Look Outside America for Fresh Insight on American Evangelicals

Melani McAlister’s new history aims to capture what the familiar political story leaves out.
Look Outside America for Fresh Insight on American Evangelicals
Image: Ryan Donnell
Melani McAlister

Since the 1980s, when the Religious Right helped elevate California governor Ronald Reagan to the presidency, outside observers have typically understood American evangelicalism through the lens of American politics. Melani McAlister, a professor of American studies at George Washington University, wants to tell a broader story by looking outside American borders. Studying American evangelical missionary and humanitarian activity in Egypt, South Africa, Congo, and South Sudan, she says, reveals a movement that has always seen itself as part of a global communion.

In her book, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, McAlister applies this international lens to the past half-century of American evangelical history. David R. Swartz, associate professor of history at Asbury University and author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, spoke with McAlister about her research.

What does applying a global lens tell us about American evangelicalism?

It tells us that evangelicalism is politically complicated and racially diverse. Global engagement sometimes pushes American evangelicals in conservative directions and sometimes in liberal directions, but it definitely makes the political ground they occupy much more complex than we often acknowledge.

How have encounters in the Majority World made American evangelicals more liberal in some ways and more conservative in others?

American evangelicals have often given donations to charity. That’s not new. But as they encountered economic insecurity, political instability, health crises, and refugee situations, they began to realize that global poverty couldn’t be solved through charity alone. In 2005 American and European evangelicals prayed outside the G8 Summit for debt relief for Africa. They were saying, “This is a political issue that needs a political solution.” This was because they had been talking to and reading the work of people in Africa saying similar things.

On the other hand, African leaders have tended to be more conservative on issues like ordaining women or officiating at lesbian and gay weddings, and American evangelicals have treated their voices as the authentic ones. They say, “We hold this conservative position, and we’re in alliance with our African brothers.” This has put mainline Protestants in a real bind because they end up being portrayed as neo-colonialists, excessively white, and not in solidarity with people of color.

If telling a transnational story matters in understanding American evangelicals, does it also reframe the narratives we tell about the global evangelical community?

It takes us beyond the story that it’s primarily American evangelicals who have gone abroad and influenced people in the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America with their values, politics, and ideology. It’s undeniable that people in the Global South are active agents in framing their own politics, religion, and the global community more broadly. The leadership of the Lausanne Movement or the World Evangelical Alliance is coming more frequently from the Global South. And there’s a broader sense that this global evangelical community has to listen to those voices. Missionaries are coming from Nigeria to the United States. They are not people who are simply drawing on values they’ve been taught by Americans. African, Asian, and Latin American evangelicals are constructing a global community.

What do you mean when you describe Americans as “enchanted” by Africa?

I’m describing feelings of emotional connection, investment, and even solidarity with Africa that are cultivated by short-term missions or requests for donations from international charities. We see among American evangelicals—and other Americans too—a fear that our modern industrialized society has taken something away from us, made our lives too materialistic, too rationalist, too evacuated of meaning. People often present Africa as a kind of antidote, as a space where Christians are more authentic or emotionally rich, where Christianity is more saturated by the spiritual.

I saw this a lot in Sudan, where I did a short-term mission with a church, and in Cairo with InterVarsity students working with Sudanese refugees. In both cases, Americans saw the Sudanese as being close to Jesus in a way that they were not. But there’s a really fine line between respecting and valuing people across cultures and demanding that people embody something that you want yourself. This is not just an evangelical problem. We see this, for instance, in the persistent idea of the noble savage, where genuine admiration also has a kind of imperialist demand that people be pure and simple, so that you as a Westerner can visit them to find yourself renewed by them in some way. Enchantment includes the potential for respect and connection but also the real problem of demanding things in other people.

Before 9/11, but especially after 9/11, when American evangelicals thought of anti-Christian persecution, Muslims were seen as the main perpetrators. How have evangelical views of Muslims changed over the course of the historical period you cover?

Before 1989, evangelicals, like Americans more broadly, were paying more attention to Communist persecution than to persecution by Muslims. They saw Muslims as people who could be converted more than people engaged in persecution.

But in the late 1980s there was a pivot, which intensified dramatically after 9/11, to focusing on Muslims more than Communists as persecutors. On one hand, it’s important to focus on persecution because people do suffer for their religion, and not just Christians. On the other hand, the focus on persecution contributes to misunderstanding. If you have a lens of persecution or Christian-Muslim conflict, you might look at a place like Nigeria, where there is violence between predominantly Christian and predominantly Muslim communities, and see a purely religious conflict rather than a multi-faceted conflict with economic, ethnic, or tribal dimensions. It leads people to see the world in a more simplistic way.

American evangelicals are Christian, which is a dominant religion around the world. American evangelicals are Americans, and therefore citizens of a global superpower. How has this group come to think of itself as being persecuted?

In today’s United States, you can’t assume nearly the level of Christian identification that existed in the 1950s. White evangelicals are a smaller group now, as a percentage of the overall population. But international issues are also key to understanding this. Evangelicals are more connected to the rest of the world now. It makes sense for some people to say, “Hey, Christians are persecuted in the Middle East or Africa. We’re Christians—we’re also persecuted.”

To their credit, some white conservative evangelicals criticize this easy equivalence between people in other parts of the world and those in a predominantly Christian society like the United States. But global issues do play a part in enabling the narrative of American Christians as persecuted.

American evangelical interest in short-term missions exploded in the 1990s. Has the movement accomplished what it intended?

I think it has increased global awareness in some very good ways. The younger generation of evangelicals are more savvy, less culturally insular, more likely to see themselves as having a global vision. Those who have traveled have seen something beyond their community. That can be very powerful for creating understanding beyond your own life experience.

But short-term missions have also been very damaging. Evangelical critics often acknowledge that it can reinforce stereotypes of happy poor people or transactional relationships where you’re expecting people to be grateful and you get to be Lady Bountiful. One mission director told his participants, “You will be a burden on the people you are visiting. You are not helping. They are letting you come to hope that you learn something so that you can be useful later.” I love that. I think a lot of study-abroad programs at secular universities could learn from that.

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, passed in 2014, imposed stiff penalties, including the death penalty, for certain offenses. How influential were American evangelicals in writing and promoting this bill?

American evangelicals were on the ground and involved in Uganda doing church trainings, leading pastoral education, and conducting short-term missions. And some right-wing Americans were pushing for very strong anti-gay legislation. But we also need to understand that African evangelicals are agents and actors, not just victims in the history of global evangelicalism. To say that Americans taught Ugandans to have positions against homosexuality is to miss the long history of how Ugandans and other Africans had been reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves and often coming up with their own interpretations. Both Americans and Ugandans played a role in shaping the climate in Uganda, but ultimately Ugandans made their own decisions about what laws they wanted to propose and support.

Rick Warren and others were very clear that they did not support the death penalty legislation. Most mainstream evangelicals clearly opposed it. The irony is that when Rick Warren did that, some of the folks on the Ugandan side accused him of being a colonialist for telling them what to do. That tells us something about the complexity of the global landscape.

You observe that American evangelicals wanted the objects of their missions work to be “desperate but not hopeless, eager but not competent.” To what extent does this reflect a lingering colonialist view of Africa?

There are still very real remnants of neocolonial attitudes among American evangelicals. But they are far from unique in this. We can see something similar in mainstream American culture. One thing that surprised me, though, was how neocolonialism is a prevalent category of analysis for some evangelicals. The scholar Soong-Chan Rah has a really sustained critique of the Western mindset of American evangelicals. An African Christian leader, Tokunboh Adeyemo, organized the Africa Bible Commentary with dozens of other scholars from Africa; they wrote about the Bible from their own perspective to counter what they saw as colonial or irrelevant interpretations from the West. There have been many people in the global evangelical community, people of color in the US, and some white people as well who have spoken about this continuing problem of a colonial mindset.

As subjects of a “kingdom that has no borders,” why have American evangelicals become so closely identified with a president who cuts an “America first” profile?

It should be emphasized, of course, that this describes white evangelicals mainly. Black born-again Protestants voted for Trump at 7 percent, Latinos who identified as born-again voted for Trump at 31 percent, and 37 percent of their Asian American born-again counterparts did the same. So there are real divides between white and nonwhite evangelicals. After the election, the American Bible Society and a former Lausanne Movement leader organized a conference call with global evangelical leaders, who told the American leaders that this is really going to hurt us internationally. They said it would hurt our ability to try to proselytize because people abroad will see us identified with American nationalism.

White evangelicals have often interpreted their religion in nationalist and exclusivist ways. Even when they have been interested in other parts of the world, like missionary work in Congo, or issues like religious freedom, that has not necessarily changed their America-first perspective. There are plenty of people who see themselves as part of a kingdom without borders—and others who see themselves as part of a particularly blessed nation or who believe in American global dominance and who see those views as having religious sanction. I don’t mean to suggest that there is a clean divide between “true” evangelicalism and Trump support. I only mean to suggest that the America-first style of white evangelicalism will have less and less traction or moral authority for the rest of the world, including the global evangelical community and many American believers.

You grew up Southern Baptist, but you now call yourself an outsider to the movement. What was it like to travel abroad with American Christians?

I did two short-term missions. At one point, I was interviewing a young woman with InterVarsity who was talking about all the Sudanese Christians she had met in Egypt who were refugees. I asked her what she had learned. She looked at me and said, “Melani, heaven is going to be packed!” She was realizing that the world she saw as her own, her Christian world, was much bigger than she had ever imagined.

In general, I was struck by how hard people were working to understand situations that were not their own. Both the InterVarsity students I hung out with in Cairo and the church group from Wisconsin I went to South Sudan with were really aiming to get beyond their own assumptions. Were they 100 percent successful? No. That’s a hard thing to do, and I’m not sure how many people are ever that successful at it.

So I was impressed by the openness of the people I went to Cairo and Sudan with. But in a larger sense, my travel with Christians over the last decade—meeting and interviewing scores of people and reading their work—has led me to a broader conclusion, which is that there are elements in evangelical religious experience that cultivate exclusivity and a sense of nationalism, religious superiority, gender conservatism, and racial barriers. There are also elements that empower cosmopolitan connection, a sense of social justice, and openness to difference. I have seen both at work at every historical moment.

September
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