We're extraordinarily fortunate to live in a time when the world’s predominant power is a democracy. Should the United States use its awesome power to fight for human rights? This question will bedevil U.S. foreign policy, and America’s religious communities, this year and in decades to come.

It's often said that foreign policy is about national interests, not idealism. But people of faith must agree that America has an interest in idealism--in remaining true to ideals that have motivated our country since its founding. When (too often) we have abandoned our principles, putting business ahead of morals, we have always regretted it.

Now, there are of course places where the risks of intervention are too high, the likely benefits from it too low, and the local problems just plain insoluble. No one is suggesting that we invade China and force it to liberate Tibet. Prudence will keep us from becoming the world’s policeman. We are having an election this year in part to choose people who have the wisdom to separate the cases where American intervention is a bad idea from those where we can do some good.

But in that latter group of cases, how can we say no? Can we look at genocide and turn away? These are questions that all American religious groups--and their leaders-- must now face.

Our country did in fact sit by and watch genocide take place in Rwanda. A small, concerted international force probably could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but our government helped stop such an effort. That our religious leaders were mostly silent is also inexplicable and indefensible. Of course, the United States did intervene in Kosovo, but only after endless bluffs and delays and in a manner that did not avoid massive losses of life and property.

At this very moment, we are standing idly by as the regime in Sudan continues a murderous campaign bent on eradicating Christians and Christianity. Two million people have already died at the hands of the ruthless government, yet our own country’s most recent actions have allowed Sudan to proceed with an oil pipeline that will finance even more repression.

Why is any of this our business? For those who take an amoral, realpolitik approach to international politics, it may not be. But for America’s religious communities, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and all the rest, indifference to the sufferings of fellow human beings is not an option--not when we have the power to help.

There are many ways we can use that power, from foreign aid to diplomatic pressure to encouraging or stopping trade flows. And except for those who are pacifists, there's another option as well: the use of force to save lives. We discard the military option, or refuse to employ it when it's needed, at our own moral peril.

Sudan, which I visited in January, is a desperately poor African country that has been at war for 20 years. The government has killed or starved (in government-manufactured famines) 2 million of its own citizens, driven millions more from their homes and into exile or refugee camps, and engaged in human rights abuses that include enslaving southern Sudanese women and children and selling them off to the highest bidder.

Since 1989, the government has been in the hands of fundamentalist Muslims, determined to make over the country under strict Muslim religious law, the "sharia" law. As one Catholic missionary told me, "They want to blow out the candle" of Christianity in Sudan. The suffering has been immeasurable.

What should we do? No one is talking about sending in the Marines; Sudan needs less fighting, not more. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas got legislation passed to allow American food shipments to the southern guerrilla groups that are defending the local population against government attack, and even this step has been too much for many humanitarian aid groups to swallow They say that this would amount to "taking sides," and that the government would then block all food aid throughout the country. But when the government blocks food to parts of the South, it's using food--and starvation--as weapons, and we should try to take those weapons out of its hands.

The real issue is not supporting the regime or opposing it: we have good national-interest reasons to oppose the Sudanese regime even if we factor out morality: the regime supports terrorism, which, while grossly immoral, is also a threat to global military and economic stability. The issue is how strongly and how actively the United States tries to isolate, change, or depose this murderous group. Indeed this group is worse than merely murderous; it is, as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel has called it, genocidal.

So Sudan is a very good test for American religious communities and their attitudes toward American foreign policy, in part because lives hang on whether they choose to act. What's more, Sudan isn't going to be the last country that forces us to confront such decisions. There will be many more places where our intervention, armed or unarmed, can save lives.

The challenge for religious communities in America is not to predict where or how to respond tomorrow, for that's impossible. The challenge is to resolve today to play a role tomorrow--to organize. We can be sure that commercial and financial interests will organize and speak out, and that our government will listen. Will the people in the pews and in the pulpits have a voice too?

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