Readers of Melani McAlister’s new book are treated to an astute examination of the global history of US evangelicalism since the 1950s. McAlister brings her widely recognized skill of transnational analysis to bear on the history of US evangelicals—particularly missionaries—working to make real the centuries-long dream of Christianizing the entire world. McAlister employs three major themes—Networks, Body Politics, and Emotions—to structure the volume. The result is a deeply researched, transnational account of US evangelicals that devotes particular attention to US missionary activity in the Middle East and throughout the African continent.
McAlister begins with dynamics of the Cold War. Her account ends with recent developments shaped by the US wars against predominantly Muslim populations since 9/11. Along the way, readers learn of the evangelical Christian alignment with Zionism against the so-called “Muslim world”; US evangelical politics in the Congo during Patrice Lumumba’s leadership; the debates among American evangelicals concerning anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa; the relationship between evangelicals in Uganda and the United States respecting anti-gay legislation; relations between Sudanese Christians and Muslims; US youths missionizing in Egypt; American evangelical responses to the military invasion of Iraq; and other prominent themes that have intersected with the transnational domain of evangelical religion.
McAlister’s research draws on an immense range of archival sources. In addition, she has produced an impressive level of ethnographic research in multiple countries. This combination of historical and archival methods yields an insightful volume that shifts appropriately between macroscopic and granular angles to render a comprehensive assessment of her subject.
So, what distinguishes McAlister’s work from the numerous studies of evangelicalism published in recent years? Among the distinctions of this work is its deliberate and thoughtful attention to examining evangelicalism beyond the typical frame of only White evangelicals. Rather than equating evangelicals with strictly Whites, McAlister also incorporates substantial attention to the role of African American evangelicals to capture their involvement with this array of debates, global missions, and political activism that has shaped the past half-century of global religious history. In addition to the racial identity of the US evangelicals in question, McAlister also demonstrates deliberate interest in the role of race as a social force. For instance, she makes visible the efforts of White evangelicals seeking access to foreign missionary targets during the 1960s and 1970s, as they were forced to address their anti-Black racism—to manage its perception—to mitigate anti-racist critiques stemming from abroad. In a different context, White evangelicals who defended the White South African government’s apartheid rule, McAlister explains, soon found themselves contending with Black and White evangelical critics promoting divestment from that country on religiously argued grounds. More recently, as media pundits have attributed the rise of the Trump presidency to overwhelming evangelical support, McAlister convincingly demonstrates that this common equation of “evangelical” with “Whites” elides the contrasting, generally skeptical reaction of Black evangelicals to the strident racism of the Trump presidency.
How does McAlister’s account of religion and politics square with the prominent themes of contemporary developments? Recent media attention to the racial conflicts between Blacks and Whites in predominantly White evangelical churches of the United States corroborate the analysis of McAlister’s book. White evangelical parishioners voted for Donald Trump by the largest margin of any presidential election in their history. The fact that he campaigned on the promise of the most extremist forms of state racism—internment camps, a travel ban against Muslims, the criminalization of Latinx immigrants, his defense of law enforcement personnel killing unarmed Blacks—was not lost on Black evangelicals affiliated with the mostly-White churches that helped deliver a victory to Trump. As White evangelical churches have celebrated Trump’s rise to power, Black evangelicals have abandoned those White churches in growing numbers.
It is rather patent how such developments manifest the role of racism in national politics. A further issue, however, is less obvious: How were such developments connected to the global arena? This is precisely where McAlister’s study becomes essential. Her book’s transnational purview clarifies how the domestic practices of state racism against Muslims, for instance, is connected to and even enabled in part through US militarism against Muslim polities abroad. For instance, McAlister examines the rationality of evangelical stances on the US invasion of Iraq, demonstrating important disconnects between Black and White evangelicals. The latter were more uniform in their support for the war, perceiving the “Muslim world” as a strategic enemy of the United States and Israel. As the US torture of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison came to light, Black evangelicals were keen to relate such brutality to the long history of White murderous violence against African Americans. By contrast, McAlister explains that some White evangelicals were willing to rationalize the torture and killings at Abu Ghraib, condemning any appearance of being “soft” on Iraqis categorized as terrorists.
On a smaller scale, McAlister renders this function of race among a diverse group of young US missionaries in Egypt. The book recounts how a Black missionary was beset by the anti-Black racism (verbal attacks, physical aggression, and other hostile interactions) of Egyptians who mistook her for being Sudanese, whom she subsequently gravitated toward. This same missionary was rebuffed by a White peer for not appreciating the ardor of missionizing Egyptians—a contrast sharpened by her colleague’s failure to acknowledge how Whiteness functioned to benefit the latter’s interaction with Egyptians. At multiple levels, McAlister sets on display the function of race in evangelicalism and reveals how the domestic theater of race is constituted in great measure by transnational networks.
What are the conspicuous threads running through the book’s narrative? Among the more visible is McAlister’s account of an ascendant narrative of Christian persecution. The notion that American Christians are a persecuted population who have been chased to the margins of mainstream society and are subjected to anti-Christian discrimination is not literally true. The United States has been and remains a majority Christian nation (more than 70 percent Christian in 2018) whose national practices and public symbols are based on Christianity. Religious persecution in the United States has occurred, but it has historically and perduringly targeted African-derived religions such as Vodun and Santeria, Catholicism, Jewish religion, and varieties of Islam. Despite this fact, the narrative of evangelical Christian persecution has become tremendously efficacious and familiar. In our present moment, this trope is helping to advance arguments for Christians to enjoy the legal right to discriminate against LGBTQ peoples. In 1993, the US Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was originally crafted in response to concerns about protecting Indigenous American religious observances. Since that time, more than twenty states have introduced legislation to help ensure evangelical Christians are able to exercise their religious rights.
How is it possible that evangelical Christians continue to dominate the United States yet are so thoroughly enamored of a victim status? The answer lies with what McAlister examines in this volume: the global purview of Christian persecution. For several decades, she explains, US evangelicals have identified Christian persecution at the hands of Muslims throughout the globe—Christians in southern Sudan and Coptic Christians in Egypt, for instance. American evangelicals have produced numerous reports dubiously claiming that millions of Christians suffer persecution and have created multiple organizations devoted to fighting this persecution. This has translated domestically into a decades-long narrative that functions to incorporate US evangelicals into a global community of persecuted Christians who are then compelled to assert themselves against Islam as a rising force threatening the very lives of Christians.
It should be evident that studying the transnational frame of religion is most important because American audiences need to understand religion beyond the boundaries of the United States. Of equal importance, however, is that what pedestrian observers understand as US religion is “always already” constituted through a global array of cultural and political histories.
Beyond the tremendous strengths of McAlister’s book, readers might also take issue with the lack of attention to Latinx evangelicals, who constitute 11 percent of the US evangelical population (Blacks constitute only 6 percent). Although Whites make up more than three-fourths of the US evangelical population, Latinx Christians easily constitute the fastest-growing ethnic demographic of the nation’s evangelicals. For this reason, the absence of Latinx Christians in this study and the general absence of attention to Latin America and the Caribbean is notable. Indeed, given the scale of interest that has emerged in the history of evangelical Christianity in South America and Mesoamerica, one would easily expect that a global history of this sort would include substantial discussion of this region.
Nevertheless, McAlister’s attention to race as a social force, her departure from treating “evangelical” as a White-only category, and her careful attention to an ascendant narrative of “Christian persecution” ensure she has produced an important account that renders significant insights into global religious networks and models a refreshing approach to the study of American religion. This study should inspire further transnational research on American religions that engage productively with colonialism, racialization, and global networks of geopolitics.