The current evangelical zeitgeist of the United States is shaped by disjointed perspectives on global affairs. Melani McAlister’s book The Kingdom of God Has No Borders shows us that it has been for some time. In this historical moment of 2018, white Christian support for the Trump administration is at an all-time high, peaking at over 75 percent of white evangelical approval. Yet, the two largest Protestant denominations in the country seem to be tearing apart at the seams—as does the rest of the nation—over borders. McAlister’s book offers an important contribution to the scholarly conversation on US evangelicalism in the world. It incites critical consideration of a borderless eschaton and well-meaning evangelical internationalism in the midst of the blinding reality of borders, cages, and surging evangelical nativism.
McAlister has carefully constructed a chronology of US evangelical engagement with, primarily, African and Middle Eastern nations over the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The guiding arc of the argument is compelling and important: To understand US evangelical Christianity, its historical development and proliferation must be considered within a global context. Evangelicals in the United States, as they emerged in their particular social and political formation in the post-Second World War era of US hegemony, “marched out across the globe and became enmeshed in global politics,” McAlister tells us. The thrust of the thesis is to analyze “evangelicals’ decades-long struggle to define how and under what terms they would engage the non-Western world.”
I respond to this historical narrative as an anthropologist of Christianity in Latin America, a region marked by the reality of borders, the uneven processes of globalization, and political-economic forces that mark gaping caverns of inequality. These are the same inequalities at play in the movement of the million or so short-term missionaries who travel from the United States to Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean every year. These dynamics of mobility and access have allowed US evangelicals of the last fifty years to live their lives “across borders, alive with passion and fraught with questions,” as McAlister states.
These same sociopolitical and economic disparities are that much more legible when considering movements from south to north (through missionary activities, or otherwise inspired migrations) that are stymied by the same borders that US evangelicals flow easily across. Of course, life in the Americas is deeply transnational. McAlister gives many examples of transnational relations in the world of evangelical missions. But such mobility in the world, and especially in the Americas, is also a question of privilege and power. It is from this vantage point, of uneven flows and the colonial and racial topographies that color the political terrain of Latin America, that McAlister’s project resonates with my work, and from here that I offer my thoughts.
McAlister produces an archival imagination centered on the voices of the missionaries themselves and shaping the situatedness of her topic, global American evangelicalism. Such an archival imagination offers a muted analysis of the positionality of these voices, of this particular project of evangelical internationalism as imagined by the very missionaries who, we are told, “for the most part did not see themselves as colonialists.” McAlister follows tradition in the study of American religion that has tended to circle around, on the one hand, the study of lived religion with its focus on emplacement and locality, and on the other hand, transnational flows of globalizing ideas, beliefs, and bodies. Yet, the field of American religion in operation remains, with some notable exceptions, the study of US religious historiography. The field tends to be narrow in geographical definition and methodological approach, appropriating the identifier of “American” as specific to the United States, with a universal purview and a clear distinction between “here” and “there.” We have been provoked to consider the politics (or the political limits) of such endeavors in producing the local and the global, and I sustain the provocation. Indeed, I echo the critique of Brazilian anthropologist Otavio Velho in proposing that the very production of the “local,” and of “America,” is a colonial production, tying religion and race into imbricated forms of colonial power.
McAlister deftly demonstrates the forms and media through which the international experiences of so many evangelicals led to formations and divisions within US evangelicalism and political engagement at home that was far from uniform. For example, some US missionaries at the first Lausanne Conference urged support for the civil rights movement because Jim Crow at home made evangelizing in African nations difficult, to the point of being hypocritical. Others worried that taking a stance on issues, from civil rights to apartheid, would be too “political” a stance for the church.
Like the flow of people across US borders, however, the balance of McAlister’s story skews toward the perspective of the missionaries, the world seen through the eyes of those with privileged passports. The reader is offered glimpses, shimmers, fleeting recognitions of critique from the African Methodist Episcopal church toward white evangelical supremacy in African nations, to passionate challenges from individuals native to the nations being missionized/colonized/reconquered by the Spirit. But these questions are not central to the book’s argument. The voice of the evangelical missionary guides the narration, and so we read that being a missionary was “very hard work,” that the labor of the missionaries was “unrelenting,” and how missionaries who experienced suffering or even died during their terms could be swept up in discourses of martyrdom and persecution. If McAlister went further in recognizing the conceptual and political terrain upon which the “civilizing mission” of American evangelicalism was taking place, a broader analytical space would be cleared into which further critical inquiry could flow.
One example in particular demonstrates my provocation: The infamous “Auca Martyrs” case which frames part of the discussion around race in the first chapter. McAlister describes the Waorani indigenous people in Ecuador as a people “entirely cut off from contact with people from the outside” and narrates the story of five US missionaries who were killed by a “fearful group of Waorani warriors.” This story effectively paints the picture of the ways US evangelicals channeled the tragedy into the narrative of a global project of persecution against Christians.
Here, a consideration of colonial histories would open up new questions in the text. The Waorani are an indigenous group with a complex history of their own that includes, yes, violence and conflict. However, they are also a people that has been systemically, and violently, affected through their contact with colonial power throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially with the brutal proliferation of the rubber trade. Their existence in the deep jungle of Ecuadorian Amazon has been the result of displacements brought on by deforestation, rubber and oil extraction, as well as industrialized agriculture. The white missionaries who were killed by the Waorani warriors engaged with a colonial legacy, driven by the arrogance of racially imbued missionary efforts which must be recognized. The powerful narrative of the influence of white missionaries being killed in the line of Christian duty is not apart from colonial frames of racialized hierarchies and forms of being, as Nelson Maldonado-Torres has shown us. The consideration of US colonial forms in missionary activities has also been the object of study for other scholars of American religion.
McAlister’s wonderfully descriptive book leads this reader to wonder if such US evangelical globalism can, indeed, be saved from its history. Can US missionary exploits around the world be surgically separated from the racialized domination, expansionism, and state-sponsored violence of US imperialism? To tell the history of US evangelical missionaries, at least in Latin America, is to tell the history of colonial power relations and racial sub-alterity. Lest we forget, or overlook, the fact that “race is a system of governing through a colonial relation of power,” as Sylvester Johnson has so succinctly articulated. McAlister’s study provides many examples of fraught debate within the evangelical missionary community. Every historical moment is troubled by an exceptional voice of challenge to colonial power, US imperialism, or, in McAlister’s own terms, decrying “benevolent supremacy.” Yet, the analytical space for considering the colonial and historical contexts and cultures that the missionaries insist on converting remains clouded with the provincial exceptionalism that the study of “American religion” has tended toward.
Within the study of lived, contemporary Christianity, much of our scholarship continues to seek out rationality and resistance within movements of an identified “Other.” We want nothing more than to evolve beyond repugnant cultural others and savage nobility. We seek out embodied agency, relatability, and inspiration driven by our unencumbered mobility in the world. Yet pursuing agency and relatability can problematically lead to a teleology of individual empowerment that refuses collective participation. The risk lies in rendering social constructions (like agency, evangelicalism, and borders) into immutably components of a natural human quality that is also accessible and enviable by all facets of humanity. This practice, in the words of Michael Taussig, “desensitizes society and robs it of all that is inherently critical of its inner form.”
In the Americas, colonialism is the terrain upon which religion—as category, as practice, as institutional designate, and as scholarly study—has flourished. It is worth considering why colonialism and coloniality sit so prominently in the purview of decolonial scholars yet seem to have taken a backseat in the study of religion in the United States. In Chicano/a writings of Gloria Anzaldúa and José Saldívar, as with other subaltern and post-colonial theorists, coloniality holds a prominent place in the consideration of religion in the United States. In the scholarship on religion coming to us from Latin American nations, coloniality is at the forefront of critique. Why?
Perhaps it is precisely because the concept of “religion” and the study thereof is as contested as the idea of modernity, the concept of nation, and the borders that divide worlds. It is also, perhaps, because for the scholars of Christianity seeking to take Christianity “seriously” and “for itself” there must be more robust, counter-disciplinary dialogue with the scholars of religion in the United States and Latin America, the historians, and the critical theorists in discussions of space (coloniality), time (modernity), and borders (nation). Inspiring exemplars have been emerging for some time. Some recent examples include the work of Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesus, Pamela Klassen, and Elaine Peña. We might ask, once again, where critique lies in the study of religion, or perhaps more specifically, in the study of “American religion,” especially within an international purview.
I conclude with an image. A place. A border. Bloody feet. Days of walking in the desert. Faces blistered from the sun. Bodies exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and humiliated. This is the Red Cross reception tent of the unlucky hundreds of Mexican and Central American migrants who are caught in the Arizona desert on the US- Mexico borderlands where, as Gloria Anzaldúa painfully writes: “The third world grates against the first, and bleeds.” Here are the ones who are immediately deported, who tell stories of the many others, even unluckier, who were taken to detention centers. Thousands of them children. This is the border.
If the Kingdom of God has no borders, then this can be true only for those for whom borders do not rip families apart, for whom borders do not incite fear and terror, for whom borders don’t mean slow and agonizing death under the Arizona sun. It can be true only for those privileged to freely wander the world, bringing their “good news” of a borderless heavenly kingdom, for only with such a blindness to relations of power and history, can such a Kingdom exist. As the persistent archival imagination of good intentions continues to proliferate, the “third world” continues to grate against the first and bleed. It is painfully broken into being over and over again.
We might hope the evangelicals of the United States are inspired once again by international events to bring about change through their “Kingdom work” to tear down borders in this world, reflecting their borderless imagined ideal. Our task as scholars, however, will be to challenge and to disrupt an uncritical exceptionalism, and carry on our work of decentering hegemonic discourse through unraveling the intimate entanglements between religion, racialization, and colonialism. Understanding these entanglements will push forward the critical conversation around religion as, at times, a racialized and racist formation, always historically contingent and politically embedded.