TCHE, Congo—The road to the White House typically leads through Iowa and New Hampshire. For Sen. Sam Brownback, it's led to a desolate refugee camp in the hills of eastern Congo.
Visiting here shortly after Thanksgiving, Brownback moved easily among women in colorful dresses and children in ripped T-shirts. Occasionally, he dropped to one knee to listen more closely to tales of human degradation, such as a glassy-eyed farmer describing an ethnic militia attack that slaughtered his village or old women and young girls describing multiple rapes.
"You just can't imagine a thing like that," Brownback said softly.
The Kansas Republican, a leading social conservative, has made Africa a focal point of his expected bid for his party's 2008 presidential nomination. It's a move that blends his longtime interest in the troubled continent with political savvy. Helping Africans plays well not only with evangelical Christians, Brownback's base, but also with more secular voters who otherwise might be turned off by his hard-line views on abortion and gay marriage.
"He represents a genuinely interesting phenomenon," said Allen Hertzke, a University of Oklahoma professor who wrote "Freeing God's Children," a book about the growing left-right alliance on international human rights. "This has been a movement of the past decade, this new evangelical international engagement. It sprang from concern about persecution of fellow believers ... then moved more broadly into human rights concerns."
Brownback sees the movement as a natural evolution, for him and for his party.
"My faith calls to deal with the poor," said Brownback, who was raised an evangelical Christian and converted to Roman Catholicism a few years ago. "And my faith says, as well, if you don't help the poor that is a wrong thing to do."
On the campaign trail, "I talk about it from the standpoint of the Republican Party of hope and ideals," he said. "We need to deal with real problems and big issues. And this is a real problem and a big issue."
Brownback's trip to this war-ravaged area—4 million people have died in Congo's civil war—was his fourth to Africa. He's been at the forefront of efforts to draw attention to the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region and has led efforts to combat human sex trafficking.
He frequently works with Democrats. He traveled here with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. In October, he co-hosted a meeting on human rights with former Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The interest in broader human rights comes at a time when the Christian faith has exploded in Africa. In 1900, there were about 9 million Christians in Africa; today, there are more than 350 million. Many belong to evangelical churches with close ties to their American counterparts.
"The close connection between African evangelical churches and American evangelical churches has increased the awareness of American evangelicals of the problems of Africa," said Timothy Shah, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
From dealing with the spread of AIDS to the chronic problems of hunger and poverty, American religious conservatives are increasingly active in Africa. World Vision, the largest American aid group with an international orientation, is an evangelical group. The National Association of Evangelicals supports debt-relief efforts for African nations.
Rick Warren, the best-selling author of "The Purpose-Driven Life" and the senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of the largest evangelical churches in the United States, has made fighting the ills of Africa a major focus of his ministry.
Brownback, more than any American politician at his level and ambition, understands the tie between Africa and American evangelicals and is in a position to benefit from it, Shah and others said.
Chuck Hurley, the president of the Iowa Family Policy Center and an old friend of Brownback's, recalled that the senator once spoke forcefully of the plight of developing nations during an appearance in Iowa.
"It resonated," Hurley said. "It was a sigh of, `Yes, somebody in high position, somebody running for president, is articulating this heartfelt passion.' ... It goes to the core of who we are."
Experts estimate that 20 to 25 percent of the Iowans who are likely to attend Republican caucuses in 2008 will be Christian conservatives.
Brownback's interest in Africa also could help him reach beyond his allies among religious and social conservatives. Liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has lauded the senator's work on Africa several times.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, the prominent development economist and author of "The End of Poverty," praised Brownback in an e-mail interview.
"He has taken leadership to get malaria on to the global agenda," Sachs wrote. "This summer he played a very helpful role in getting the (Bush) administration to commit to a new malaria control effort, albeit one that is still underfunded."
Said Hertzke, the University of Oklahoma professor, "The international work softens him to those outside the evangelical world. It makes him more appealing, more ecumenical."
Brownback, who counts abolitionist John Brown and humanitarian Mother Teresa among his inspirations, said the potential political benefits weren't the reasons for his Africa work; historically, he pointed out, foreign aid hasn't been a political winner.
It's about saving lives, Brownback said, and something more.
"The big beneficiary will be the U.S. ... It'll change them. It may save their soul."
(Stearns reported from Washington, Bengali reported from Congo.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BROWNBACK-AFRICA
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