Home » Narrative » Christian Engagement in US Anti-trafficking Activism: Precedents and Contexts (Part 1)

Christian Engagement in US Anti-trafficking Activism: Precedents and Contexts (Part 1)

This is the first of a two-part post adapted from Letitia M. Campbell and Yvonne C. Zimmerman, “Christian Ethics and Human Trafficking Activism: Progressive Christianity and Social Critique,” Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics 34:1 (2014). Part 1 examines briefly the history and impact of Christian activism on anti-trafficking initiatives in the United States. Part 2 will focus on feminism, evangelicalism and anti-trafficking. 

Yvonne is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio near Columbus, OH and Letitia is a Ph.D. candidate and Woodruff Scholar in religion, ethics and society at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Since 2012 they have been collaborating on developing analyses of and response to human trafficking from a progressive Christian perspective that includes queer, feminist and antiracist commitments.

The significant involvement of evangelical Christians in anti-trafficking activism and advocacy has been widely noted by politicians, legislators, scholars, activists, and social service providers — sometimes approvingly, sometimes with concern. The historical roots of this involvement are less widely discussed, but they are nonetheless critical for understanding the ways that Christian theologies have shaped the goals and strategies of the contemporary US movement to end human trafficking.

Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen trace part of this story in their important work on the ideological underpinnings of the contemporary anti-trafficking movement. They argue that during the late 1990s, human trafficking was transformed from an obscure concern that was of interest to only a few grassroots organizations to a high profile human rights issue capable of uniting activists across theological, political and ideological lines. By the first decade of the 2000s, they argue, trafficking had been strategically framed as an issue of female sexual slavery and male sexual violence against women. The images and rhetoric of sex trafficking, which became the hallmark of anti-trafficking activism in this period, proved compelling to both evangelicals and broad swaths of the US feminist establishment. Bernstein shows how these seemingly ill-suited allies assembled an anti-trafficking movement shaped by two broadly shared commitments. First, feminists and evangelicals shared a heterosexual conception of the family defined by generally egalitarian roles for women and men. Second, they agreed that trafficking could best be addressed by limited state interventions combined with an expanded role for the market. In particular, they pressed for a response in which the state would be limited to prosecuting and punishing criminal activity (in order to deter traffickers), while expanded access to the formal market — in the form of jobs, income and a greater capacity for consumption — would address the needs and desires of actual or potential trafficking victims.

We have to look back several decades to fully understand how American evangelicals came to be significant players in the anti-trafficking movement and the impact of their influence on the shape of the movement as a whole. By the 1990s, American evangelicals exerted considerable influence on domestic social issues, but were relative newcomers to issues of US foreign policy. Although involved in international relief and development work since the early 1970s, their engagement in international development work was expanding rapidly during the last decade of the 20th century. This growth reflected shifts within American evangelicalism, including an increasing attention to social concerns. It was also part of a general expansion of the role of NGOs and the private sector in providing health, education and other social services that previously had been provided through state institutions. Overseas, as at home, “faith-based initiatives” were increasingly relied upon to fill gaps left by the neoliberal contraction of the state. Against this backdrop of expanding global engagement, American evangelicals looked for opportunities to expand their advocacy in the realm of foreign policy.

As Yvonne Zimmerman discusses in her book Other Dreams of Freedom Christian persecution was the first foreign policy issue to attract widespread attention among evangelicals. For decades, evangelicals had been raising concerns about the repression of the church under Communism and the risks of proselytizing in “closed” countries. In the post-Cold War period, reports about the suffering of Christians in China, India, the Sudan, and Islamic countries throughout the Middle East stirred fresh concern for “the persecuted Church.” Increasingly engaged with the secular language of human rights, evangelicals saw in these concerns an opportunity to insist that the rights of religious minorities be recognized as central to the US human rights agenda. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, a legislative accomplishment propelled and defined by broad evangelical political support, marked the beginning of evangelical activism on a range of foreign policy issues.

By the following year, the coalition that had been formed to address religious persecution was beginning to mobilize around human trafficking, specifically the sex trafficking of women. According to political scientist Allen Hertzke, human trafficking was widely regarded in evangelical circles as a follow-up to the issue of religious persecution, and the response to human trafficking was framed intentionally to draw on the “scaffolding and relationships forged in the religious freedom effort.” For instance, one of the core claims of the movement to codify religious freedom as a human rights concern was that poor, brown, third-world women represented the paradigmatic Christians of the 21st century. As movement leader Michael Horowitz explained:

Framed in this manner, religious freedom wasn’t simply about protecting the prerogative of American missionaries to proselytize in countries where Christians are a religious minority. Instead, the focus on religious freedom was seen as a matter of protecting the fast-growing churches of the global south and the rights of individuals, particularly of women, to convert to and practice Christianity.

As the movement against religious persecution gave way to activism on human trafficking, this figure of the poor, brown, third-world woman was recast rhetorically and symbolically as the quintessential victim of sex trafficking. For instance, in early 1999, just months after The International Religious Freedom Act had been passed, Horowitz told Christianity Today:

I expect the interfaith coalition that produced the International Religious Freedom Act to move on another front—putting a stop to the unspeakable annual trafficking of more than 2 million women and children into lives of sexual bondage. I expect that our coalition, working with others, will expand women’s rights issues to include the protection of sold and abducted sexual victims every bit as much as it redefined the human-rights agenda to include the rights of religious believers.

The victims of these respective violations (religious persecution and human trafficking) were depicted by way of a common, even identical, profile (poor, brown, from developing countries). In this way, many evangelicals’ understanding of sex trafficking—not to mention their profound emotional response to the rhetoric and images of sexually exploited women and children that so frequently accompany this topic—have been shaped by how these tropes, images, and rhetoric were used previously to mobilize on religious persecution (especially Christian persecution). So powerfully did the earlier movement to end religious persecution frame evangelicals’ understanding of sex trafficking that many perceived trafficking, like Christian persecution, to be a fundamentally religious issue. For many evangelicals, saving poor, brown women in the developing world from sex trafficking was central to protecting the rights of these women to be or become Christians. For them, women and girls who experience sex trafficking represent actual or potential Christian sisters. It is thus understood that a failure to decry their commercial sexual exploitation is tantamount to condoning sexual slavery, ignoring a cry for religious freedom and, in so doing, participating in the persecution of less privileged Christian siblings. It would be difficult to overstate the powerful emotional charge of these resonances.

The emphasis placed on sex trafficking in the fledgling anti-trafficking movement was illustrated in one of the first pieces of anti-trafficking legislation proposed during this period, the Freedom from Sexual Trafficking Act of 1999. One of the concerns of the congressional sponsors of this bill (which did not become law) was to clearly and categorically distinguish between sex trafficking and nonsexual exploitation. They worried that “low-wage sweatshop issues” and other issues of labor exploitation might cloud human trafficking, which, they argued, was essentially about sexual exploitation of women and girls. In fact, this narrow focus on sexual exploitation was an innovation of evangelical activism. A small number of secular NGOs had been involved in human trafficking work prior to the late 1990s, but their work tended to focus broadly on labor trafficking and the structural preconditions of the exploitation of labor, not exclusively on sex trafficking. Lawmakers informed by this broader analysis continued to push for a definition of human trafficking that would incorporate labor exploitation alongside emergent concerns about sex trafficking.

In part because of this political tension between different conceptions of human trafficking (trafficking as exploited labor versus trafficking as commercial sexual exploitation), the United States’ flagship anti-trafficking legislation, the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (or TVPA), codified a definition of human trafficking that encompassed both sets of concerns, clearly stating that “trafficking in persons is not limited to the sex industry” (§102 b(3)) and defining human trafficking as any labor or services induced by fraud, force or coercion as human trafficking (§103(8)). At the same time, a special focus on sex trafficking is impossible to miss, and implementation of the TVPA has tended to allocate disproportionate resources on sex trafficking, over other forms. Therefore while the TVPA codified a relatively wide definition of human trafficking as exploited labor, in the vernacular, trafficking remained the sexual exploitation of women and children. Images of “sold and abducted sexual victims” and “women and children [trafficked] into lives of sexual bondage” persisted as the primary tropes at the grassroots level for mobilizing faith-based anti-trafficking campaigns.


  1. […] and Social Critique,” Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics 34:1 (2014). While Part 1 examines briefly the history and impact of Christian activism on anti-trafficking initiatives in […]

  2. […] Christian Engagement in US Anti-trafficking Activism: Precedents and Contexts (Part 1, and Part 2). Letitia M. Campbell and Yvonne C. Zimmerman, Adapted from “Christian Ethics and Human Trafficking Activism: Progressive Christianity and Social Critique,” Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics 34:1 (2014). […]

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