First, I want to thank everyone who contributed to this forum. It is an honor to have this impressive group of scholars engage with my work so closely and with such generosity. Several of the essays provide a kind of guide to reading The Kingdom of God Has No Borders as I would like it to be read: A critical account of evangelical history that nonetheless treats evangelicals like we treat most historical subjects—complicated, contradictory, and often in conflict with each other. As a historian, I found myself most interested in those conflicts, and much of the book traces debates among believers who mostly agree on some basic theological points but who disagree on much else: the politics of race, of decolonization, of gender and sexuality, and on the significance of that crucial doctrine evangelicals call “social concern.”
In what follows, I lay out the four primary contributions of the book. Then, I address a few of the critiques raised by forum participants.
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The Kingdom of God contributes both to the scholarship on evangelicalism and to the study of the United States in the world, with a focus on transnational non-state actors. The first contribution is simply to place debates about US evangelicalism into a transnational frame. This is still primarily a US history—I make no apologies for that—but it puts US history in its global context, one that attends to the global discourses, transnational networks, and international interactions that have profoundly shaped a story often framed in domestic terms alone. This transnational approach is not designed to ignore borders or to imply that they have not mattered deeply, but to highlight the complexity of a faith that claims to be borderless and universal with the reality that we all live in.
The second major contribution is the book’s focus on the role of sanctified suffering in shaping evangelical discourse about politics and identity. What I describe as “victim identification” is a modality of identifying both with and as victims. This modality has inspired donations of money for the hungry in some cases, or activism on behalf of victims of government oppression in other instances. But victim identification has also mobilized the anti-Muslim sentiment characterizing so much of post-Cold War US evangelical culture and justifying US state violence across the Middle East and Africa. When they claim their status as part of a global community, white American believers perceive themselves as part of an oppressed group. Thus we can arrive at the shocking reality that in 2017, 57 percent of white evangelicals told pollsters they believe Christians face a great deal of discrimination in the US today, while only 44 percent said the same was true of Muslims.
A third contribution is the attention I give to black as well as white American evangelicals. This is controversial because of the understandable wariness with which theologically conservative black Protestants have viewed the evangelical label. (Those tensions only increased with the election of President Trump.) But the global framework highlights the reality that people from many parts of the world identify as evangelical, and the global flow of people into and out of seminaries, traveling for missions, or going to conferences together makes it impossible to ignore the racial diversity of evangelicalism overall. African Americans are very likely to hold the distinctive theological views most scholars use to define “evangelicals.” My decision to highlight the role of black evangelicals comes in part from a determination to show the importance of non-white people who have been active in white-dominated institutions, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship or the Lausanne Movement, as well as in racially mixed megachurches and historically black denominations.
Indeed, as Sylvester Johnson pointed out in the forum, I might have included Latinx evangelicals as part of this story as well, given both their numerical significance in the United States and their relative willingness to embrace the label “evangelical.” My decision not to focus in a significant way on Latinx, Asian American, Arab American, and other evangelicals was one of the most difficult choices I made in the book. I knew, however, that if I wanted to do justice to Latinx and Asian American evangelicals in particular, I would also need to do more than I did with Latin America and Asia as regions of evangelical engagement. Both of those regions have been important overall, and I do address the ways they influence the larger discourses on issues such as economic inequality, Christian persecution, et cetera. I look forward to the future scholarship, much of it already in process, that will attend to these and other aspects of evangelical internationalism.
Finally, the book provides a new way of understanding the rise of the religious Right in the late 1970s by showing how the evangelical politics of “social concern” among some evangelicals, including Latin American leaders at the Lausanne Congress in 1974, was appropriated and reshaped by conservatives. I analyze how the social concern faction at Lausanne managed to construct a sense among some evangelicals (both in the United States and beyond) that they should pay attention to things like materialism, oppression, racism, and state violence. Ironically, as I show in my discussion of Frances Schaeffer, that framework of engaging the world was ultimately taken up by people in the United States who demanded attention to other issues, particularly abortion, and later the persecution of Christians in the global south. Thus the book unpacks a pivotal moment in the late 1970s when the incipient religious Right in the United States used critiques of consumerism, pietism, and the relevance of faith to make claims about abortion as a lodestar for evangelical politics.
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The respondents to the TIF forum raised a number of concerns and suggestions, a few of which I will directly address here.
Ebenezer Obadare’s generous review asks how evangelicals understand their own role on the political stage: “[I]n discussing a group with such a knack for politics, I wish The Kingdom of God devoted more space to an exploration of power, specifically evangelical ideas about political power.” I think this is an entirely fair critique. I do talk about how evangelicals worked to mobilize state power or shape state action, including their support for the Jackson-Vanik amendment in the 1970s, the all-out mobilization that led to the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, and the intense arguments about the US war on Iraq in 2003. But there is much more to say about how evangelicals think about political power and the state. Jeff Sessions’s recent evocation of Romans 13 to support the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children and their families at the border is one example of how a theory of power is present in evangelical life, and worth unpacking in greater depth. Indeed, debates over how to interpret Paul’s call to “obey the governing authorities” have not infrequently animated evangelical life. I discuss this to some degree in the chapter on apartheid, but there is more to say about how evangelicals have debated their own understandings, not only of Paul’s exhortation (which many see as being more complicated than a mere embrace of all state authority), but also of the very idea of whether and in what ways the kingdom of God is related to the kingdoms of earth. In a similar way, we can see an implicit theory of power in the way that evangelicals (like liberal Protestants) have frequently embraced the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—as much for his willingness to die in the service of a plan to assassinate Hitler as for his important theological contributions (particularly his critique of “cheap grace”).
A second concern in the forum was raised by Rebecca Bartel, who argues that the stories of non-Americans are not central enough to the book, that “the voice of the evangelical missionary guides the narration.” I do not see this as a book about missionaries per se—many of the Americans in it are not missionaries, but rather activists or staff people for transnational organizations. The more important point is that Bartel does not see my attention to non-Americans as adequate. She argues that the book does not show, for example, how “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.” I am surprised by this, in that my goal was to show precisely what she describes. For example, the discussion of Paul Carlson’s death in Congo in chapter 2 is an analysis of how a person who was embraced in the United States as a missionary martyr was part of a colonial project. I carefully show how missionaries were seen by many Congolese, even those who had been converted to Protestant Christianity, as having been complicit in the power dynamics of colonialism. Indeed, it seems to me that both colonialism as a force and the voices of non-Americans are highlighted throughout the book in multiple locales and across many decades. I would argue that the chapter on South Africa, which draws on a number of local archives, is so much about South African evangelicals, black and white, that the Americans appear as secondary characters.
The third point is one made by Tisa Wenger, who argues that the book would be stronger with a more explicit theorization of how the very category of evangelical was produced. Wenger writes, “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.” I understand this critique and agree that I could have made more explicit what is implicit in the text, which is how networks and discourses have constructed “white American evangelicalism” in a way that reinforces the power of white conservative Americans in a global network.
Bruno Latour’s “actor network theory” helped me construct a working understanding of evangelicalism as a shape-shifting, constantly evolving network. When scholars talk about networks, they are often referring to something rather durable. But Latour asks us to think about networks differently, to see that the activity of making any group is an ongoing and contingent process. That process is chaotic, partial. Latour argues that every group has its “unofficial officials,” those who work to justify the group’s existence and define its rules. Groups are not silent things, Latour says, “but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what . . . pertains to what.” We do not know in advance what will define the group, and any map we can draw will look less like those nice drawings we have all seen, of clean lines between stable nodes, and more like the motion of light on water, captured in one instant, transformed in the next.1
Those “unofficial officials” are people who hold power in evangelical institutions, but they are also people from outside who comment on and help to shape the group. Many of those officials continue to see evangelicalism as only American and almost uniformly white. Thus, Wenger is right to say that the invisibility of evangelicals of color, both in the United States and globally, is part of what shores up the conservatism of white evangelicalism. But it is also the case, as I try to show in several different chapters, that the visibility of global south evangelicals can shore up conservative political positions as well. I argue, for example, that African and Asian members of the Anglican Communion at the turn of the twenty-first century played a leading role in pushing for conservative positions on gender and sexuality, arguing against the ordination of women or LGBTQ+ people. In those situations, European and US conservatives found allies for their gender politics, and the Africans were far from invisible. The marginalization of people of color in the networks of global evangelicalism is certainly key to the history I trace here, but so is the visibility and impact of global south evangelicals.
That is part of what made this book so exciting and so frustrating to write: it is not a story about (only) whiteness, (only) US power, or (only) conservatism, although it is about all of those things. It is also a story about the ways that globalization and multiracial networks have changed the transnational conversation. US evangelicals are a central component, powerful and wealthy indeed, but they no longer hold the keys to the kingdom.
I hope this analysis of US evangelicalism in its global context offers a way of seeing the politics of white American conservative evangelicalism as a historically specific formation. I do not intend the book as a recuperative project, but rather as a critical one: by making clear that there were debates and choices made at every point, I also show that nothing was, or is, inevitable. My goal in the book is to tell the history of a global religious formation, one that cannot be told adequately in a national frame, and to illuminate how faith, colonialism, race, sexuality, and power have intersected over the course of the last seventy years. It is a messy history, part of the story of US power in the world and also part of the history of challenges to that power. It is a book about religion, but it is also, I hope, a book that speaks to larger questions of how we narrate community, nation, and justice. In a very different context, Rebecca Solnit describes herself as writing “an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.” Highlighting debate, disjuncture, and contingency is a way of arguing for alternative possibility—and thus accountability. We cannot hold people accountable for ideas or beliefs that were essentially unavailable to them. But if anti-racism was thinkable, including by evangelicals, then racism was a choice. If opposition to colonialism, or apartheid, or the Iraq war, is available in the world we inhabit, then all of us, evangelical or otherwise, must answer for choices we make that support empire, war, or neoliberalism. This is the fundamental belief that shapes the book: the world we inhabit might have been—might yet be—radically otherwise.
I take the image of “the motion of light in water” from Samuel Delaney’s autobiography, The Motion Of Light In Water: Sex And Science Fiction Writing In The East Village (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).↩