The Religious Right is in “disarray,” the Newsweek religion correspondent Lisa Miller recently declared. Noting in particular the conflict that many younger American evangelicals feel about voting for Obama, she quoted my colleague Alan Jacobs as saying that “the younger evangelicals he teaches tell him, ‘I have a very deep and instinctive attachment to the pro-life movement, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to vote for someone who holds the views that Obama has, but I don’t see how I can vote for John McCain. So I’m kind of stuck.'”
The real question is why these younger evangelicals are attracted to Obama in the first place. The same article finds an answer in “the recent broadening of the evangelical agenda to encompass social-justice and global-poverty issues.” But that simply begs the question: why are evangelicals—particularly younger ones—turning to such issues? Journalists and bloggers have pointed to leaders who are driving attention to such international issues and geopolitical inequality; but even there, the real reason comes back to the broadening of evangelicals themselves. That is, evangelicals have become a remarkably global people.
Ask many Americans about their international experiences, and you are likely to get stories of backpacking through Europe after their junior year, a family ski-trip to Canada or a cruise in the Western Caribbean. Ask an evangelical Christian, and you are just as likely to hear about two weeks in rural Ghana building a school, seven days in Oaxaca teaching in a church, or an experience living in a South African shanty while performing evangelistic dramas in the streets. Evangelicals, contra their isolationist or xenophobic image, have become a well-traveled group, going to places usually reserved for anthropologists and peace corps volunteers.
As reported in Robert Wuthnow and Stephen Offutt’s article in this summer’s Sociology of Religion, Wuthnow’s Global Issues Survey found that, in the 1990s, 12 percent of church-going teenagers went on a short volunteer trip to another country—a tenfold increase from those who grew up in the 1970s. Wuthnow further reveals that more than 1.6 million Christians per year go on such trips. I suspect that among those typically identified as evangelicals for the purposes of political polling (i.e., white, suburban, conservative Protestants), the percentage of travelers is higher than among respondents as a whole. Just as important, most of those involved in these congregations have seen many reports of such trips (the ubiquitous PowerPoint slide show of smiling children gathered around a white teen), learning about the conditions of urban Haitians and Mongolian herders “first hand” from those who have been there.
Anyone who regularly travels internationally has probably seen these groups of teens with matching t-shirts, often emblazoned with both a stylized map of the country they’re visiting as well as a Bible verse, tromping through the airport, vacation Bible school curricula tucked into multiple duffels. These groups make an easy target for snarky anthropologists (like me) or cynical liberals (also, often, like me), and these trips have drawn considerable criticism from leaders within evangelicalism. But as someone who has both participated in and is now studying what evangelicals call “short-term missions,” these travels are not without effect on both guests and hosts.
Kay Warren, wife of California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, is often credited with her husband’s move to emphasize social justice and expand the scope of evangelical politics. Last year she visited Wheaton College and shared with my anthropology class her vision for church-based social movements. Asked what inspired her to push the agenda, she shared a story of her first visit to Uganda, where she sat with a woman dying from AIDS. With tears in her eyes (and in the eyes of many of us), she laid out the call she felt God put on her life to do something about what she’d seen.
In a 2002 editorial in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof declared evangelicals the “newest internationalists.” He admitted it was a surprising label for a group “usually regarded by snooty, college-educated bicoastal elitists . . . as dangerous Neanderthals,” but in his travels he’d encountered Christian groups working in humanitarian projects throughout the world. Although he was speaking primarily of Christian aid organizations, the thousands of church, college and parachurch groups sending small groups of teens and adults around the world contribute to this global outlook.
This new globalism constitutes a distinctly different movement from the Christian globalism of the past. Foreign missions have long been a significant element of Christianity, and everything from the popular books of Victorian missionaries to the stadium crusades of Billy Graham have brought a certain global consciousness to rank-and-file Christians. Unlike that removed and professionalized globalism, however, this is a globalism of the rank-and-file itself. As millions travel to various sites, and millions more hear from their friends and family members about these travels, they gain personal contact with a world that was once just so many pieces of yarn stretched from the picture of a missionary family to their location on the map of the Missionary Bulletin Board in a church basement.
Moreover, this is not a one-way globalism. It is not simply a neocolonial movement redux. These newest internationalists are part of more complex global flows that carry influence in multiple directions. In their article on the Global Issues Survey, Wuthnow and Offutt cite the flows of people, resources and knowledge as far more multidirectional than in the past. While acknowledging the enormous disparity of wealth and influence between American Christians and those in many other countries, they note examples of Brazilian Pentecostal broadcasts finding significant play in the New York City Spanish language market and Ghanaian gospel hip-hop gaining a hearing in Atlanta congregations. In my own research on short-term Christian volunteerism, I have found that those who make these trips or meet with foreign visitors in their home congregations often are struck by similarities. Statements such as “even though I couldn’t speak Spanish [or Portuguese or Chinese or Amharic], I knew we were worshipping the same God” reflect a belief in a unity and connection with non-Western Christians that few evangelicals personally experienced in the past.
This sense of connectedness has appeared in some overtly political, and controversial, ways. The decision of a number of U.S. Episcopal congregations to align themselves with African dioceses over the controversial appointment of gay bishop Gene V. Robinson (chronicled in Miranda Hassett’s recent book Anglican Communion in Crisis) reflects both the sense among these American Christians of their unity with Christians in the Global South and the conviction among the African leadership that their influence is needed in an apostate American church. More often, however, this sense of unity and global connectedness manifests itself in less practical ways. This globalism does not radically displace the identity of Christians in the United States; a 2006 article by Robert Priest argues that globalism does not necessarily prompt many to change much about their lives in concrete ways. What it can do, though, is unsettle a confident American exceptionalism and trouble simplistic patriotism.
Thus the allure of Obama. Though he may be too out-of-step with some traditional American evangelical concerns—abortion, gay marriage—his internationalism makes him the kind of candidate who appeals to the global evangelical. For younger evangelicals, like younger voters generally, his personal international experience is seen as a strongly positive element of his resume. As a politician, his tendency to see the world in terms of cooperation rather than competition may find powerful resonance with the newest internationalists.