By John Thomas
In her book released last summer, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, author and George Washington University Professor of American Studies and International Affairs, Melani McAlister recounts the last 50 years of evangelical history through the lens of international policy and politics to make the case that the evangelical movement cannot be fully understood without examining how American evangelicals have engaged the world beyond their borders.
Thoroughly researched and well written, the book sheds light on different periods in evangelicalism’s past that are often overlooked. She offers a reasonably fair if somewhat biased account of several of the missteps evangelicals have made when working in places like Africa and the Middle East. She also demonstrates how developments around the world have impacted the evangelical mindset and its identification with the persecuted church worldwide.
The book hits on the theme of questioning evangelicalism, a theme that seems to be gaining traction as of late with last summer’s release of John Fea’s Believe Me, and the growing voice of the exvangelical movement. But rather than examine Borders in its entirety or comment any further on the growing trend of criticizing evangelicalism, I’d like to focus on one aspect of the book that I found strangely compelling and surprisingly relevant; that being the idea of considering the global ramifications of domestic developments, especially in relationship to how they affect missionaries and their work.
Though the theme doesn’t play a central role in McAlister’s narrative of the last 50 years of evangelical history, it is one she highlights and mentions from the very first chapter of the book. When discussing the tumultuous Civil Rights Era and the failure of many evangelical Christians to pursue desegregation, she pivots and addresses the contingent of evangelicals that actually were in favor it and why. McAlister writes,
For many Southerners — indeed for many American Christians in general–the most powerful arguments against segregation and racism were built on the terrain of missions.
The essence of her argument is that given the outsized influence America has on the global scene, domestic political and cultural developments are broadcast and analyzed the world over. The result of this process when those developments are negative is a weakened American image and a global populous suspicious of all things American. Both of these facts make the work that American missionaries seek to do, whether it be evangelism or humanitarian work, increasingly difficult. To further this argument McAlister uses the following quote by James L. Monroe, a pastor from Florida who wrote in Christianity Today in 1962,
Nothing reached my heart more than the pleas of our missionaries around the world. The eyes of the world were focused on our treatment of minority groups. Missionary after missionary warned that our attitudes were making their work less effective.
Essentially missionaries were having the effectiveness of their work frustrated in Africa and elsewhere by the fire hoses and attack dogs in Birmingham, Alabama and other southern cities. They were then communicating this to their pastors at home, some of whom were making the case that because of the difficulties these hostilities were causing missionaries overseas, desegregation should be considered.
McAlister picks this theme up again much later in the book when discussing evangelical support for the Iraq war. Though evangelicals supported the war almost unanimously in 2002, by 2003 that support had cooled, again due to similar reasoning. She quotes Richard Cizik, speaking on behalf of the National Association of Evangelicals who said the following in an interview with NPR,
In the Middle Eastern countries, the word ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ are synonymous, and those angry with the United States might say, ‘We can’t do anything about the planes up there, but here’s people who are linked to Americans.
It was as if evangelicals started asking: if the war is going to hurt the efforts of missionaries in the middle east, is it worthy of our support?
One final example McAlister shows is in reference to an open letter written by a group of Southern Baptists in January of 2003, “highlighting how negative comments about Islam endangered missionaries.”
Though these three instances aren’t strictly about domestic issues, they do set a precedent for considering the consequences missionaries will face in regards to America’s domestic and foreign policy attitudes and decisions. Given the enormous level of support evangelical Christians have for international missions and the tens of thousands of missionaries they have sent across the globe, this line of reasoning carries some weight.
What I could not shake as I was reading McAlister’s book and considering this precedent set by missionaries and evangelicals in the 1960’s and beyond, was the question of whether or not this line of reasoning was relevant today. It is common knowledge that the current administration has at times invoked less than congenial language in regards to immigrants, refugees, and even asylum seekers. Additionally, on the campaign trail the current president proposed a Muslim database or registry and on January 27th, 2017 in his first week in office, ordered a travel ban on residents from seven Muslim-majority countries. At times it seems that the support coming from various segments of the population for this rhetoric and these policy decisions might parallel the situation in the south in the sixties and could warrant a change of attitude from evangelicals.
Just as the treatment of African Americans in the south was broadcast around the world in the 1960’s, the events of the last two years have not happened in a vacuum. In fact the world is more connected than ever. And just as the actions against minorities in the south had disparaging effects on the work of missionaries in the 1960’s, it stands to reason that the tone and policies of the current administration are making the work of evangelists and Christian humanitarian workers in the Middle East and elsewhere more difficult.
The fact that evangelicals are again largely on the side that is potentially making things more difficult for those they have sent out only makes things more confusing. It could very well be the case that every time an anti-Muslim word is spoken or policy is enacted, an unnecessary obstacle to the gospel is placed in the way of millions of men and women around the world. Considering Christ is challenging enough for Muslims given the fact that they are likely to endure persecution, ostracism, and shame should they choose to follow him. If those challenges are being compounded by the current administration’s tone and policy decisions should evangelicals reconsider the support they have thus far shown to the president?
One objection some might have to this idea is that it appears somewhat pragmatic. Its as if those who are espousing this line of reasoning don’t think segregation and islamophobia are inherently wrong—which they are. In fact, evangelicalism’s pragmatic tendencies are one of McAlister’s criticisms of the last fifty years of the movements history. But is utilizing this line of thinking in order to get those who are late adopters of more compassionate and biblically accurate social ethics to behave differently wrong?
After appealing to evangelicals to reject insensitive social positions based on the merits, or lack thereof, of those positions, should those in the evangelical community who can see the cruelty of these beliefs for what they are, not be willing to use any argument necessary to convince their evangelical friends and neighbors to at least change their habits and actions if not their thoughts in order to bring about social policies that are more in line with the gospel? Do the motivations of social change have to be pure for the results of that change to be meaningful? This in a sense is the definition of pragmatism but perhaps it is a version, call it compassionate pragmatism, some might be willing to consider given the tone of the administration over the last two and a half years.
It is hard to say just how much the administration’s words and policies are affecting the work of missionaries sent out by American evangelical churches. And just how much weight evangelicals will give to this issue amidst myriad other concerns, most notably abortion, remains to be seen. But in light of evangelicalism’s history as told by Melani McAlister, keeping America’s outsized influence and the well being of missionaries around the world in mind might be worthwhile for evangelicals when considering to what extent they want to continue to support the current administration.
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John Thomas (@John_Thomas518) is a father, husband, writer, and global Christian. He currently lives in Central Asia with his wife and two children.