While some in the West seemed to think the proper response to the ISIS-connected terrorist group Boko Haram’s rampage of abductions and slaughter throughout Nigeria was a hashtag, Lou Ann Sabatier took another tact: a fact-finding trip to Nigeria under heavy security.
Sabatier traveled with members of the executive team of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative (21CWI), which mobilizes and equips people internationally to work for religious freedom. It was 2016 and the team saw first-hand the effects of terror campaigns by Boko Haram and the Fulani militants, another vicious group wreaking havoc in that country. Sabatier serves as the Director of Strategy and Communications at Wilberforce, which is named after William Wilberforce, the English politician who led the crusade to abolish the slave trade. Former Virginia congressman Frank Wolf, prominent in Congress for his advocacy on behalf of human rights and religious freedom, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at 21CWI. The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative was founded two years ago by Dr. Randel Everett, a Baptist minister who serves as president of the organization.
Speaking to IWF in a busy coffee shop on Capitol Hill, Lou Ann admitted that such a trip leaves its imprint. “I have traveled to Nigeria twice in the last two years and both trips had a profound impact on me,” Sabatier said. “What is unfolding in northern Nigeria is one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian crises, fueled by terrorist violence. And there is systemic and systematic discrimination of ethnic and religious minorities in northern and central Nigeria. Limited education and vocation opportunities create negative economic impact. The situation in Nigeria is complex and requires commitment to address hard realities beyond rhetoric and surface-level analysis.”
Sabatier said that around seventy percent of the world suffers from some form of religious persecution. This ranges from discrimination to outright torture and death. Oddly, it is not a lack of written laws guaranteeing religious liberty that is at fault. “Most of these countries have laws that are supposed to protect religious freedom,” she said. “The problem is that they don’t enforce their own laws, so it is not a matter of more legislation. It is about getting countries to honor their own commitments. Whether it is China or India or some other country, they all agree to honor rights and standards established by the United Nations, but they don’t.”
21CWI sends teams into these countries, often underground, to help people learn to advocate for religious liberty, to help them build the capacity to do so and to develop useful technologies[A1] . Although Wilberforce’s activities are international, the organization does seek to raise awareness of global religious liberty issues in the U.S. “Why should the U.S. care?” said Lou Ann. “First of all, the United States is perceived as the world’s global leader, and second religious liberty is part of our heritage. One of our foundational rights is religious liberty. ” Calling religious liberty “the underpinning of civil society,” Sabatier cites studies by Brian Grimm and the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation showing that societies that have religious freedom laws and honor them do better economically and are less prone to upheavals. That could come home to affect us in the United States because “no man is an island.”
A tool for raising awareness in the U.S. is 21CWI’s new International Religious Freedom Congressional Scorecard, developed after Lou Ann saw it used effectively in another organization. The owner of that scorecard signed the rights over to Wilberforce. “Most organizations use scorecards to push legislation,” she said. “We don’t do that. We are not political. We are taking this information and sharing it all over the country so that people can be informed about religious liberty. We’ve taken something that could be stuffy, boring and clinical and made it readable. Somebody can pick up the scorecard and say ‘How’s my congressman doing? But as important, we summarize the legislation that is focused on international religious freedom. It reads like a primer.'”
The scorecard takes into consideration votes on bills and resolutions, sponsorship of legislation, and involvement with relevant caucuses. It scored fourteen items in the Senate and twenty-five in the House in the 114th Congress. It should be noted that one piece of legislation in that Congress was the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which calls for more forceful responses to abuses of religious freedom and stronger training in diplomacy and counterterrorism. It was signed into law in December. The scorecard is more to raise awareness than to be punitive. But you’re probably wondering who scored the highest. Just for the record, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey topped the list.
“Life is not formulaic. It ebbs and flows, you have highs and lows and it pays not to be rigid, and make the most of the opportunities and challenges you have at that moment. Face them head on.”
It was typical of Lou Ann to spot the potential of the scorecard–after all, she is a woman who has built a highly successful career on what for another woman might have been a show-stopping humiliation. A music major at Ball State, Lou Ann and her husband had moved to Bloomington, Indiana. Lou Ann quickly landed a job working as the secretary to the editor of a magazine. The editor was Bob Tyrrell and the magazine was–of course–the American Spectator. “I came in with no ideology,” Lou Ann recalled. “I was apolitical. There was no litmus test for the job–you just had to be good at it. It was a fantastic job. I knew immediately that there was something special, unique, about the magazine. The people who were calling every day were William F. Buckley, Charlton Heston, Malcolm Forbes, Alexander Haig. Ed Meese. I’m not namedropping. They all interacted with Bob. One of the gifts the American Spectator gave me was not to hero worship. We all worked with so many important people at a time when I was so young. That was my normal. I learned to be extremely respectful, but not daunted by important people.”
But there was that famous humiliation in her early career at the Spectator. “Bob said to me—and, by the way, this is a story that Bob tells on himself—Bob said to me, ‘I am going to have a party at my house tonight for William F. Buckley and my gardener can’t come today, so I need you to go to my house and clean my fish pond.’ And I stopped and said–out of the mouth of a twenty-two year old–“Excuse me. What’s wrong with your wife?’ Ron Burr [the publisher] came around the corner and heard that. Ron said, ‘That’s insubordination. Do you want me to fire her?’ But Bob said, ‘No, put her on the business side, and let her go.’ It was humiliating for me. The very next day, not even a week, I was sitting in the business office stuffing circulation orders into envelopes. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Bob Tyrrell gave me a gift that started my journey into the business side of publishing and media. It was the beginning of a thirty-eight year career. Within two years, I was the assistant publisher of the American Spectator.”
Some of us still have a much-thumbed copy of Orthodoxy: The American Spectator’s Twentieth Anniversary Anthology. We owe this in part to Lou Ann. “As the magazine’s twentieth anniversary approached, I suggested to Bob and Ron that we publish a book,” Lou Ann recalled. “I went to Erwin Glikes at the Free Press and said that I wanted to do a book and that I wanted to call it Orthodoxy. He said it wouldn’t sell. I said ‘Au contraire. We have a very loyal audience and, as a matter of fact, I’ll give you a guarantee for a press run. I’m not saying what the press run was, but it was unheard of in the day.” When published the anthology covered everything from smoking to book reviewing and contained early work of such writers as Bill Kristol, Roger Rosenblatt, George Will, and P. J. O’Rourke.
Lou Ann might have been influential in the publication of a book entitled Orthodoxy, but her advertising style was unorthodox. “Even the way we sold ads was unconventional,” Lou Ann admitted. “I called up Charlton Heston and said ‘I know you are a reader. May we please have a party at your house in Cold Water Canyon?’ I said that I’d invite all the defense contractors on the West Coast and that we’d have John Gavin and Ben Stein there and they would talk. Heston said ‘Yes.’ I flew out and had the party catered and met his wife and kids. As planned, we got contracts from many attending.” At one point, Lou Ann felt she needed more formal training in selling ads, so of course she called Steve Forbes and asked if she could pick the brains of his ad staff. “I’m like some chick in Indiana but they said ‘yes’,” because they had good will for the Spectator she recalled. As for day-to-day life at the Spectator, Ron Burr, by now long forgiven for having demoted her to circulation, did one day mischievously drop a news clipping on her desk with a headline “How to Manage a Maverick.” But Lou Ann fondly recalled, “I was hungry, I was curious, and I was loyal to the brand so they gave me a lot of leeway at the Spectator. I am very grateful for that.”
In the notably masculine atmosphere at the Spectator office, maternity leave wasn’t exactly a pressing issue for the magazine’s top players. Lou Ann was the first to become pregnant. She negotiated a deal that included an obligation to work for two years after she returned from a longer than usual leave. “It wasn’t lean in, lean out or lean over,” she recalled. “It was a win-win for everybody. They didn’t want to train somebody in the management cue and so I promised to come back and it was worth it to them to wait.” Lou Ann may have had momentary second thoughts upon returning to work. Almost immediately Burr informed her that the magazine was moving to Washington. Lou Ann had to go find space and set up the office. Her son Grant was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. But a deal was a deal and Lou Ann dutifully packed up for Washington and left Indiana, where she has been thirty years, twenty-eight of them in the same house.
After the Spectator, Lou Ann worked for a prestigious international economic consulting firm. “I called them up and said that I wanted to work for them as the Managing Director over their publication. They said they didn’t have an opening. I said ‘Can we have breakfast?’ They said they didn’t have an opening. I said ‘Can’t we just have breakfast?’ We met. I told them I wanted to work for them and they said that they didn’t have an opening. I said ‘But some day you will.’ A few months later the phone rang, and they said ‘We’ve just fired the Managing Director. Will you come work for us?” During those two years she worked internationally on behalf of their publication, International Economy.
Subsequently, Lou Ann bridged into consulting for media and after 8 years with a firm in Philadelphia, she opened up Sabatier Consulting in Falls Church and NYC. For the past 20+ years, she has led a team of consultants that provide analytical and publishing expertise to clients around the globe such as the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, National Geographic, World Vision, the NBA and the U.S. Marines.
With such a go-getter, the next question is obvious: Do you consider yourself a feminist. “I don’t accept labels,” the maverick replies. “Period. I don’t call myself a feminist and I don’t accept the label evangelical, though I am a person of deep faith. But I do admit that I love it that some women are trying to redefine the word feminism.”
Lou Ann’s career is a matter of having confidence, working hard, and pursuing avenues that might not be apparent to somebody on a linear job path. “Every job I’ve ever had I’ve sought out,” Lou Ann said. “For many young women today, they’ve been sold a false narrative that you can have it all. Life is not formulaic. It ebbs and flows, you have highs and lows and it pays not to be rigid, and make the most of the opportunities and challenges you have at that moment. Face them head on.” She rejects the label but she does sound an awful lot like a true modern feminist.