Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

The Religion Guy has previously complained that the media fixation on socio-political agitation by U.S. evangelical Protestants tends to overlook “mainline” and African-American Protestants, Catholics and Jews, whose congregations over-all may actually be more politicized.

Also neglected is evangelicals’ important political impact on like-minded churches overseas --  and vice versa.

Background on a half-century of activism comes from Melani McAlister, a U.S. foreign policy specialist at The George Washington University who belongs on your sources list. Her “The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals” is great for background or a story theme and the release in August, allowing  relaxed summertime reading. Reporters seeking galleys can contact Oxford University Press: emily.tobin@oup.com or 212-726-6057. 

There’s perennial debate over how to define the term “evangelical.” For starters, they uphold  standard Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ, but McAlister finds three distinct emphases:

(1) An “authoritative” Bible as “central, foundational, believable -- and true.”

(2) Personal faith in Jesus’ death for one’s sin as “the only path to salvation.”

(3) Passion for “evangelizing the world.”

Please note: McAlister includes U.S. Protestant “people of color,” who are heavily evangelical in faith, though analysts usually treat them separately.

Looked at internationally, she says, “evangelical politics are not just about abortion and same-sex marriage but colonialism and neocolonialism, war and global poverty, religious freedom and Islam.” While more liberal Protestants emphasize social justice causes, even evangelicals energized by those concerns insist that soul-saving is essential. How evangelicals should balance the two aspects of their mission has provoked intense internal debate.  

Global evangelicals, McAlister reports, are racially diverse. Today, nearly 70 percent of them live outside the U.S. and Europe, with “the most explosive” growth in Africa. Especially since the 1970s, the American churches have  become deeply engaged with fellow believers in the “global South.”

Inevitably, U.S. economic, military and cultural heft shapes the image of Americans and the overseas believers they work with. But missionaries provide “no simple, unilateral endorsement” for U.S. foreign or military policy, she writes, and some lobby for change. Nor do evangelicals overseas fit snugly into the American political box of the “religious right” typified by the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, launched the year before Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president.

One classic scenario in this book is also featured by historian David L. Chappell in “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow” (University of North Carolina Press). Southern white Protestants provided surprisingly little backing to uphold racial segregation and discrimination, a crucial factor helping civil rights advances in the 1960s. And one reason for that was white conservatives’ concern over damage to foreign missions.

Another case study McAlister unspools is the long-running campaign against racial apartheid in South Africa, which involved white and black evangelicals and their U.S. supporters, as well as liberal churches.  South Africans  were divided over what methods were moral and would prove effective. An illustrative example was Michael Cassidy’s African Enterprise,  which worked hard across racial lines to promote both justice and evangelism and brokered Billy Graham’s pioneering multiracial  revival meetings.  

McAlister also takes close looks at Israelis vs. Palestinians, the 1960s Congo crisis, the separation that established South Sudan, work to rid Africa of HIV/AIDS and efforts for religious freedom under Communism followed by the  current contestation with militant Islam.

As of 2018, to what extent does white U.S. evangelicals’ lopsided support for President Donald Trump and his works harm or embarrass American-related foreign missions?

McAlister barely grazes this major theme, which journalists will want to pursue.

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