When the Right Is Right

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

December 23, 2004

One of the most conservative, religious, fascinating - and, in many ways, admirable - politicians in America today is Sam Brownback, the senator from Kansas who is a leader of the Christian right.

Sure, Mr. Brownback is to the right of Attila the Hun, and I disagree with him on just about every major issue. But 'tis the season for brotherly love, so let me point to reasons for hope. Members of the Christian right, exemplified by Mr. Brownback, are the new internationalists, increasingly engaged in humanitarian causes abroad - thus creating opportunities for common ground between left and right on issues we all care about.

So Democrats should clamber down from the window ledges, roll up their sleeves and get to work on some of these issues. Because I'm embarrassed to say that Democrats have been so suspicious of Republicans that they haven't contributed much on those human rights issues where the Christian right has already staked out its ground.

Take sex trafficking. Paul Wellstone, the liberal from Minnesota, led an effort with Mr. Brownback and others to pass landmark legislation in 2000 to battle sex slavery around the world. But since Mr. Wellstone's death in 2002, the leadership on the issue has passed to the Christian right and to the Bush administration.

Or Darfur. Conservative Christians have been jumping up and down about Sudan for years because of its repression of Christians. So when Sudan's government launched its genocide in the Darfur region, Democrats were slow to speak out, perhaps perceiving it as a conservative issue.

Then there's North Korea. Democrats have properly lambasted Mr. Bush for his disastrous approach toward North Korea, which has reacted to his policy by turning into a nuclear arms assembly line. But it has been Mr. Brownback and other conservative Christians who have turned the heat on North Korea's human rights record and laid the groundwork for more radio broadcasts to undermine the regime there.

So, all in all, I find Mr. Brownback perhaps the most intriguing man in Washington - so wrong on so much, and yet such a leader on humanitarian issues. He is also working with liberals like Ted Kennedy to press for immigration reform, prison reform, increased funds for AIDS and malaria, construction of an African-American history museum and even an apology to American Indians.

The other day, Mr. Brownback told me enthusiastically about his trip to northern Uganda and urged me to write about brutalities there. I was disoriented - I thought I was the one who tried to get people to pay attention to remote places.

So why is a conservative Kansas senator traveling to the wilds of Uganda?

"I had a health issue a few years back, and it really made my faith real," he said, referring to a bout with cancer. "It made me think, the things that the Lord would want done, let's do. His heart is with the downtrodden, so let's help them."

Yet a larger shift is also under way. Liberals traditionally were the bleeding hearts, while conservatives regarded foreign aid, in the words of Jesse Helms, as "money down a rat hole." That's changing. "One cannot understand international relations today without comprehending the new faith-based movement," Allen Hertzke writes in "Freeing God's Children," a book about evangelicals leaping into human rights causes.

Sure enough, looking at the most important national issues - Iraq, terrorism, budget deficits - I can see why liberals feel suicidal. Moreover, the Christian right's ventures abroad strike me as deeply misguided in some areas: "pro-life" policies lead to women dying in botched abortions, and squeamishness about condoms leads to teenagers dying of AIDS. The conservatives' cutoff of money for the U.N. Population Fund has meant less contraception, more abortions and more mothers dying in childbirth.

But the biggest obstacle to American engagement on international issues has been a lack of constituency for them, and that may be changing - if both sides can hold their noses and cooperate. Frankly, Democrats aren't going to accomplish much on their own over the next four years, but by working with the likes of Mr. Brownback they might register real progress on sex trafficking, an African-American history museum, malaria and immigration reform. That would be a much better use of the next four years than sulking.