It's hard to keep personalities out of a global debate when the names are printed in bold on letters being passed around on Capitol Hill.
In this case, the key names are some of the best known in modern Christianity -- evangelist Billy Graham, along with his son, Ned, and Focus on the Family leader James Dobson, along with his colleague Gary Bauer. The question: What should the United States try to do about religious persecution, especially in China?
Leaders on both sides insist they are doing what is best for Chinese believers. Also, there has been an obvious clash of styles. There are the Grahams, with their quiet, diplomatic willingness to work within any political system. Then there is Dobson, whose growing organization has increasingly welcomed clashes with the powers that be, especially on social issues such as China's laws on family planning and forced abortions.
The conflict surfaced before the June vote that renewed China's most-favored-nation trading status. Now, Dobson's September newsletter says he will press on, focusing on the next MFN vote and on events supporting the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997. A crucial date is Nov. 16, which an ecumenical coalition has designated as an International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
The sharpest criticism he has received, wrote Dobson, has come from "the president of a well-known ministry outreach to China" who accused him of being more interested in bashing Beijing and raising money than in getting his facts straight and helping the Chinese church.
"It is puzzling why anyone who purports to be an authority on China would deny the brutality that is occurring there," wrote Dobson. "The statements I made about Chinese persecution are irrefutable, and if anything, were understated to avoid depressing my readers. No less an authority than the U.S. State Department ... has since issued a 'devastating' report that criticizes the Beijing government for its religious persecution. ...
"Why, indeed, would the leader of a Christian missionary outreach to China be angry at those of us who have called attention to the plight of our brothers and sisters in that country? I have no idea."
That missionary was Ned Graham, president of East Gates Ministries, International. Another symbolic detail: Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, was born into a missionary family in China. In his most recent statement, Ned Graham openly questioned the motives of those -- on both the left and right -- seeking sanctions against nations such as China.
"Is the motive behind a coalition such as this the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ?", he wrote. "Perhaps not. Could the possible motives be: (1) the political advancement of an individual or organization, (2) the overthrow of a sovereign government, (3) the financial gain for those who raise money from others' suffering, (4) a protectionist move by U.S. unions, or (5) the manipulation of evangelicals for the national security of another country? Who knows?"
The younger Graham doesn't deny that problems continue in China. But he insists that reports of arrests, torture and murder have been exaggerated. China is a maze of contradictions and conflicting reports. Christians are jailed in some places, yet hold tent revivals in others. He argues that diplomacy is yielding results, while political threats only hurt the church. These statements echo decades of similar words by his father.
Dobson and others openly fighting religious persecution say it is na? to trust positive reports from Chinese churches sponsored and controlled by the Communist government. Meanwhile, the anti-persecution coalition uses as its model earlier international efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews and South African blacks. Above all, its leaders say it is time to take a stand.
In their own way, the Grahams are doing just that.
"It is not my intention to become involved in the political aspects of this issue," wrote Billy Graham, in a letter pro-China legislators distributed during the MFN debates. "However, I am in favor of doing all we can to strengthen our relationship with China and its people. ... Furthermore, in my experience, nations respond to friendship just as much as people do."