Finding Conservative Christianity’s Place Outside the U.S.: A Review of “No Borders”

September 20, 2018
Title: The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicalism
Author: Melani McAlister
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publishing Date: August 1, 2018
Pages: 408 pages (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0190213428

This book comes with unusual hype. “The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is an enthralling work of stunning originality and ingenuity,” gushes one blurb. “By resituating the history of modern American evangelicalism internationally, Melani McAlister is not just complicating conventional wisdom, she’s smashing it completely. In its place, she offers a startling new interpretation,” namely, that “American evangelicals have been fundamentally shaped by the wider world.”

This praise strikes me as overblown, and it distracts from the book’s real value. No Borders provides us with a wide-ranging, closely researched account of just how American evangelicals have been involved overseas—and to a lesser extent, of how that involvement played out back home. This overseas participation is indeed an important aspect of the American evangelical story, but it is not a paradigm-changer because the book leaves a central question unanswered: Have these not-so-innocents-abroad gone forth in the mode of traveler or tourist? That is, did they gain genuinely new insights there, or did they simply flirt with the idea of the spontaneous and exotic—all the while cramming every experience into pre-set categories?

From the evidence that McAlister presents, the overall answer to these questions is “yes,” and it is to her credit that she leaves the ambiguity in place. Sometimes, American evangelicals have been substantively changed by their experiences; and other times, they have simply garnered a broader range of examples to decorate their preexisting notions. Much of the book’s value comes from the detail with which it bores in on specific key issues—particularly evangelicals’ notions of race, of proper American foreign policy, and for that matter, of the essence of Christianity itself. Here, the consequences of their encounters turn out to be sometimes benign, sometimes malign, and sometimes genuinely life-and mind-altering.

Professor McAlister, who teaches American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University, clusters her fifteen chapters in three co-equal parts. The first glances at some of the “networks” that American evangelicals forged in the post-World War II generation. The second follows “body politics” as a motif through the last third of the 20th century while the third offers “emotions” as an interpretive lens for the most recent era. Although these themes do crop up within their respective sections, they also cut across each other and do not really function as controlling theses of the overall argument. The plan of the book is more plainly chronological.

In the first section, stretching from the 1950s to the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization in 1974, McAlister investigates evangelicals’ postwar world-missions boom against the backdrop of the civil rights movement back home and Cold War maneuverings abroad (Chapter One). Plenty of heroism to play up here: the “Auca martyrs” in Ecuador; the death—or flight—of missionaries in the Congo (Chapter Two); the triumph of doughty little Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 (Chapter Four). But there is plenty of soul-searching, too, triggered by new converts from Africa being barred from white colleges and churches in the oh-so-evangelical South, or by Congolese Christians asserting their spiritual as well as political independence against white condescension. McAlister shows how these dynamics unfolded across successive Intervarsity triennial conferences at Urbana in the 1960s to launch a distinct form of evangelical social activism (Chapter Three). That initiative, in turn, came into contention with the evangelism-only push of the church-growth movement at the “Battle of Lausanne” in 1974 (Chapter Five). The outcome of that contest, McAlister concludes, was a big-tent compromise that offered room for both under a generic “evangelical” label.

The second section analyzes evangelical self-perception “as both persecuted victim and compassionate rescuer” (106) across the last third of the 20th century up to the achievement of South Sudan’s independence in 2005. The conservative wing played up Communist depredations, especially in Eastern Europe (Chapter Six); the more progressive focused on the evils of South African apartheid (Chapter Seven). But the advantage in this Reagan-Bush era was held by the conservatives; and they used it, first, to pass the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Chapter Nine) and, second, in popularizing the image of a “10-40 Window” of non-or under-evangelized “people groups” who dwelt in those latitudes around the world (Chapter Eight). For that target, the newly crafted tool of “spiritual warfare” was to be deployed, largely against Islam. All in all, American evangelicals come off in these chapters as genuinely concerned for the suffering abroad but also seizing that suffering for their own purposes. That they were persecuted, too, was the lesson of the sensational novels of Frank Peretti and the politics of the Moral Majority.

In the third section, McAlister treats 21st century developments—from the spiritual tourism of the short-term missions fad (Chapter 11), through the Iraq War (Chapter 12), to the sorry aftermath of South Sudan’s independence (Chapter 13), and American evangelicals’ role in the “sexual politics” of HIV/AIDS controversies in Africa (Chapter 14). To me the low-light of this section comes in the conservatives’ enthusiasm about the proselytizing possibilities opened by the American invasion of Iraq, followed by their abject silence over the practice of torture exposed by the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib. (They eventually blamed it all on the culture of pornography back home.) By contrast, the highlights—indeed, the best parts of the whole book—lie in McAlister’s two stints as a participant-observer. In the first, she accompanies some members of a Wisconsin megachurch to live and learn in the blighted villages of South Sudan (Chapter 13). In the second, she works with an Intervarsity youth group in Cairo (Chapter 15). These are short-term missions of a very different sort and leave poignant images of the better possibilities that evangelicalism has always offered: self-searching, compassion, the felt call for social justice, and genuine openness to the movement of the Spirit. McAlister’s writing, as well as her subjects, come alive here.

So, to return to the laudatory blurb: Have American evangelicals really been “fundamentally shaped by the wider world,” or have they shaped it per their own imagination? Some of the former but more of the latter, I think. This tribe’s worst companions—militarism, American nationalism, clueless Zionism, and reflex neoliberal economics—infuse too much of this story to make it a genuinely new departure. Much of the time, the international scene simply provides a broader platform upon which the traits that have marked this movement for nearly 300 years can stage another act. In addition, this international movement centers everything upon the individual heart, which makes fathoming social structures and intellectual complexity a hard pull. Within this system, contempt for established authority builds into a cult of celebrity and sensationalism. Perfectionist zeal becomes frustrated and turns into apocalyptic fears. There is a perennial combination of mysticism and marketing, of tears and quantification. Each generation reinvents the wheel of authentic spirituality and a “real” and “relevant” church. It all somehow “works” but runs in the same old loop of historical forgetfulness. For these reasons, the excited blurb thus fits all too appropriately: hyperbolic claims of something “brand new” and “the best ever” for a solid product bearing a mixed message.

The final question arises in McAlister’s short, five-page Epilogue. Here she broaches the matter that must loom over the next generation of scholarship by and about evangelicals—the specter of Donald Trump. What does it mean that 81 percent of white American evangelicals voted for the most forthright pagan ever to occupy the White House? What does it mean, in the specific context of this book, that people who supposedly have dealt so much with and learned so much from the rest of the world support a leader defined first and last by xenophobia? What does it mean that people bearing the label of “good news” seem so responsive to a violent rhetoric of hatred and fear? It may mean that the truly revolutionary treatment of American evangelicals remains to be written. When it appears, it will tell the story of how the American brand was redeemed by, or resisted, the more genuine article that is alive around the world. It will be the story of white American evangelicals finally deciding whether they are Christians or Christianists.

About the Author
  • James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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