The “international turn” of American evangelicalism constitutes one of the most distinctive dimensions of the resurgence of conservative Protestantism in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. On the one hand, the revival of global evangelical missionary and humanitarian engagement changed in fundamental ways the relationship of evangelicals with foreign policy, international relations, human rights issues, and economic justice crusades. On the other hand, evangelical voices from Africa, Asia, and Latin America have become more vocal and assertive within the movement. After all, in 2010 about 70 percent of evangelicals lived outside of the United States.
Until recently scholarship has largely ignored conservative Protestants’ interactions with the non-Western worlds that unfolded in the context of the simultaneous rise of American empire and the mobilization of anticolonial movements. As scholars have begun to shift from telling the story of the rise of the religious Right in the United States toward a focus on the global engagement of evangelicals, however, they have gradually transformed our understanding of the movement. Their research has shed new light on the political diversity, cultural complexities, and sociocultural contestations within the movement. It has explored how evangelicals of all ethnic and racial backgrounds—including white, black, Hispanic, African, and Asian believers—influenced domestic theological and political debates, were entangled with asserting or questioning American power abroad, became voices of indigenous protest, and shaped the way the United States related to the rest of the world.
Melani McAlister is one of the main scholars who have pioneered this look at evangelicalism’s transnational dimensions. Her deep engagement with religious thought, rituals, institutions, cultures, people, and sites makes visible the voices and visions that have been marginalized in the context of the nationcentric focus of much scholarship on evangelicalism. In her book, McAlister opens up new perspectives on, and weaves into broader scholarly debates, four dimensions of global evangelicalism.
First, she shows that studying the massive post-World War II expansion of evangelical overseas missions, institution-building, and Bible tourism challenges the notion of evangelicalism as exclusively white and rightwing. In an era of decolonization, many Protestant missionaries returned to America as advocates of foreign peoples and as critics of global poverty, economic injustice, and discriminatory race and gender politics. These so-called “feedback effects of reverse missions” were more frequent than is often recognized. Colorful individuals such as Samuel Escobar, Michael Cassidy, Tom Skinner, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Caesar Molebatsi, and Stephen Biko demanded that evangelicals realize their own complicity in racial oppression, colonialism, and war. Organizations and periodicals, such as the Women’s Missionary Union in the Southern Baptist Convention and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s HIS magazine, emerged as leading voices for social and racial justice. Likewise, venues such as the 1974 Lausanne Congress offered fora for anti-apartheid campaigns and Vietnam War protests.
Second, as a scholar of international relations McAlister explores how evangelical global experiences and institutions shaped US foreign policy. Her focus is on two areas that gained new relevance both for evangelicals and for US policymakers during and after World War II: Africa and the Middle East. Africa became the center of the postwar evangelical missionary re-engagement with “unreached peoples,” social justice-oriented “kingdom work,” and human rights campaigns focused on protecting Christians. Meanwhile, in foreign policy terms Africa emerged as a key battleground in the fight against communism and, later on, the “war on terror.” Middle Eastern politics also drew evangelicals into its orbit. Many invested the creation of the state of Israel with prophetic meaning as part of the end-times scenario. This provided the background for the rise of an evangelical Israel lobby, the movement’s demonization of Islam, push for the International Religious Freedom Act, and support for the Iraq war. McAlister perceptively relates this to research that examines how the expanding networks between the state and nongovernmental agencies helped provide the knowledge base and administrative capacities for US foreign policy. On the basis of evangelical NGOs, such as World Vision, Compassion International, and Samaritan’s Purse, she illuminates how religious imagery and structures permeated America’s pursuit of international relief, commercial access, military penetration, and containment.
Third, McAlister asks how becoming more embroiled with the world outside of the United States redefines the content and boundaries of the movement. Examining mission manuals, magazines, and many other sources, she identifies two distinct evangelical global postures. “Enchanted internationalism” describes the evangelical longing to invigorate vapid Western religious practices via the authentic, vibrant, healing worship associated with the global south. “Victim identification,” meanwhile, galvanizes believers via martyrdom stories and images of tortured Christian bodies. McAlister connects this in two ways with newer transnational approaches to the study of religion and politics. On the one hand, she shows how the evangelical “politics of affection” runs counter to rational actor theory that dominates the study of international relations. Instead, the evangelical “circulation of feeling” locates authority and legitimacy in fervent preaching, emotional worship, heart-wrenching conversion, and visual displays of suffering. On the other hand, she advocates a diasporic understanding of evangelicalism. Tracing the decentralized and pluralist evangelical network culture, including media ministries, periodicals, colleges, and coffee shops, she highlights how this “connective tissue,” rather than set doctrines and fixed ethnonational identities, defines who is an evangelical.
Finally, the book links up with the growing transnational literature on subaltern self-assertion in colonized spaces. McAlister shows compellingly that the political visions and actions of African and Latin American evangelicals were not simply pale reflections of Western religion. Instead, they grew out of combinations of indigenous and imported concepts. Hence, in the Congo the symbiosis of Christian and African practices was a core ingredient in the anticolonial struggle. Similarly, the key to understanding the power of Pentecostalism in the global south is that it both validates and transcends indigenous spiritual practices. The focus on subalterity, however, also reveals deep struggles for authority within the evangelical movement – with at times disturbing implications. For example, McAlister shows that the anti-gay campaigns in Uganda should not be understood as the result of an American rightwing import. Instead, they grew out of Ugandan anticolonialism rooted in the abstinence-orientation of East African revivalism, campaigns against sexual enslavement, suspicions about Western liberalism, and resentment toward paternalist NGOs.
In summation, this richly textured book goes a long way toward writing a truly transnational history of evangelicalism by shifting our focus toward non-state networks, global feedback effects, diasporic identities, and subaltern assertion. At the same time, however, it reveals how evangelical tenets and practices that grew in American soil impose limitations and blind spots on the global movement. Evangelicals from the global south might ask uncomfortable questions about the extent to which racism, exploitation, and exclusion are built into the very foundations of the American liberal order. Despite valiant efforts, however, disentangling the Christian message from US wealth and power remains a challenging project, as many American believers remained rabidly nationalistic, defended the apartheid regime in South Africa, and kept silent about the horrors of Abu Ghraib. Likewise, many evangelical NGOs saw their work as part of a Cold War project of simultaneously winning souls and spreading the American way of life. They often embraced the growing reach of American power as a protector of Christians abroad.
Meanwhile, evangelical efforts to choreograph global empathy at times end up replicating market-driven consumerist models. The “invasion teams” of the short-term mission movement, for example, sold a commodified spiritual adventure designed to make Western religious customers feel good about themselves. Requiring neither cultural immersion nor language skills, short-term missions “pet the poor,” reduced mission work to a self-help trip, and failed to generate insights into the structural causes of poverty. As McAlister writes, “there was a kind of willful determination to be enchanted rather than disturbed by the poverty of the people they met.”
In the same vein, diasporic consciousness can open people’s hearts and minds to the suffering of others, but it can also be cruelly dichotomous and rigidly self-righteous when it comes to those outside of the “body of Christ.” Hence, as the book shows, the very mechanisms that generate global evangelical impulses toward engaging with the world, including persecution imagery, “enchanted internationalism,” and human rights campaigns, cannot be disaggregated from growing Islamophobia and “clash of civilization” thinking. Likewise, subaltern assertion and anticolonialism along evangelical lines can result in the reassertion of racial hierarchies, religious divides, and oppressive practices. In the case of Uganda, for example, the anti-gay campaigns included threats to LGBT rights, “corrective rape,” and even murder. And in their struggle against Islam, many Southern Sudanese regarded themselves as black and Christian, and constructed their Northern Sudanese enemies as Arab, Muslim—and white.
In short, even in light of new evidence on global evangelicalism the jury is out on whether a faith tradition that is so intimately connected to American power since the second half of the twentieth century truly has the internal capacity to challenge fundamentally global hierarchies. Sustaining radical alternative visions requires an imaginative space that transcends nations, capitalism, individualism, and liberalism as the dominant territorial form, socioeconomic mode, cultural trope, and political ideology. Yet in too many instances transnational evangelicalism, however diverse and global, still collapses into a more conventional movement defined primarily by its theological and political conservatism. In light of this, the fact that 81 percent of self-identified white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump does not seem such an aberration after all.