Melani, in The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals, you invite the reader to move outside of the U.S. case to capture the incredible rise of evangelicals worldwide, especially in Africa. How has this global expansion changed evangelicalism in the United States?
Yes, I was interested in thinking about how evangelicalism has become increasingly present around the globe and how the movement has been transformed. Especially with its rise in the Global South, evangelicalism is no longer a majority white, Northern European, and American religion; instead, in its many manifestations, there are more people of color—more Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. They now make up the majority of the world’s evangelicals.
I was interested in looking at how that affects Americans. American evangelicals still have far greater resources: they have more money, more television shows, more access to media generally. American evangelicals are still a massive global force, but a global force that increasingly recognizes that they are only one part of this larger community. This has had a number of different effects.
One is liberalizing. As more and more Americans do summers or short-term missions abroad, where they go and meet people outside of their own comfort zone, or read about the situations of fellow believers around the world, there emerges this realization that they are meeting global partners in the religion. This happens especially where those missions themselves are set up to help people understand that they are not Lady Bountiful coming in to help the poor. It doesn’t always happen that way, for sure, but some of the global evangelical programs are designed to, and sometimes do, help shift participants’ awareness of themselves as part of a community, not as dominant missionary “givers.” There’s still a lot of that missionizing or humanitarian condescension, but the alternative has shaped their awareness of the kind of issues that people face around the world: African debt, HIV-AIDS, global poverty, and environmental questions. All, I think, have been shaped by this increased international connection.
But internationalism also had a conservative effect in an interesting way. Many evangelicals in the Global South, while much more liberal around issues of economic justice, can be quite conservative around issues of gender and sexuality. As such, the global force of evangelicalism has actually shored up the most anti-gay and gender-conservative pieces of the evangelical movement in the United States.
When those American who oppose LGBTQ rights or women in positions of power can say, “We have the support of African and Asian believers,” it offers a kind of moral authority that goes with having the support of people in the Global South. (If Americans had not come to admire their fellow believers, then the fact that Africans or Asian Christians took a certain position wouldn’t hold much weight. But those ties have been made in a positive way for many.) So the global growth of evangelicalism has had a liberalizing impact, but it has also had the impact of strengthening the conservative line, especially on gender and sexuality.
Why has Africa, perhaps more than Latin America or Asia, become a key region for exporting evangelical thinking?
I think evangelicals are certainly growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world, but they are also exploding in Latin America. Evangelicals have had a very large impact in places like Brazil, where they are part of the reason that conservative president Jair Bolsonaro has as much support as he has. They have played a role in Guatemala, where, as my colleague Lauren Turek shows, there were evangelicals in power back in the 1980s who had strong connections with the right wing and in the United States. Latin Americans have also influenced the small but important U.S. evangelical left, as scholars such as David Kirkpatrick and David Swartz have argued.
In my book, I was particularly interested in the Middle East and Africa. Africa is probably the heart of the new global evangelicalism in terms of growth, but Latin America is also crucial. Moreover, parts of Asia—certainly South Korea and China—have significant communities. And of course, Russia is an important player.
The Middle East is important for different reasons: it is where the idea of a great global conflict between Christianity and Islam has played out and one of the sites where evangelicals have defined themselves as a persecuted minority. In my book, I discuss why that framing is a problem. Recently, Jason Bruner has also written beautifully about this issue. In fact, the reality that American evangelicals and other Conservative Christians define themselves as part of a globally persecuted group has had a major impact on how these believers see themselves in the world.
But U.S. evangelical engagements with Africa are interesting because of how they are reshaping old tropes. American evangelicals are having to pay attention to Africa as a leader and not just as a site of abject need. Some of the biggest churches in the world are now in Africa. Africans have also, like South Koreans, been great senders of missionaries. They send people around the world, including to the US; there are quite a few African missionaries or outposts of African churches in the United States right now. Winners’ Chapel, Intl., in Maryland, for example, is affiliated with the Living Faith Church Worldwide, a megachurch headquartered in Nigeria and with churches around the world.
Can we say that American Evangelicals have exported the U.S. cultural wars—especially to Africa—and contributed to the polarization around LGBTQ+ issues that we now observe in many African countries (I am thinking of Uganda, for instance)? Or is the storyline more complicated? What is the role of politics and of missionary work?
Politics can be quite complicated. I wrote a chapter on apartheid in South Africa, showing that American evangelicals had relations with both the most conservative leaders of South Africa and with the anti-apartheid movement.
People like Jerry Falwell had close connections with the apartheid government. And when Falwell went to South Africa in 1985, he met with the Afrikaner leadership as well as a few of the most conservative black leaders, that small minority who were not really opposing apartheid.
But there were also American evangelicals who had connections with anti-apartheid black and white South Africans, some of whom were themselves evangelical. This was a smaller and less visible group in the US, but the vast majority of black evangelicals in South Africa were deeply opposed to apartheid, and, just like more liberal Christians such as Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak, worked to make themselves heard internationally. So evangelicals in the United States had connections to South Africans, and whether they were genuinely opposed to apartheid or supported the apartheid government, they were shored up by these connections. However, the story of somebody like Jerry Falwell, who openly proclaimed, “Yes, we should support South Africa,” is much better known than the story of a small group of moderate Southern Baptists and others who were trying to get their fellow American evangelicals to take a principled stance.
And there were many who were (to use a technical term) mushy. This category includes, for example, Billy Graham, who demanded that audiences for his 1973 tour in South Africa be integrated but at the same time refused to overtly condemn apartheid.
But you asked about LGBTQ+ issues, which I talk about in a chapter on Uganda, focusing on the various iterations of an anti-homosexuality law that passed there which, in one version, proposed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” When I first started writing that chapter, I expected to tell the story that people have often told, which is that Americans go in and basically export their conservative views to the Ugandan population. It didn’t turn out to be quite like that. What I saw—and I also drew on the scholarship of people who are experts on Uganda specifically—was that there was a kind of synergy between conservative evangelicals in Uganda and conservative evangelicals in the United States.
And by conservative evangelicals in the United States, I mean a range of different people. Some, such as Pentecostal evangelist Lou Engle, went to Uganda and essentially supported the anti-homosexuality law. Then there are others, such as Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, who also had very close ties with Uganda, including with one of the leading advocates of the anti-homosexuality law, Martin Ssempa. This law put Warren in a real bind. Martin Ssempa had come to HIV/AIDS events that Rick Warren hosted. He had been Rick Warren’s guy in Uganda. And when Ssempa started supporting Ugandan radical anti-queer activism, Rick Warren spoke out against it, albeit rather belatedly. As a result, they had a major falling-out.
There was a lot of overlap and intersection between both U.S. and Ugandan groups, but it wasn’t as if the Ugandans had never had anti-homosexual attitudes or conservative views about sexuality before American showed up. One thing is for sure, PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief) money—that is, U.S. government money that was a massive program under President George W. Bush—did go to very conservative Ugandan churches and NGOs. It was designed for aid, education, and prevention as well as treatment, and under U.S. law a certain percentage had to go to abstinence education, which Ugandan conservatives eagerly supported. So American money did shore up that end of the Ugandan political spectrum; not just evangelical money, but actual U.S. government money.
I think it’s important to say it this way: local actors should be understood to have agency and autonomy. The Ugandans were not pawns of the Americans. We saw, for example, in the fights in the global Anglican communion starting in the 1990s that African and Asian members had been an important part of the rise of the Anglican right. They had very close working relationships with Americans who were also trying to move the Anglican Communion to the right. Yet the Africans didn’t always vote with the Americans, and there were many tensions. Still, American money and transnational connections were very much part of the story of Uganda—just not in the way that some observers have imagined. It was not some simple ideological injection by U.S. evangelicals into Ugandans’ politics.
I think we can see that Americans have been very involved in politics in other parts of the world, and American evangelicals have often made alliances with the most conservative wing. However, there is almost always a diversity of people on both sides.
That leads me to my next question: the role of African Americans in this expansion in Africa, and how race and colonialism were discussed within the evangelical movement.
Actually, it was controversial that my book even included many of the African American churches. Most people, even most scholars, have thought of evangelicals as almost entirely white; you can hold the same theological views as “white evangelicals,” but if you are Latinx, Asian, or especially Black, you are not considered evangelical. That’s changing, but still, many African Americans do not consider themselves “evangelicals.” A few do—T.D. Jakes, who has a television show and a large global following, would often be counted as an evangelical, or any of the Pentecostal churches. But the ministers from the African Methodist Episcopal Church are often not considered evangelicals.
Yet, I decided to include these African American churches because there are so many intersections, not only theologically but also in terms of conferences, music, events, etc. I don’t think talk of “white evangelicalism” does justice to the multitude of ways that evangelicals see politics. As much as 25%-35% of the U.S. evangelical community is Black, Latinx, Asian, or other people of color; it depends on how you count and who you ask.
I wrote an article about evangelicals of color in the era of Trump, for which I interviewed a few people. In it, I talked about African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx believers, most of whom had complicated positions vis-à-vis this white-dominated evangelicalism in the United States. I remember interviewing one woman who’d been involved in multiracial evangelical institutions her whole life, including one of the largest for young people, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. She is an Asian-American woman, and she’s now head of Evangelicals for Social Action, which is a pretty liberal evangelical group. She remembers how, the day after Trump was elected, she went to church and was thinking, “So for whom in this room was Trump’s racism not a deal breaker?” Who thought, ‘Yeah, I know he’s said some racist things, but I’m going to vote for him anyway, because X or because Y’?” She thought she had found a home in the evangelical world, and she is still in that world. But the fact that so many people, who might not themselves express certain views but who would happily vote for someone who did, really left her and a lot of other people on edge.
As I show in my book, this is not new. It is an issue throughout the 20th century vis-à-vis the rest of the world. There has been racism against Africans and Latin Americans in terms of missionary work, and it is now also becoming an internal issue in the churches themselves.
To follow up on this issue, evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump has been covered quite extensively. Is this different from evangelicals’ support for the Bush Administration—a topic you worked on—for instance? Did Trump’s personality and style fracture the Evangelical movement or cause it to evolve on some issues?
I think that Trump’s election really disproved what a lot of people, including myself, thought was happening among evangelicals. We believed that the far right was, if not on the decline, certainly changing and having to become more sophisticated and more multiracial, even if retrograde around gender and issues of sexuality.
I would not have expected the rush to support Trump. Not to underestimate the deeply conservative trends among white evangelicals, but there were many reasons for religious believers not to go there. But they did, and not just people who were kind of notational evangelicals. Trump’s evangelical advisory council included some major and influential people, including some people of color. And there were all sorts of ordinary church pastors who seemed to be willing to take themselves and their churches right along wherever Trump went.
A number of people did break with Trump. At first it seemed like it might be a fairly large number, and then, once he won, there was a lot of back-pedaling. At some point, Christianity Today called for Trump to resign. That magazine used to be the voice of the core evangelical leadership, but it seems to speak less and less to the base of the movement today.
I think we see growing splits along race issues. We know that Trump has Latinx and Asian supporters, more than a lot of people want to talk about. And what we know about evangelicals and race is that evangelicals of every race are more conservative than non-evangelicals of that race. Latinx evangelicals are more conservative than Latinx people overall. African American evangelicals are more conservative that African Americans overall. But there is no group of evangelicals of color—Latinx, Asian, or black—who are as conservative as white people overall.
We thus have to think about race as a crucial category of analysis, and Trump’s rise really made that extremely clear. It’s not that he didn’t have Black and Latinx evangelical supporters; he did, including some ministers. But over time, Trump probably contributed to fracturing the evangelical movement along lines of race, in large part because he made it clear how willing his white supporters were to ignore his racism.
Today, Trump is becoming less popular, as he has less of a platform. Maybe in a few years, that pro-Trump wing of the movement will be more embarrassed than not. But I definitely think Trump revealed a really ugly—and by no means small—strand of American evangelicalism that was willing to be quite overt, not just around topics they could claim had Biblical sanction, like homosexuality or abortion, but around racial politics, police violence, and nationalism. With Trump’s rise, the most conservative impulses of white evangelicals were given a megaphone.
Melani McAlister is a Professor of American Studies and International Affairs at The George Washington University. She is the author or co-editor of five books, including The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (Oxford, 2018); Epic Encounters: Culture, Media and US Interests in the Middle East (2005, o. 2001); and volume 4 of the forthcoming Cambridge History of America and the World (co-edited with David Engerman and Max Friedman). She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as the boards of Diplomatic History, Modern American History, and American Quarterly.