Evangelicalism: A “Global Renewal Movement,” Not an American Political Faction

Pally, The New EvangelicalsOne group of Christianity-related links that I left out of my January links recap stemmed from Marcia Pally’s post at The Immanent Frame, about “Evangelicals who have left the right” and are embracing more progressive political positions. While commentators like Sarah Posner have poked legitimate holes in Pally’s case that “where once there was the appearance of a monovocal evangelicalism [in terms of political engagement] there is now robust polyphony,” her post inspired follow-ups from David Gushee and David Swartz (also at The Immanent Frame) that made what, to my mind, is a much more important point:

It’s not just that there’s no reason, given the history of evangelicalism in this country, that American evangelicals would inherently align with the right wing of the Republican Party. It’s that, in Gushee’s words, “Evangelicalism is best understood as a global renewal movement within Christianity” (emphasis mine), one that can’t be defined by American politics. Whether or not evangelicals in the States are becoming less reliable Republican voters is not an insignificant issue, but it risks being a rather parochial one unless we first understand that evangelicalism is not — and has never been — a national movement, and that it doesn’t take long once you go beyond these shores (or, speaking as a historian, beyond our own age) to discover that evangelical political engagement varies tremendously.

At least in the Immanent Frame post (perhaps not in her 2011 book), Pally confined her comments to American evangelicalism, but Gushee rightly broadened the focus:

I suggest that what is really happening is that the odd disturbance of global evangelicalism by right-wing Southern Strategy American politics is an aberration that has not quite run its course but is beginning to weaken. What is emerging instead is the robust political polyphony that was there all along.

Samuel Escobar
Samuel Escobar

Indeed, as Swartz points out in his response to Pally and Gushee, “Global reflex,” many non-American evangelicals are not only progressive in their politics but willing “to speak back to the United States, revealing American conditions not only as anomalous but also as subject to influence from abroad.” He offered the historical examples of the Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana, which critiqued American imperialism under the leadership of Samuel Escobar in the 1970s, and the ensuing de-Americanization of World Vision.

(I hope Swartz’s post generates even more attention for his excellent book on progressive evangelicalism, Moral Minority. The chapter on Escobar and other evangelicals from the Two-Thirds World is one of my favorites, demonstrating a scholarly reach and grasp that is all the more impressive because it takes him beyond the United States. I’d welcome correction from true experts in the field, but Swartz’s achievement here seems to me to to mark an important, long-overdue (?) maturation in the history of evangelicalism. When most of Christianity’s growth since 1900 is found in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and when multiarchival, multilingual historical research and international/transnational analysis is becoming more commonplace in the discipline, a historiography focused on the United States — or treating most of the globe primarily in the context of the history of missions — seems untenable. But I digress…)

At the same time, Swartz acknowledges that evangelicalism elsewhere is even less of a political monolith than it is in America; indeed, it defies our left-right categories:

To be sure, the reflex seems uneven in the context of current North American political orthodoxies. African critiques of libertine sexuality, Asian critiques of American techniques of evangelization, and Latin American critiques of North American consumerism combine in ways that defy the imaginations of most Americans. Indeed, the exotic melody from abroad is rich and complex, and international voices likely will swell to a chorus in the next century as the Global South demographically overwhelms northern and western centers. In a world where 60 percent of all Christians now live outside the North Atlantic region, and in a nation increasingly opened to nonwhite immigrants since the Immigration Act of 1965, global influence will only intensify. As that happens, contemporary manifestations of right-wing evangelicalism may seem even more anomalous.

Zambian evangelical pastor Chongo Phiri at Lausanne 2010 in Cape Town - Creative Commons (Micah Chiang)
Zambian evangelical pastor Chongo Phiri at Lausanne 2010 in Cape Town – Creative Commons (Micah Chiang)

For a survey of the political diversity of global evangelicalism, see the three volumes published by Oxford in 2008 that analyze the complicated relationship between evangelicalism and democracy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (the last edited by Paul Freston, quoted by Swartz in his post as dismissing “facile equations of evangelicalism with conservative stances”). Reviewing that series for Books and Culture, Joel Carpenter was struck that “This rich collection of cases can seem exotic at points to American readers. Can you imagine an Assemblies of God member holding a cabinet post in a socialist government?” Indeed, he found diversity inherent in the nature of evangelicalism: “Evangelical movements grow by proliferating and diversifying; they tend to increase religious diversity, choice, and competition. Such conditions work against attempts to get activists to work together, whether in religion or politics” (March/April 2009 issue).

(By the way, Carpenter has already pointed out — in a 2008 Immanent Frame post — that the political variety of American evangelicalism partly reflects the immigration of Latin American, Asian, and African evangelicals, who tend to blend “traditional views about sexual behavior and families” with stances on poverty, immigration reform, and U.S. foreign policy that don’t fit neatly into conservatism.)

4 thoughts on “Evangelicalism: A “Global Renewal Movement,” Not an American Political Faction

  1. Most American voters are motivated by only a few key motivators. American evangelicals are similarly aligned politically. Self-interest has driven the last election more than previous ones. It is no longer chic for Northern US evangelicals to associate with a political positions that are viewed as anti- “choice” or anti-gay. It has become more important for evangelicals to be relevant than to stand away from predominate accepted social norms.

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