I should probably state up front that I wrote an enthusiastic blurb for Melani McAlister’s book: “The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is an enthralling work of stunning originality and ingenuity. By resituating the history of modern American evangelicalism internationally, Melani McAlister is not just complicating conventional wisdom, she’s smashing it completely. In its place, she offers a startlingly new interpretation: American evangelicals have been fundamentally shaped by the wider world. This is an important, landmark book.”
Whether this undermines my essay for this roundtable is up to readers, but I would point out that I have no vested interest in the success of McAlister’s book. After reading the manuscript, it was obvious to me that The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is a major work of scholarship and a powerful act of historical and sociological imagination, all of which will in fact make it a “landmark book.” It is empirically and analytically rich, fascinating in its details, and enlightening in its overarching conclusions. Above all, it sheds new light on the emergence of conservative Protestantism as a powerful force in American politics, culture, and society. For a scholar to find a new angle on the standard accounts of “the rise of the Religious Right” is a major achievement indeed.
McAlister aims for nothing less than a repositioning of the history of American evangelicalism, from an almost entirely domestic context to one in which developments in the United States share the stage with evangelicals’ international engagement. Most of the secondary literature on evangelicalism concentrates on issues such as abortion, school prayer, gender and sexuality, and so forth. As McAlister explains, those accounts are fine, but by ignoring the international realm they miss many of the most important dynamics of evangelicalism, historical and contemporary, that have given it its distinctive character. A common stereotype of evangelicals, going back to H. L. Mencken’s depiction during the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial, is that they are provincial, insular, and uninterested in the world beyond the United States. Whether that was true in Mencken’s day, it certainly has not been true in more recent decades, at least not as a blanket rule for all evangelicals.
McAlister offers much that is new, but to me two novel interpretive lenses through which to view American evangelicals’ encounter with the world particularly stand out: “enchanted internationalism” and “victim identification.” Both lenses are insightful and innovative and add much to existing interpretations of “evangelical internationalism,” a term she also uses. Enchanted internationalism refers to the bonds of supernatural and spiritual affinity American evangelicals held with burgeoning Protestantism in the global south. The secularized, modern West had become emotionally arid, and thus culturally inauthentic. American evangelicals yearned to recapture the sense of wonder secularism had destroyed, and they believed they found it in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In turn, harnessing the enchantment of the developing world would enable American evangelicals to reinvigorate their own nation and, hopefully, reverse its decline. This is, to put it mildly, a pretty thoroughgoing reinterpretation of a faith tradition usually identified with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts.
Victim identification—the veneration of martyrs who died in the service of Christ—had a similar impetus and a similar result in that it bound American evangelicals with Protestants in the global south in an imaginary of sacred suffering. More and more, but really ever since the early twentieth century, American evangelicals have felt like a persecuted minority in their own country. Whether that abstract sense of persecution resembles the actual persecution suffered by other marginalized groups in US society, or whether that persecution has an actual basis in reality (as opposed to evangelicals having to make adjustments in a pluralistic society), are open questions. What is not open to question is the depth of vulnerability Christian conservatives have felt in the United States, which in turn has given them common cause with their coreligionists throughout the global south.
The historical discipline has undergone a “transnational turn” over the last two or three decades. Transnational history differs from traditional international history in that the former is the bottom-up social and cultural history of people and events crossing borders, whereas the latter deals with top-down political issues about war, peace, and diplomacy. The two—that is, transnational and international approaches—have a lot in common, especially global interactions, and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between them. Unsurprisingly, the transnational turn has seen the profile of missionaries soar as a new generation of scholars uses them to explore cultural, social, intellectual, and even political linkages reaching all corners of the globe. The historical literature on missionaries has exploded in the past decade, but much of it focuses on missionaries before 1965 from the liberal denominations and mission boards which have been variously called mainline or ecumenical (or, for an earlier period, modernist). The most notable example is a major recent study by David Hollinger which traces, in large part, the origins of American pluralism, cosmopolitanism, and secularization to the ecumenical missionaries returning from East Asia after 1930 (and especially after 1945). Most historians stop when Hollinger does, in the mid- to late 1960s, as liberal denominations were hemorrhaging members and ecumenical missions were collapsing. And so to get a truly full sense of the American missionary enterprise, and how it affected the United States and the world, it is absolutely essential to read McAlister alongside Hollinger et al. for she is one of the few scholars who has pushed beyond the mid-1960s to examine the evangelical missions that were not only supplanting their liberal rivals but surpassing them, at least in terms of numbers.1
The consequences of this development for American political theology, as well as for American foreign relations, were enormous. At just the moment US foreign policy was changing gears, and at just the moment American politics was taking a sharp right turn, evangelicals were becoming the dominant presence on the American religious landscape. The populist edge to foreign policy, and especially the emphasis on human rights as a form of principled universalism (but in reality a distinctly American project), had a strongly evangelical character to it, something previous observers have for the most part missed.
As McAlister says, evangelicals were in part reacting to the long dominance of the established mainline churches and their mission boards and outreach organizations. Evangelicals resented the presumptuousness of ecumenical Protestants, who, through their dominance of elite ecclesiastical and educational (not to mention political) institutions, had long claimed to speak for all of American Protestantism even though evangelicals harbored their own distinctive beliefs and practices—one of which, the importance of local church sovereignty and identity, was constantly being violated by the ecumenists in the National Council of Churches at home and, globally, the World Council of Churches. As internationally engaged as they were, then, American evangelicals were also closely tethered to American nationalism (and, some might say, by extension American imperialism), not coincidentally in an era when Americans as a whole were becoming less enamored of multilateralism and international organizations. At precisely the same time, neoconservatives were consolidating their influence in secular policymaking circles. The parallels between neocons, on one hand, and evangelical missionaries and service organizations abroad, on the other, are not superficial.
But evangelicals were not just reacting to the NCC and WCC (and, at home, the growth of the liberal state). They were also shaped by their nation’s debacle in Vietnam. It is commonly assumed that the war shattered America’s exceptionalist myths and ushered in an age of retrenchment, but the opposite was actually the case. As Barbara Keys has shown in a different context, the painful legacy of Vietnam impelled Americans from across the political spectrum to “reclaim American virtue.” Keys points to the surge in the human rights crusade in the second half of the 1970s as a byproduct of Americans’ need to salvage exceptionalism from the wreckage of Indochina, and this fits perfectly with McAlister’s timeline too. But evangelicals married to the human rights campaign an unabashed Americanism that was not always blindly supportive of what the US government did in the world but never wavered in its belief that America had a uniquely redemptive global power. Evangelicals also had a more direct connection to Vietnam; from martyred evangelical missionaries (whose fate received a lot of attention in church networks in the United States), to the communist persecution of indigenous Christians, to a refugee crisis in the 1970s/80s which evangelicals tried to alleviate, Vietnam was an idea (even more than it was a country) that loomed large in the evangelical imagination.
These are just some of the issues The Kingdom of God Has No Borders raises; there are many more. McAlister makes a hefty contribution to several fields, not least American religious, political, and cultural history, missiology, American studies, and the history of American foreign relations. So after reading such a book at the publisher’s invitation, I was more than happy to provide a blurb urging others to read it. I hope this roundtable has a similar effect.
See also “Special Issue: Exploring the Global History of American Evangelicalism,” Journal of American Studies, vol. 51 (November 2017), a collection of essays to which McAlister contributed.↩