"THE KINGDOM OF GOD HAS NO BORDERS: A Global History of American Evangelicals," by Melani McAlister, Oxford University Press, 408 pages
Melani McAlister’s new book comes at a time in which the very notion of “evangelicals” in the United States is the subject of hot dispute.
Any number of news stories have repeated the number 81 percent, the proportion of self-identified white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Some of those stories ask relevant questions: What makes somebody an evangelical? To what extent is it possible to call white and black evangelicals members of the same religious tradition? Often the term “evangelical” is used as shorthand for the religious right — but given our previous qualifiers, how true is that generalization?
McAlister’s frequently fascinating book aims to force readers away from any such neat categorization. The book explores more than a dozen case studies of American evangelicals involving themselves with communities and countries around the globe in the last half of the 20th century, from the massive campaign to fight AIDS in Africa to the struggle against communism in Eastern Europe.
McAlister’s cast of characters includes such prominent figures as Billy Graham, perhaps the most famous evangelical in the world for more than 60 years, and the Romanian priest Richard Wurmbrand, who was imprisoned and tortured multiple times by communist governments. But she also joins much lesser known evangelicals as Dick Robinson, a Milwaukee pastor who has spent much of his life bringing relief supplies and the gospel in equal measure to war-ridden South Sudan, and an interracial group of evangelical college students who spent five weeks teaching English in Cairo in 2006. What emerges is a portrait of an American evangelicalism deeply diverse and complex — and no less difficult to define — by virtue of its global backdrop.
McAlister’s narrative tracks what she calls “two distinct (but linked) postures toward the rest of the world” across three collections of case studies.
The first she calls “enchanted internationalism,” a mystical confidence that the non-Western world offers a more vital and powerful religious experience than our mundane lives in the United States might provide. She points out that this can, at times, lead American believers to romanticize, exoticize and ultimately demean people who live in Africa or Latin America. They are, after all, just people, and speaking of them as though their lack of education or material comforts somehow enhances their spirituality tells Americans more about their ambivalence toward their own wealthy lives than it does about the human beings they are actually dealing with.
However, enchanted internationalism can also lead evangelicals toward McAlister’s second posture — “victim identification.”
Evangelicals, she argues, long for the sense that they are members of a global “body of Christ,” a worldwide community of believers. Gloria White-Hammond, an African-American Boston pediatrician and leader in her local evangelical congregation, found herself identifying so viscerally with the Christians of the Sudan, where a tyrannical regime had revived the ancient practice of slavery, that she joined with Christian Solidarity International, a group that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing the freedom of captive Christians in Sudan.
McAlister tracks these two themes across more than a dozen of case studies, which she groups into three loose clusters. The first explores the rise of international evangelical networks in the Cold War period, showing how institutions as far-flung as the Israeli tourist bureau gave evangelicals the connections and concepts to begin thinking of themselves as members of a broader international community.
The second cluster of case studies focuses on the body, emphasizing that American evangelicals, who believed in a suffering and redemptive Jesus, could viscerally identify with the physical suffering of others — be they abused black Africans in apartheid South Africa or the tortured victims of communist regimes. McAlister’s last collection emphasizes emotion, exploring how evangelicals sought emotional fulfillment through aid-giving and visits to Africa or the Middle East.
McAlister’s story is sprawling — sometimes too much. Her clusters can feel only loosely connected to each other, and her themes sometimes vanish beneath narrative. And yet, this accumulation paints a compelling and rich portrait of American evangelicals, one which should help all Americans think in more complicated ways about both American Christians and about the ways in which we involve ourselves in the rest of the world.
Content advisory: "The Kingdom of God Has No Borders" contains discussions of rape and some images of war violence.