In The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, Melani McAlister offers an engaging and multifaceted portrait of US evangelicals’ diverse global engagements since the 1950s. McAlister shows just how profoundly these engagements have shaped evangelical identity in the United States and beyond. She pushes scholars to follow their subjects across racial and national borders and to see evangelicalism as a global movement in which white Americans, as wealthy and powerful as they might be, are far from the only players. Without this global frame, she demonstrates, any account of American evangelicalism remains woefully incomplete.
This book supplements but does not upend more familiar portraits of white evangelicals as politically conservative and often implicitly (or explicitly) racist actors, as witnessed by their overwhelming support for Donald Trump in 2016. Defining the boundaries of evangelicalism, always a difficult task, appears even more fraught at a time when (white) evangelicalism has become so identified with the Trump brand that some who resist that identification have rejected the label “evangelical” along with it. Recognizing this dynamic, McAlister refuses to limit her scope or the category of evangelicalism to the politically conservative white Protestants who have become so thoroughly identified with this label and are now most inclined to claim it.
Instead she opts for a theological definition, in short, “that evangelicals emphasize the Bible, the cross, personal salvation, and evangelism.” This definition is hardly novel, but it allows McAlister to include a much larger set of Christians, many of them theologically conservative people of color, within her study. And since not all of those captured in her definitional net would call themselves evangelicals, this approach challenges the notion that scholars should privilege self-definition both for individuals and for groups. Scholars worry that any imposed definition can exclude some of those who would place themselves within a group while including others who would not. Either way, such definitions can be distorting and disrespectful. They can also lead scholars to participate, unwittingly perhaps, in the group’s own boundary-setting power struggles and disputes.
McAlister helpfully points out that the term “evangelical” has been politicized and racialized in ways that make people of color less likely to identify with it even when they are very much involved in evangelical networks and share religious vocabularies, practices, and theological convictions with those who do use the term. Further, she explains, many Asian, Latinx, and African Americans have quite comfortably named themselves in this way but are ignored by analysts who assume a white referent for the term. Attending to these actors in our accounts of evangelicalism, whether or not they identify as such, opens up a complex and sometimes unpredictable world of evangelical political engagement.
In this way, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders gestures toward another trend in religious studies to focus on the cultural processes by which categories like “evangelicalism” are defined and policed. Throughout the book I wanted McAlister to theorize these dynamics more explicitly, to say more about how “evangelicalism” is (re)produced in ways that assume the invisible modifier “white,” and what this process reveals about the larger cultural politics of category definition. In other words, while she effectively demonstrates that people of color are actively involved in evangelical networks and that these networks are increasingly global, I wanted more about how and why this more complex picture gets obscured. As her epilogue explains, commentators who assume all evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election completely miss the evangelicals of color who emphatically did not. But these elisions are more than just a “category mistake.” Rather, such assumptions of evangelical whiteness are produced and reproduced—by political commentators, public figures, and white evangelicals themselves—in a kind of representational feedback loop that continually reinforces white evangelical power.
This feedback loop has actually created the definitional conundrums McAlister wants to redress. She rightly wants her readers to see that white evangelical power and privilege has never been the only story. Chapter Three, “Christian Revolutions,” describes the growth of a new social and political consciousness mobilized by people of color at a series of evangelical conferences in the 1960s. “The global networks of evangelicalism made intellectual and theological connections across borders,” she writes. “A speech by a South African at a conference in Berlin, where he had turned to African Americans for support, had served to inspire an Ecuadorian, who would go on to castigate young Americans at Urbana.” As she describes, evangelicals of color in the United States and around the world spoke up against colonial violence and systemic oppression and insisted that these too must be evangelical concerns. It is crucial to hear their voices. But McAlister does not tell us enough about how and why they have been silenced, or about the links between their invisibility and the political conservatism of the white evangelical powers-that-be.
Another key theme for McAlister is the “politics of suffering,” or the persistent evangelical focus on suffering bodies and the modes of engagement that it fosters. In one chapter after another she describes how images of human suffering, especially of Christians suffering for their faith, have forged powerful emotional bonds that drive evangelical action. For example, evangelical networks circulated depictions of white missionaries attacked in the violence of postcolonial Congo in the 1960s, of Christians persecuted by communist regimes in the Cold War, and of Christians captured and sold into slavery during the long civil war in Sudan during the 1990s and early 2000s. Such images, as she demonstrates, have shaped American evangelical sensibilities and political engagement in profound and consequential ways.
McAlister’s analysis here reflects the work of affect theorists such as Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant, who analyze the social production and political work of feelings. Like any other affect, evangelical emotions such as sympathy and sentiment cannot simply be taken for granted but must instead be seen as both products and producers of particular social worlds. They are cultivated by evangelical media networks that curate and disseminate accounts of Christian suffering that are refracted through (and themselves reinforce) long-established narratives of religious persecution and martyrdom.
Evangelical concern for suffering bodies have intersected with US racial politics in multiple ways, as McAlister describes. African American evangelicals have often united their efforts for the relief of Christian suffering with the struggle for black liberation. For them, the movements against apartheid in the 1980s and against the practice of slavery in Sudan in the 1990s resonated profoundly with the history of black freedom struggle in the United States.
White evangelicals, on the other hand, even when they participate in the same campaigns, have tended to focus on Christian suffering and the quest for Christian freedom. These narratives have often had conservative political consequences. Decontextualized from the long history of missionary complicity with colonial rule, for example, narratives of Congolese violence against white missionaries in the 1960s could also reinforce white fears of black violence and of black equality in the United States. They fostered white nostalgia for colonial rule in Africa and with it white opposition to the civil rights movement in the United States, as well. At the height of the Cold War, accounts of Christian suffering both in Africa and behind the Iron Curtain also bolstered evangelical assumptions of US benevolence in contrast to Soviet tyranny. These narratives provided a convenient foil, a way for white Christians to avoid (and to delegitimize) the critiques of racial oppression that would have implicated them.
After the Cold War, as McAlister explains, the focus of evangelical concern shifted toward the purported persecution of Christians in the so-called “Muslim world.” Narratives of Christian suffering, as in the campaign to redeem slaves in Sudan, shaped larger American campaigns for global religious freedom and strengthened the notion that Christianity is pitted against Islam in a global “clash of civilizations.” These narratives have hopelessly distorted the complex local and global dynamics behind the conflicts in question. “South Sudan suddenly became less interesting when its people were no longer oppressed by Muslims,” McAlister writes. “Religion was neither the cause nor the solution to South Sudan’s pain.” As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd argues in Beyond Religious Freedom, such narratives not only drastically oversimplify the complex causes of violence but also conveniently obscure the significant role US economic and military interventions have so often played. This evangelical politics of suffering continues to support assumptions of American benevolence and so enable US imperial power.
Such narratives have also helped build white evangelical support for Trump. McAlister describes the website of the evangelical organization Open Doors, for example, featuring a multimedia “Campaign in Support of Iraqi Christians” with dramatic accounts of “religious-cide” against Christians. Such campaigns have seamlessly united American evangelical anxieties about Islam with the politics of religious freedom, packaged and mobilized to reinforce an ultraconservative Christian agenda within the United States.
While recognizing these political realities, McAlister rightly does not let them define her story. If I sometimes wanted even more analysis and even more context from this already ambitious and capacious book, I also learned immensely from it. As the daughter of missionaries, Mennonites who spent a total of twenty-four years in five different African countries, this book helpfully illuminated my own childhood memories of Swaziland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. McAlister has helped me contextualize my evangelical parents’ passionate concerns around racism, apartheid, and justice in postcolonial Africa and in the United States, weaving the small threads of my memory into a more elaborate fabric than I could previously have imagined. What emerges is a multicolored crazy quilt with an increasingly diverse and global set of quilters, a messy bird’s-eye view of evangelical global engagements with long-term consequences that McAlister is far too wise to predict.