Most American evangelicals view democracy much like Yankees fans view their beloved Bronx Bombers: as a human institution that has its flaws, but one that God clearly prefers to the alternatives and has destined for world domination. No less an authority than Billy Graham called free elections a "blessing from God."
Yet the Arab Spring has caught them up short. The editors at the evangelical magazine Christianity Today are biting their nails over what will happen if the Syrians topple Assad; to the Baptist Press News, things don't look so rosy in newly liberated Egypt. In World, a Christian magazine, Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky warned that the region may be headed not for a new era of freedom, but smack into "a different tyranny."
Given many evangelicals' commitment to baptizing the Founding Fathers and praising the cross as a "statue of liberty," it may seem strange that they have greeted the pro-democracy movements agitating the Middle East and North Africa with distinct ambivalence. But if it's surprising, that's only because so many observers of American politics are out of touch with the evangelical worldview, particularly evangelicals' understanding of themselves as embattled outsiders who have much to lose when democracy doesn't go their way.
Whenever evangelicals show heightened interest in the Middle East, pundits tend to suspect two motives: evangelicals' supposedly blind loyalty to Israel, and their view of the region's population as pawns in God's great apocalyptic endgame. But grasping for reasons that free elections might delay Armageddon brings us no closer to understanding evangelicals' true concerns. Their uncertainty over whose side to take in the Arab Spring has little to do with whether Hosni Mubarak should count as one of the heads of the scarlet beast in the Book of Revelation, and a lot to do with the hardships facing their fellow Christians -- as well as that malleable ideal and political tool, religious freedom.
Evangelicals spend far more time worrying over the persecution of Christians here and now than they do parsing the Bible's predictions about the end of the world. And it's no secret that the Arab Spring revolutions have not done any favors for the roughly 25 million embattled Christians in the region (a precise head count is hard to come by). In the wake of Mubarak's fall, hard-line Islamists in Egypt rioted against Christians and vandalized churches. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has hardly been a poster child for religious freedom, but approximately 2.3 million Christians there view him as a protector whose wobbling regime is the only thing standing between them and hordes of Salafists who aren't so interested in keeping up the appearance of a modern, secular state. And a half-million of those Christians are Iraqi refugees who fled the bloody fight between contending Muslim factions in their homeland and have no desire to relive that experience. "Pray for the believers in Syria ...[who] are there trying to bring Jesus into this very dangerous and chaotic place," one missionary told Mission Network News, an evangelical missionary news service.
Evangelicals are hardly the only ones worried about the fate of religious freedom -- or freedom in general, for that matter -- in the Middle East and North Africa. But they devote a remarkable amount of energy to aiding the region's Christians, giving funds, supplies, and Bibles through a web of organizations like Christian Freedom International, the Voice of the Martyrs, Persecuted Christians Care Fund, and others (though the Catholics do give them a run for their money.)
The diffuse nature of evangelical charitable giving makes fundraising figures elusive, but anyone who spends a little time reading, talking, or worshipping with evangelicals can't miss the fact that they have a zeal for honoring martyrs and connecting with persecuted Christians abroad. They love a good sermon on the afflictions of the righteous. Their churches sponsor persecuted congregations abroad and screen movies with titles like Tortured for Christ. To give the youngsters a more vivid taste of virtual martyrdom, one organization offers an activity kit called "Locked Up," "a 12-hour simulation of a prison-like setting" to challenge youth groups "to live their role in God's great story of the Church around the world."