Talking to Brandi Swindell in the BW boardroom was an exercise in miscommunication with some surprises thrown in. The local anti-abortion activist, whose latest cause—human rights in China—landed her international headlines, condemned and then praised BW, tried to probe our faith off the record, invited us to her church (The Vineyard) and then talked about her environmentalism.
Swindell, along with two longtime anti-abortion collaborators, was arrested demonstrating in Tiananmen Square on the eve of the Olympics.
Days after our talk, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain sat down with an evangelical pastor at a Southern California mega-church, one that shares Swindell's basic theology and her philosophy of "engaging culture." In the most generous terms, it's a broadening of the evangelical agenda beyond abortion and gay rights, and in the most cynical of interpretations it's a strategy to evangelize the offspring of liberal elites and simultaneously win Third World converts with some human rights, poverty and environmental activism.
So what is a publicity stunt anyway?
Am I grateful that we were able to educate and inform four billion people around the world with the message of human dignity and human rights and to speak out against the oppression in China? Absolutely. I have to tell you that none of the reporters in Beijing—the Reuters reporters, the AP reporters—none of them accused us of a publicity stunt. Because they know. Now these people aren't pro-life, conservative Christians. These are dedicated journalists with a tremendous amount of integrity that are beat up by the Chinese government officials. The Reuters reporter told me, "I am under surveillance." I was shocked. When they were punching him and trying to confiscate his recorder I'm just like ... when you see it you can't even believe it.
I just don't understand why people would want to imply that it's a publicity stunt about me, about Brandi Swindell, because the issue is so much bigger than me. Of all the projects I've worked on this one is the least controversial, but in my own hometown I've had sort of a backlash in the coverage, and I can't understand it.
Most of us are in agreement that people shouldn't be persecuted because of their faith. People should have the freedom to profess their faith or not profess their faith. Believe in God or not believe in God.
But you believe that God should be in the public sphere.
No. I get accused of like, believing in a theocracy. I do not. I believe that people should be able to believe in God, or not believe in God. That's part of the teaching of my own faith.
There are a lot of things you can criticize China about. How does holding a "Jesus Christ is king" sign defend human rights?
It's a very significant meaning. There was a Catholic bishop in 1955 in China that was led out in a stadium of thousands of people, and the Chinese government, under Mao Zedong, was forcing him to renounce his faith in a public arena. So he was led out and it was assumed that he was going to renounce his faith, and he's speaking and he ends it with "Jesus Christ is king. Jesus Christ is king." And he was sentenced to life in prison and 30 years in forced labor. That was persecution, religious persecution, and so that banner had significance. People could put on that banner whatever they wanted. That banner could have said stop the persecution of the spiritual movement of the Falun Gong. Stop executing and torturing and imprisoning Tibetan monks. Stop putting your political dissidents ...
But it didn't say any of those things.
Well no, how can you fit all that on a banner? I mean we could hardly get the banner into Tiananmen Square. I mean, come on ... Most of my quotes say that we were there for the broad purpose of freedom and justice for everybody.
What if you're wrong about abortion and God and Christianity and Jesus Christ?
My spiritual perspective is what has motivated me to do the different things that I do. There's a lot of us out there, whether you're more on the liberal side or the conservative side. People all the time call me conservative but there's a lot of environmental issues and different things that I'm not conservative on. And I think that's one of the things with this emerging generation, too, is that we're not so aligned with labels. But we're looking. We try to formulate a belief system that we think is right. I guess your original question is what if my faith is wrong ... I don't even really know how to answer that. What if yours is wrong?
The 10 Commandments, you going to China and declaring that Jesus is king and supporting a missionary who's in China imposing her viewpoint on the Chinese, each of those things is basically a Christian worldview being imposed on the rest of the world. That's why I'm asking you what if you are wrong?
You couldn't be more wrong. It doesn't matter going to China whether I am a Christian or not. This was about ending religious persecution. You do not have to have a faith in God to believe that it is wrong to persecute people and imprison them and execute them because they have a faith. You don't have to be a Christian to do that. Am I right?
Many humanitarians do that with no religious agenda at all.
Oh, my friend, to say that I'm not doing it out of a pure human rights motivation ... Why would I be sticking up for the Falun Gong and the Tibetan monks? I don't care if you're an atheist in China, if you are being brutalized, if you do not believe in God, if the Communist government tomorrow said everyone must be a Christian or you're going to prison, I would fight that. You probably don't want to believe me, do you? Just because I'm a Christian, it's not fair to diminish my human rights work and it is not fair to discriminate against me because I'm a person of faith, and I have to tell you that borders on religious bigotry.
Are you going to stick with China?
This trip to China was planned for two years. I have been doing work for the Falun Gong, that was three or four years ago ... I was in front of the White House talking about the Falun Gong.
Are you watching the Olympics?
I don't watch the opening ceremonies because that celebrates the host country. And the opening ceremonies were controlled by the Chinese government. The Communist government. We are not opposed to the Olympics and that's why we did it before the Olympics started as well.