudan has been wracked by another wave of government-directed violence, threatening what had been a fragile peace during the past six months. Whether peace negotiations can be salvaged and what posture to adopt toward the offending government in Khartoum are crucial questions. And it's hard to answer them without asking first: What does Midland think?

    Midland, Texas? The West Texas oil-patch town that is, if not quite in the middle of nowhere, pretty darn close? Midland, former home of President George W. Bush, has been intimately involved in developments in the Sudan. The city of less than 100,000 is a leader in a Christian human-rights activism that is influencing U.S. foreign policy and belying the stereotype of Christian conservatives. Often associated solely with opposition to gays and abortion, such Christians have lately turned their energy to promoting human dignity in places where it is honored only in the breach.

    The old hippy saw "Think globally, act locally" has been transformed by Christian communities like Midland to "Act globally, act locally." The town hosted the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church in 2001 and was moved by stories of the horrific war in Sudan by the Muslim north against the Christian and animist south. With cachet as "the village of George Bush" (as the Sudanese ambassador to the United States has put it), Midland helped push the Sudan Peace Act through Congress in 2002 and has been central to negotiations, according to a recent article on Midland in The American Spectator magazine.

    A tenuous peace has been forged between the north and south, in what would be hailed as a significant diplomatic achievement for Bush if the press weren't interested only in reporting his supposed diplomatic failures. But new Muslim-on-Muslim violence in the western region of Darfur could throw the entire country back into civil war. Deborah Fikes, spokeswoman for the Midland Ministerial Alliance, says she hopes negotiations can be salvaged and the decent forces in the Khartoum government encouraged, so all the recent progress isn't reversed.

    Midland has a lot at stake in Sudan, where it supports churches, schools and other projects in an effort it hopes will eventually create a model for all of Africa. The zeal to help in Sudan has spread throughout Midland, across all denominations, Baptist, Catholic, whatever. And Midland has begun to undertake similar work in North Korea and China. "It is the most awesome community I've ever experienced," enthuses the Hudson Institute's Michael Horowitz, a central player in human-rights policy in Washington.

    This is really an old story. In his book "Special Providence," Walter Russell Mead writes that U.S. missionaries have influenced U.S. foreign policy since the early 19th century, especially its idealistic Wilsonian tradition. "In the missionary movement," writes Mead, "there has been a concerted, two-centuries-old attempt by an important segment of the American people to transform the world."

    Wilsonianism has traditionally been associated with mainline Protestantism, but the initiative is shifting to evangelicals, who are not --- as elite opinion might have it --- solely represented by televangelists railing against the latest liberal outrage. "If you read about the life of Christ and decide 'I want to live a life of servanthood,' you don't have much time for the negative stuff," says Fikes. This makes for a better, more loving and tolerant Christian image to project to the rest of the world. "It grieves me," Fikes says of some of the inflammatory comments about Islam made by Christian leaders in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

    The new Christian activism is reflected in the idealistic rhetoric that has become a staple of Bush's foreign policy. The danger is that some of the well-intentioned naivet?f liberalism's attitude toward the world has been transferred to the Right. But conservatism's traditional interest-based hardheadedness probably needs a little leavening with something higher and softer. "Love can do a lot," says Fikes. Midland has set out to prove it.