WASHINGTON — When President Bush recently used a public forum to announce his support for a more robust international intervention in Sudan's Darfur region - catching even some of his senior aides off guard - it was yet another milestone for the rising interest of Christian evangelicals in US foreign policy.
In just a few years, conservative Christian churches and organizations have broadened their political activism from a near-exclusive domestic focus to an emphasis on foreign issues.
As Mr. Bush gave his attention to Darfur, one of the world's most high-profile humanitarian crises, he was almost certainly cheered not just by a coterie of evangelical advisers, but also the sizable Christian right constituency. But his focus on a forlorn region of Africa suggests deeper shifts in the forces influencing US foreign policy.
Even as many in Washington trumpet the return of realism to US foreign policy and the decline of the neoconservative hawks, the staying power of the evangelicals is likely to blunt what might otherwise have been a steep decline in Wilsonian ideals.
Indeed, the aftermath of Iraq has some historians predicting a bout of American isolationism similar to what occurred after Vietnam. But other analysts say that with so many conservative Christians now convinced of activism in foreign affairs, old patterns of periodic introspection have been broken.
"Without a determined constituency pressuring for engagement in international affairs, it would be likely that - given the difficulties in Iraq - you would have had the administration hunkering down a bit, and the American people with them," says Allen Hertzke, an expert and noted author on religion in US foreign policy at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. "But instead, you have these substantial forces pushing on human rights causes and demanding intervention."
Some note that because the evangelicals' foreign-policy interests are motivated by religious convictions and not a temporary cause, the movement has deeper roots. "These people are not flavor-of-the-month types," says Mark Palmer, a former diplomat focused on democratization and now vice chairman of Freedom House in Washington. "The fact they are so involved now will be a factor in us not becoming isolationist."
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which periodically gauges public views on America's place in the world, finds an upswing in the percentage of Americans who agree that the "US should mind its own business internationally." But the trend would be even stronger without the evangelical conversion to global involvement, some experts believe.
Ambassador Palmer says some White House political strategists contend that the Christian right makes up at least one-third of the electorate. "Whether that's true or not, the number is large," he says.
Behind the most recent evidence of evangelical influence in US foreign policy - the renewed calls for stronger intervention in Darfur - stands Michael Gerson, who is a Bush policy adviser and speechwriter (and who helped coin the "axis of evil" phrase). The former journalist, who is also a member of an evangelical Episcopal church in suburban Virginia, is seen as one of the driving forces behind Bush's emphasis on a global spread of what the president sees as God-given rights.
So far Bush's call for a considerably larger foreign peacekeeping presence in Darfur - under the United Nations and with beefed-up involvement by NATO - has not been answered by the international community. The effort endured a setback this week when the month-long American presidency of the UN Security Council expired Tuesday without Council action.
The government of Sudan is lobbying against a UN force on its soil, arguing it would constitute a recolonization of the country, according to UN officials.
But Darfur is hardly the first foreign rallying cause for evangelical Christians. In fact, their awakening to foreign-policy issues began well before the Bush White House, analysts note.
"One place it started was during the efforts to open up the former Soviet Union" in the 1980s, says John O'Sullivan, a foreign-policy analyst and editor at large of National Review. "They looked at the success of the Jewish community in helping the Soviet Jews and said, 'We have done nothing to help our co-religionists in Africa and Korea and other parts.' "
From there came a string of diplomatic initiatives bearing the stamp of evangelical influence - and largely engineered through the halls of Congress, notes Mr. Hertzke. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, which makes freedom of religion and conscience a "core objective" of US foreign policy. It also established an office and an annual international religious-freedom report that grades countries on rights.
Subsequent initiatives include legislation in 2000 that targets human trafficking and sex trafficking; the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, which among other things established a certification process for periodic review of Sudan's peace efforts; and the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004. The influence of evangelical Christians is also seen in the Bush administration's focus on AIDS in Africa, as well as in attacks on international family-planning activities, experts say.
But it was the North Korea initiative that first prompted foreign-policy analysts to take notice. Michael Horowitz, a prominent protagonist of the involvement of conservative faith-based organizations in foreign policy, called the North Korea act a "miracle" wrought by evangelicals. But some experts pointed to the large number of Korean-American Christians and their activist pastors as a larger factor in the act's passage.
The faith-based community's influence appeared to deepen when Bush last year named Jay Lefkowitz, a former White House aide and Horowitz associate, to the post of "special envoy for North Korea human rights," as called for in the act. That appointment prompted worried blog entries on the "Christian conservative agenda" for US foreign policy.
Still, some experts express skepticism about the evangelicals' impact, arguing that their key triumphs - such as the Sudan and North Korea legislation - have done little to change the course of what are drawn-out conflicts.
Others say a swing back to domestic issues in recent months may be pulling the Christian right away from foreign-policy concerns. "The culture wars of the last year, the uproar over gay marriage and so forth, have diverted some attention from the international focus," says Hertzke.
The staying power of evangelical influence will also depend on the ability to expand their influence by creating coalitions, according to others. "They won't have continued success unless they make the right alliances," says Mr. O'Sullivan of National Review.
Yet with his new book, "Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights," Hertzke argues that such a broadening is already taking place. It's happening, he says, through links between the Jewish community and Christian organizations, as well as on college campuses and in traditional religious and secular human rights organizations - which have long been interested in such foreign causes.
Hertzke adds that the impact of the "unlikely" movement, still being gauged in terms of Darfur, has already "altered the trajectory of history" in southern Sudan, where the government and rebel groups signed a peace accord in January 2005.
"A 20-year civil war actually ended in large part due to the activism of evangelicals and their alliance with others, including Jewish groups," he says. "It's an unheralded story, but it's also a historical fact."