The Kingdom of God Has No Borders explores how American evangelicals have engaged global politics over the past sixty years, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. The fundamental premise of the book is that, when international issues are taken into account, the history of modern evangelicalism looks different from the dominant stories we have about it. Exploring US evangelicals’ transnational investments, starting with controversies over racism and missionary work in the 1950s, and closing with debates over homosexual rights in Uganda in the 2000s, this book aims to both expand and challenge key components of the domestic story by showing how some theologically conservative Protestants in the United States came to understand themselves to be part of a truly global community. Globalizing views did not always support liberal perspectives—transnational ties have often shored up conservative attitudes about gender and sexuality, for instance, or have encouraged a more hostile view of Islam. But, whether liberalizing or not, those ties were influential, reshaping the moral map for many believers. The story told in this book is not, therefore, either a tale of liberal triumph or an account of right-wing ascendency; it is not about either the wonderfulness of transnationalism or the dangers of globalization: it is a history of contest and transformation, debate and division. The profound political differences that exist among evangelicals are easier to see if your vision encompasses both Kinshasa and Kansas.
Hope, anger, fear, and longing have shaped the ways that American believers operate on the global stage, as they have struggled to live in a world they understand to be God’s kingdom. That kingdom is conceived as universal, borderless. And yet, evangelicals, like everybody else, have inhabit a planet deeply divided by national borders, populated by refugees and migrants, riven by dramatically uneven distributions of wealth and power, and dominated by the United States as the most powerful state the world has ever known. The tension between what is posited as God’s kingdom and what is lived as the world’s reality is one that animates evangelical life, in the United States and beyond. It is the paradox at the heart of evangelical internationalism.
The Kingdom of God Has No Borders focuses primarily, although not exclusively, on white and black American evangelicals’ encounters with the Middle East and Africa. Both areas were important to US foreign policy after 1960. The significance of the Middle East is obvious, with multiple wars and high stakes oil politics. Africa has been less central traditionally, but, in the context of various conflicts in Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, and Sudan in the 1990s, Africa became a new frontier of US foreign policy and humanitarian interest. It has also been the site of the most explosive growth of Christianity in the world. At the same time, competition for adherents between Muslims and Christians in sub-Saharan Africa has often been intense, and a major source of religious tension.
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The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is organized in three parts: Networks, Bodies, and Emotions. Part I highlights the networks that shaped the early postwar period, exploring the spaces, institutions, and ideas that brought a broad range of evangelicals into conversation in the United States and globally. The discussion of networks is influenced by Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. I start this story in the late 1950s with a number of people who were self-consciously engaged in a process of making themselves into a community by defining boundaries, shaping conversations, and choosing people who were worth disagreeing with. The specific cases range from evangelical responses to the Congo crisis of the early 1960s to the growth of the parachurch movement in the 1960s to the role of Holy Land tourism in shaping attitudes toward Israel. The section ends with the historic Lausanne meeting of 1974, where a global group of evangelicals hotly debated the question of “social concern.”
Part II examines the politics of the body. These chapters cover 1967 to 2001. An embrace of the Church as the body of Christ and narratives of persecution were central to evangelical body politics. The section analyzes, among other things, evangelical responses to apartheid, as black bodies in South Africa were imprisoned, tortured, and shot. Additional chapters explore how the religious freedom debates of the 1990s and activism in support of South Sudan in the 2000s were both built around notions of the persecuted church. In this rich terrain, evangelicals have mobilized bodies as symbols while also highlighting bodies as the most material sites of concern.
Part III highlights the public circulation of emotion, focusing on the twenty-first century. Of course, emotions were present in each of the earlier periods, but, in this part, I highlight the ways that emotions are forms of public discourse, as analyzed by Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant. Emotions are also never entirely private; they are part of our public life, shared and framed by others. Any of us might respond to events with our heart, but our hearts learn from the world of feeling around them. Chapters in this section examine the rise of short-term missions, the debate over the US war in Iraq, and the sexual politics associated with debates over anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda, as well as the complex politics of humanitarian aid.
Throughout all three sections of the book, I argue that US evangelicals have been captured by two distinct (but linked) postures toward the rest of the world. The first of these I call “enchanted internationalism”—a longing for emotionally powerful forms of religious experience that American evangelicals have often identified with Christianity in the global south. American evangelicals have frequently operated with the assumption that worship in the modern West is too often stale and dry—disenchanted, in Weberian terms. As US evangelicals looked beyond their borders after 1960, toward the Christian populations of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, they often envisioned people in those regions as living embodiments of authenticity, passion, and zeal. In the charismatic worship styles of much of the evangelical community in Africa and Latin America—with their stories of miracles and faith healings—American evangelicals saw an exemplary “enchanted” faith, practiced by believers who were more intensely committed and perhaps more ideally Christian than most Europeans and Americans. In the late twentieth century, American evangelicals increasingly sought to enliven and “re-enchant” their own religious experience. This longing manifested itself in many ways, including the rise of Pentecostalism and “spirit-filled” charismatic churches, the fascination with apocalypse and end times theology, a renewed focus on ritual, and a growing belief in faith healings.
The other lens through which evangelicals saw the world was “victim identification.” The book traces how American evangelicals became galvanized by a vision of their own (global) persecution, as they spoke of Christians being martyred all over the world, prevented from spreading the gospel and persecuted for their faith. The spectacle and display of violated bodies of Christian martyrs was never simply informational. Instead, it engaged a complex Christian imaginary about the body—its centrality and its untrustworthiness. The process of both identifying with victims and identifying as victims has been a double-edged sword for evangelicals. Attention to victimization sometimes provides resources for social justice (showing, for example, how people have suffered from hunger or are oppressed by racism), yet that same attention has also laid the groundwork for the kind of “injury politics” identified by Wendy Brown, which constructs identity through a cultivation of woundedness.
I argue that Christian persecution, however real in certain times and places, also became a symbol that resonated far beyond what might be expected from the facts on the ground. Persecution became the logic through which some evangelicals envisioned a global conflict with Islam. Frequently, the discourse of persecution has tended to read political conflict as religious conflict, and thus it augmented the sense of anxiety, anger, and religious aggression that dominated far too much of the world’s politics in the twenty-first century. It is through an embrace of both enchantment and victimization—orientations that are religious, political, and emotional all at once—that American evangelicals have come to understand their place in the world.
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The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is a historical study, but it can help us understand the role of evangelicalism in contemporary US politics in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016. As is now widely discussed in the media, 81 percent of white self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump in the general election. They did so in the face of a candidate whose personal behavior and stated values were very different from those proclaimed by evangelicals, and whose vision of America-first seemed quite at odds with the global consciousness traced in the book. Trump soon had his team of well-known and mostly white evangelical supporters, a group that now includes televangelist Paula White; legal counsel Jay Sekulow; prosperity gospel icons Ken and Gloria Copeland; Tony Suarez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Jerry Falwell, Jr. of Liberty University; and Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas.
One of the arguments of the book is that evangelicalism needs to be understood as something bigger than only “white American evangelicals.” And, in fact, many US evangelicals of color were outspoken supporters of Hillary Clinton, or at least opponents of Trump. The day after the vote, the megachurch pastor T. D. Jakes, no liberal, described African Americans as “traumatized” by Trump’s election. More recently, a multiracial and international group of fifty evangelicals gathered at Wheaton College in April 2018, where they aimed to challenge the image of evangelicalism as inevitably politicized and pro-Trump. At the same time, Trump’s advisory council was planning to gather a far larger number of evangelical leaders—as many as one thousand—to meet with Trump in Washington, DC in June, thus making clear that the conservative wing of US evangelicalism was proud to showcase its power and access to the White House, notwithstanding the scandals, warmongering, and anti-immigrant policies defining the Trump administration.
There are many reasons for Trump’s ongoing popularity with conservative white evangelicals, but one clear point of convergence is in a generally hostile attitude toward Muslims and the notion of Christians themselves as under siege. The Trump presidency unleashed a tsunami of racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and Muslims faced a dramatic increase in violence. As of this writing, the president has tried repeatedly to ban immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, and Muslims in the United States face threats to their safety as well as a broadly hostile political climate. And yet 57 percent of white evangelicals told pollsters that they believe Christians face a great deal of discrimination in the US today, while only 44 percent said the same was true of Muslims. In other words, the discourse of “persecuted Christians” and victim identification that emerged on the international stage profoundly shapes how at least one segment of American evangelicals see the domestic realities around them.
The global evangelical community, however, is racially and politically diverse, and the America-first vision of a leader like Trump is deeply offensive to many believers, both within and beyond US shores. The American evangelicals who support this worldview must now face hard questions about their values from the global community they have claimed as their own. The Kingdom of God may have no borders, but American evangelicals have yet to craft a politics made to the measure of the world.