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.