While most scholars, pollsters, and even the general public continue to envision American evangelicalism through its features permeating American politics and popular culture, they understate the effect of global forces on American evangelicals. In The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, Melani McAlister helps us explore how American evangelicals’ global engagement has led to the reimagining and reconstructing of their own religious identities at home.1McAlister joins a number of scholars such as Heather Curtis, David Swartz, David Kirkpatrick, and my own work on evangelical humanitarian agencies, to highlight the underexplored global influences on American evangelicalism. In fact, an entire issue of the Journal of American Studies, entitled Exploring the Global History of American Evangelicalism, was just published at the end of 2017 with even more case studies exploring these broader themes.
McAlister seems less interested in trying to explain the what as much as the why and how of evangelical internationalism. To explore American evangelicals’ postures toward the rest of the world, she proposes the evocative phrases, “enchanted internationalism” and “victim identification.” Have American evangelicals primarily engaged the world over the last fifty years less from an evangelistic mandate or post-colonial political and economic gain but rather through a conscious or unconscious identification with the charisma and religious experience of the global south? Do they see their own enchantment in contrast to the creeping threat of Weberian secularization in the West? Do they find solace and inspiration for their own place in the American political context through their identification with the persecution they often see in global Christians’ experiences around the world? These questions leave us with a vivid image of American evangelicals while also complicating global exchange. McAlister’s propositions are what she calls “double-edged,” allowing “American evangelicals to construct an image of themselves through a particular image of others.”
What do we do with McAlister’s “double-edged” notion of American evangelicals’ global imagination? It forces us to focus on the global as a lens to incorporate and interrogate the dynamic process of globalization within American evangelicalism. Even as the global nature of evangelicalism is now a given, most interpreters have adopted one of two paradigms in outlining the relationship of global Christianity to the West. Some hold up the rapid growth of global Christianity as local, indigenous, and diverse—outside of Western influence and often in contrast to Western decline. A second paradigm defines global Christianity more as an American export dominated by Western institutions shaped by televangelists beamed overseas, free market economics, prosperity theology, and megachurches modeled after American designs.
When focusing instead on transnational connections, however, the truth is surely blurrier. Transnationalism studies the flow of people (through migration and immigration), information and ideologies (such as education, communication, and media culture), as well as resources (economic development or capital investment). Even amidst increasing tribalistic nationalism around the world and threats of trade wars and rising tariffs, I believe few would still readily disagree with the notion that American evangelicals increasingly see themselves participating in a global world. Yet, McAlister is not simply tracking the movement of money and influence. She is arguing that economic and political history is also cultural history. Attending to the multi-directional flows of resources that define the evolution of institutions, power dynamics, and international engagement gives insight into the way American evangelicals see the world and their place in it through their interactions with markets, politics, and their own global outlooks. With current political realities, a focus on cultural analysis is even more poignant in making sense of the rhetoric and images that seem to shape current realities.
And these global realities appear to lead to increasingly blurred lines: between the United States and the rest of the world and within American evangelicalism itself. Far from a united movement, McAlister shows us, for instance, how global conflicts such as Congolese independence, South African apartheid, and even the current Egyptian treatment of Sudanese refugees elicit debates over America’s original sin of racism and white privilege among evangelicals at home. This has been the case as much in the past as it is in the present.
It is precisely through the blurriness that a fuller picture comes into view: fleshed out, realistic portraits over caricatures. Take for instance, Saddleback megachurch pastor Rick Warren. When forced to respond to Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill promoting the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” Warren hesitated to know how to respond. He was not simply hedging his bets; rather, he knew he faced a difficult choice. Refusing to condemn the bill placed him alongside the hardline US Religious Right with which he did not want to associate. Quickly condemning the bill would sacrifice hard-earned social capital and personal relationships with Ugandan religious leaders. While Warren clearly embodied a naive “enchanted internationalism” in his earliest ventures abroad, experience abroad taught him that his past outlook was insufficient for current realities.
While particular case studies and evangelical actors make McAlister’s point, the “double-edged” nature of evangelical internationalism may be best encapsulated in the operations and communications of religious humanitarianism that consistently blurs lines (between church and government, donor and recipient, America and the global south, religious and secular development worldviews). Short-term missions (STMs) and tentmaking missionaries are alive and well, but the future and the power to shape Americans’ global imaginations may belong to the NGOs like World Vision or Samaritan’s Purse. On the ground, they are deeply engaged in economic development and political exchange beyond idealizing enchantment or victimization. They employ a majority local staff over Western expats and broker relationships through international bodies like the United Nations or World Bank. Yet the images that still most often appeal to donors are simply smiling children. While they no longer portray the world through images of malnourished kids with flies in their eyes, American evangelicals still experience the enchanted internationalism of colorful school uniforms, joyful music of an open-aired church service, or women dancing under the sprays of water from a newly dug well.
Of course, evangelical internationalism and humanitarianism like evangelicalism itself are sprawling categories. By their nature, they are unregulated concepts. Therein lies their power as well as their limitations. We could spend all our time defining concepts like evangelicalism. The Immanent Frame continues to do its part in hosting definitional conversations before and after the 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Definitions have their place, but definitional debates may continue to be futile. Fewer and fewer numbers among a newer generation will embrace the evangelical label. Perhaps the term maintains more cache among pollsters, politicians, celebrity pastors, and Christian bloggers than it does among those most often labeled as part of the movement. More fruitful might be further work on the ways in which broadly-defined evangelicals operate in the world. For McAlister, that is through passion, populism, and an entrepreneurial orientation.
We do not know if the rigid theological and political categories may be blurring among American evangelicals, yet it appears probable that the characteristics of passion, populism, and entrepreneurism will continue. Add to the mix McAlister’s internationalism and you have a dynamic and fluid movement that will be reshaped even as it also shapes America’s global imagination. Throughout their history, evangelicals have defined themselves as much by who they are not as by who they are, but the labels will continue to matter less than the actions and outlooks. Will evangelicals continue to see the world as enchanted and share a sense of victimization? I am not sure. I believe both ideas will evolve considerably as global Christians assume greater agency and authority throughout religious networks. But such inevitable shifts do not take away from McAlister’s argument. In fact, it makes her case even stronger, for as McAlister makes clear, evangelicals’ “future belongs to the world.”