Democracy Lab

The Miracle of Midland

How a West Texas oil town became an unlikely champion of human rights.

If you've been following the story of Bob Fu, the Chinese human rights activist and evangelical who describes his mission in a piece for FP this week, you might have noticed an odd geographical detail. It turns out that Fu runs his campaign for religious freedom in the People's Republic of China out of the town where he and his family have been living for the past eight years. That would be Midland, Texas, population 100,000.

Wait. Where was that again? The state of Texas boasts several big, cosmopolitan cities -- Houston, Dallas, San Antonio -- but take a look at the map and you'll see that Midland is a long way from all of them. How would a Chinese democracy campaigner end up in a place that far from anything?

Actually, though, the name of Midland is rather more familiar in international human rights circles than you might expect. Bob Fu's sudden notoriety is just the latest twist in a tale that vividly illustrates how even the most unlikely places can leverage globalization to become big players in issues of international import.

I know Midland well. I grew up there, and have many fond memories of the place. Still, I couldn't help feeling bemused when, a few years back, my reporting on underground churches in North Korea led me straight back to my own hometown. It turned out that evangelical Christians there had joined forces with Korean-American churches to lobby the U.S. government to lobby for legislation promoting religious freedom in the North. At one point, Midland's popular Christian rock concert, "Rock the Desert," even included a "North Korea Genocide Exhibit."

This all came as a bit of a surprise. When I was a kid in Midland, North Korea was not a subject that would have drawn the attention of many people there. The town is located smack dab in the middle of the vast emptiness of West Texas, which consists of hundreds of miles of arid prairie sitting atop some of the richest petroleum reserves in the United States. After World War II, Midland gradually evolved into the business headquarters of the oil-producing region that surrounded it, becoming home to oil entrepreneurs, corporate executives, geologists, and lawyers. It's an unabashedly white-collar community that has long boasted a disproportionate number of PhDs and self-made millionaires. Thanks to the petroleum business -- a thoroughly globalized industry long before the concept of globalization became fashionable -- Midlanders have a habit of turning up in unexpected places around the world. If a place has oil, someone in Midland has been there.

The town has also long been a place with a solidly conservative ethos, and Midlanders were voting overwhelmingly Republican even back when this was by no means a given. (Yes, hard to imagine, but there was once a time when Texas had a thriving Democratic Party.)

Among the people who gravitated there in the years after the war was George Herbert Walker Bush, the scion of a patrician New England family who wanted to show that he could make his own way in the unruly West. The Bush clan presence in the town continued right up until George W. Bush and his wife Laura (like her husband, a native Midlander) departed for the White House in 2001. At least two prominent Bush-era policymakers, General Tommy Franks and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, also hailed from the town.

Perhaps because the first President Bush didn't have a particularly powerful following among conservative Christians, Midland activism didn't really flower under his administration. It wasn't until George Jr. took office in 2002 that a new spirit of political engagement began to make itself felt in the town -- perhaps because its evangelicals suddenly realized that the new president, a self-avowed born-again Christian, offered them a perfect opportunity to move their own concerns about human rights to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. By the fall of 2002, Midland evangelicals already lobbying for a tougher policy toward Sudan joined a coalition of groups lobbying Congress to sanction Khartoum for its abuses during the civil war, an effort that culminated in the Sudan Peace Act. In 2003, the Midland Ministerial Alliance, a group of local churches, even sent an open letter to the government in Khartoum demanding that it clean up its act. This was clout.

Michael Horowitz, a human rights activist based at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, says that he first began to make common cause with Midlanders when he became involved in the case of Getaneh Getaneh, an Ethiopian evangelical tortured by the government for his beliefs who claimed asylum in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Horowitz says that Getaneh's tales of religious persecution back home prompted him to organize a full-blown campaign for legislation to promote religious freedom overseas, culminating in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. Horowitz was particularly struck by the way that the Getaneh case resonated among Midlanders: "These people opened up their hearts, their wallets, their homes." Ultimately, indeed, a group of them brought Getaneh and his family to the town and settled them there. Like Fu (who was invited to Midland eight years ago by representatives of a local church), Getaneh has made the town his base ever since.

To be sure, the Midland activists are particularly keen on helping those who share their religious beliefs. But Horowitz soon discovered that his allies there were perfectly happy to join his strategy of building issue-specific coalitions that often crossed traditional political lines. The Midlanders for example, joined a broad alliance of groups -- including feminists and leftists -- that cooperated to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act just before Bush became president. Preventing human trafficking isn't necessarily a cause that one might see as high on the evangelical task list. But the Midlanders set to with a will.

As always in politics, certain key individuals figured prominently in Midland's high political profile as the Bush Administration wore on. Horowitz singles out Deborah Fikes, a passionate organizer who played a big role in coordinating efforts to ratchet up U.S. government pressure on North Korea for its persecution of Christians. (Fikes went on to get a degree in international relations at Oxford and now lives in Dallas.) But the town still has more than its share of church leaders intent on maintaining support for their pet causes -- just witness their continued support for Fu.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Midlanders can keep up the momentum now that their local boy has left the White House. The town's activists still have a lot going for them. The past decade has given them unparalleled experience in lobbying and advocacy. The local economy is booming. Church attendance has never slackened. Midland has punched above its weight before, and there's no reason it can't do so again. In the meantime, other communities would be well-advised to learn from its example.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

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