NEW YORK -- Early in his career in Congress, Democrat Tony Hall of Ohio had his politics worked out, but he wasn't sure how to combine them with the convictions of his Christian faith.
Then he took an official research trip to Ethiopia during the great famines of the early 1980s and these two powerful forces in his life came crashing together.
"I saw 25 children die one morning. As I walked among these people, mothers were handing me their dead children, thinking that I was a doctor and that I could actually fix them, take care of them. I was stunned," said Hall.
"I came home from that experience -- seeing death. I had seen so many people die. I thought, this is a way that I can bring God into my work place and not have to preach."
About that time, Hall formed a friendship -- one rooted in decades of weekly "prayer partner" meetings -- with another member of Congress who was equally committed to defending human rights. Together, Hall and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia excelled as a bipartisan team focusing on poverty, hunger and religious freedom.
They're still working together, even though Wolf left the House of Representatives in 2014. He currently holds the Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. Hall left Congress in 2002, when President George W. Bush asked him to serve for several years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on food and agriculture issues. Ambassador Hall has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
Both men agreed that it would be harder for this kind of bipartisan, faith-centered friendship to flourish today, in an era in which the levels of anger and distrust on display in Washington, D.C., have reached toxic levels.
To make matters worse, said Wolf, it has become harder to defend basic human rights when they are linked to faith, because "religious liberty" has turned into a dangerous term in public life, one consistently framed in quotation marks in mainstream news reports -- implying that it has become tainted.
"Talking about religious liberty has become something that divides people, rather than bringing us together," said Wolf, after a forum on global religious freedom issues at The King's College in lower Manhattan (where I am a senior fellow, teaching religion and journalism).
At this point, Wolf added, it's "like religious liberty is something that only old white men believe in. I think we are going to have to switch to using language about freedom of conscience, because no one is listening to what we are saying."
Another key element of this problem, said Hall, is that debates about religious liberty have become linked to another linguistic landmine in the public square -- the vague word "evangelical."
At this moment in American politics, he said, media professionals and other opinion shapers see "evangelicals as judgmental and negative," as "fire-breathing people who have no love or mercy in their lives. … Christians and, especially, evangelicals are people that you are supposed to be afraid of.
"So when you start talking about religious liberty, the first thing people say is that this is an 'evangelical' issue and then that's that. … What's happening in our politics here in America is actually making it harder to help suffering and persecuted Christians around the world, and that's tragic."
In all, Hall added, there are currently 40 armed conflicts in the world and many of them are linked to conflicts rooted in religion and, in particular, the oppression of religious minorities.
During visits to Iraq, Hall and Wolf learned that Iraq was home to 150,000 Jews as recently as 2003, but now there are fewer than a dozen. In this same time frame, the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from 1.5 million to 250,000.
During visits to refugee camps in the region, Wolf said, they heard Christians ask one question over and over: "Does the West care about us?"
But that wasn't the most haunting question, he said. "The most powerful question was, 'Does the CHURCH in the West care about us?' … The church has been relatively silent and we are seeing the end of Christianity in the cradle of Christianity. …
"We used to care. We used to care dramatically."