The Global Reflex: An International Historian Appraises David Swartz’s Moral Minority (part 1)

Yesterday I had the privilege of joining historians Dick Pierard, Owen Strachan, and Miles Mullin (who organized the session) on an Evangelical Theological Society panel dedicated to David Swartz’s groundbreaking history of the “evangelical left.” Here’s part one of my paper (fleshing out some themes I introduced earlier this month); look for part two early next week.

Swartz, Moral MinorityIf you read books in the manner that many undergraduates do, you’d think that David Swartz’s Moral Minority is purely a national history. The first and last paragraphs in the introduction promise a study of the impact of progressive evangelicalism on “political and religious life in America.” Likewise, the first sentence of the first chapter is about evangelicals’ political “reemergence in the mainstream political consciousness in the year of the nation’s bicentennial” and the last sentence of the last chapter finds the evangelical left “Exiled from American political structures and power.”

I’ll add my voice to the chorus praising Swartz’s book as one of the first and best accounts of politically progressive evangelicalism in recent American history. But I’m here to suggest that time might tell that the most significant chapter in Moral Minority is the one that has the least to do with (North) American history: the chapter entitled “Samuel Escobar and the Global Reflex.”

The Global Reflex: Evangelicalism in the Two-Thirds World

This, Swartz’s sixth chapter, commences an intriguing cycle showing how one factor in the growth and development of the “moral minority” was the influence of “ethnic evangelicals.” It’s followed by chapters focused on Rich Mouw and Ron Sider as exemplars of Dutch Reformed and Swiss-German Anabaptist influence on the evangelical left. But while those names are no doubt familiar to most students of American evangelicalism, I’m not sure the same is true of the Peruvian theologian Samuel Escobar, or of his colleagues in the leadership of the Latin American Theological Fraternity: René Padilla of Ecuador and Orlando Costas of Puerto Rico. All three played significant roles not just in their native countries and region, but in shaping an international conversation about evangelism, social justice, and cultural captivity.

Samuel Escobar
Samuel Escobar

Escobar’s encounter with American evangelicalism began after his conversion at San Marcos University. He read Carl Henry, joined the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), and worked with the Latin American Mission. But he burst onto the scene in 1969, at the Latin American Evangelization Congress in Bogotá, when his speech on the “Church’s Social Responsibility” not only insisted that “one could be profoundly evangelical doctrinally as well as relevant and committed socially” (p. 117), but rejected dependency on American missionaries and “Anglo” theologies that dressed up free market capitalism in evangelical rhetoric. The next year he and two dozen other Latin American evangelicals founded the Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL), which printed its own influential Theological Bulletin in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. A year later Latin American Mission turned over administrative control to Latin Americans, and FTL grew increasingly independent of American sponsorship. Forty years ago this month Escobar helped to draft the Chicago Declaration that is at the heart of Swartz’s story. Then in 1974 he and FTL colleagues played leading roles at the first Lausanne Congress, with Padilla and Costas giving plenary addresses and Escobar not only helping to plan the program but to draft the resulting Covenant. Swartz credits him with assisting English-speaking leaders like John Stott and Billy Graham to see that the church’s mission included both evangelism and social action. As the 1970s continued, the influence of evangelicals from Latin America, Africa, and Asia led American progressives to rethink not only missions strategies, but their understanding of the United States and its role in the world.

Mind the Gap: Religion in the Historiography of International Relations

Why do I find the stories of Escobar, Padilla, Costas, and the “Global Reflex” so interesting?

First, I need to reveal that I’m an impostor at ETS: not a theologian, and not even a real church historian. Largely because of my role teaching at a Christian college (and then researching how that particular institution has, unusually, been shaped by Pietism), I increasingly find myself drawn to church and religious history. But my major fields in graduate school were “Strategy and Diplomacy of the European Great Powers” and “The History of U.S. Foreign Policy”; my dissertation was on educational reform in occupied western Germany after World War II. I’ll turn to the importance of David’s history of the “global reflex” for the history of evangelicalism, but first indulge me as I put on my international historian’s hat and reflect on the importance of his work for that field.

Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of FaithUntil the past decade or so, I suspect that there’s been less interaction between diplomatic and religious historians than any other subdisciplinary groups. No one has done more in my native field than Andrew Preston to bridge the gap, but as recently as seven years ago he could lament that the histories of religion and international relations — while “two of the most important and exhaustively studied aspects of American history” — “have evolved separately and remained apart.” (I’m quoting here from Preston’s article in the November 2006 issue of Diplomatic History, pp. 786 and 811-12.) He quoted Leo Ribuffo’s observation that “Political and diplomatic historians almost never know the work of such important [religious] scholars as George M. Marsden and Mark Noll.” (Preston credited Noll as a source of feedback on this article, incidentally.)

Preston suggested explanations, including the pervading secularism of diplomatic historians. But perhaps such scholars are no more disinterested in religion than the people they study. When the U.S. State Department this summer announced the creation of a new office of “religious engagement,” it prompted George Washington University professor Melani McAlister to ask if such an office would be “the long-awaited answer to the problem of a myopically secular US diplomacy?” or “another example in a long line of ham-fisted US attempts to shape religion abroad to fit the needs of US foreign policy?” (See more on this office in the new issue of Christianity Today.)

There’s been movement here of late, thanks to the belated arrival of the “cultural” turn in the field of diplomatic (or, maybe better, international) history. Andy Rotter played a pioneering role among these self-styled “culturalists,” exploring the intersection of diplomacy and religion in American relations with Pakistan and India. In the history of neighboring Southeast Asia, Seth Jacobs found significant the Catholicism of Ngo Dinh Diem in explaining American support for his repressive, unpopular regime. Will Inboden and Jonathan Herzog have provided deeper insight into what the latter calls the “spiritual-industrial complex” that determined American foreign policy early in the Cold War. Then last fall Preston himself published his own magisterial book on Christianity in the history of American diplomacy, which religious historian Mark Edwards pronounced “the capstone on if not completion of the ‘religious turn’ in Diplomatic History.”

One hopes that as diplomatic historians continue to make their “religious” turn, they’ll run headlong into religious historians making a “diplomatic” turn. (To flip Ribuffo’s observation, for too long religious or church historians haven’t known the work of such important diplomatic scholars as John Gaddis and Walter LaFeber.) Earlier this fall fifteen American religious historians met at Creighton University to launch the Religion and U.S. Empire Project, which will host its own panel here in Baltimore next Monday as part of the AAR. The relationship between religion and empire at least is not unfamiliar ground for American religious historians, going back at least to Martin Marty’s Righteous Empire, which Preston described an “important, albeit partial, exception” to the secular/sacred gap for its recognition of the “linkage between American Protestantism and imperial continental expansion.”

Such a project — as much as Inboden and Herzog’s studies of political theology in the White House and Foggy Bottom — takes historians back to the one theme that, according to Preston, has always bridged the gap between religious and diplomatic historians: the way that Christianity inspired, justified, and was in turn shaped by “American nationalism, ideology, and sense of mission.” And it’s at the point where religious and national senses of mission most overlap that we find the most existing scholarship — and the most important contribution to international history by Swartz.

20131120-225304.jpgPreston once more: “If any topic in the history of American foreign relations has had its religious aspects examined thoroughly, it is the role played by Christian missionaries in the turn to formal imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (p. 803). He might have dropped the word “early” from that last clause had he read Dick’s contribution to 1990’s Earthen Vessels, a collection of essays on the history of evangelical foreign missions edited by Joel Carpenter and Wilbert Shenk (and cited by Swartz in the “global reflex” chapter). Exploring how the “vision of a Pax Americana… was a significant force in the American evangelical missionary endeavor,” Dick lamented that, until the 1970s, “evangelicals from the U.S. had bought heavily into the war-induced revival of civil religion, and most of them engaged in a syncretic confusion of Christianity and Americanism.” Dick concluded his paper on a mildly more hopeful note, however, in part because “Evangelical leaders from the so-called Third World have been gaining influence and have been forcing their counterparts in the United States to take a long, hard look at the relationship between word and deed in the realm of social responsibility.” (Quoting from pp. 155-56, 165, and 179 of Earthen Vessels. Orlando Costas contributed a chapter on “Evangelical Theology in the Two-Thirds World” to the same volume.)

This is the story that Swartz tells in his sixth chapter: American missionary partners coming to reevaluate their understanding of evangelism and America’s role in the world thanks to the growing influence of evangelicals from the Two-Thirds World. He demonstrates how “Escobar, like Padilla and Costas, reversed the trajectory of American missionary activity and began to circulate in the North American evangelical world,” where they critiqued American political, economic, intellectual, and cultural hegemony and “charged that American evangelicals had confused the gospel with the American way of life, and then imposed that corrupted gospel on the world” (pp. 122, 126). In Moral Minority Swartz notes how some American missionaries did listen to this critique and began to rethink their approach; while back home, progressive evangelicals became increasingly critical of American foreign policy in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Swartz developed this argument in a 2012 article for the open-access journal Religions, in which he tracks the evolution of InterVarsity and World Vision — from affirming a “neo-evangelical nationalist consensus” to a process of “de-Americanization” that resulted in those organizations being at the center of a “new internationalism.” More to the point for any international historians who care to listen: through international intellectual exchange with evangelicals from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, American missionaries were transformed into critics of American empire. For example, “World Vision,” observes Swartz, “began to work at cross-purposes with American diplomacy,” advocating for Palestinian rights and working with the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

(Nor does Swartz’s story fit well within standard categories of Latin American history. In the 2008 collection In From the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War, co-editor Gilbert Joseph’s introduction calls on diplomatic historian to draw on other fields to better understand the experience of the Cold War at levels other than that of policy making elites. He emphasizes social, cultural, and gender history, but had little to say about religion. One chapter does pay significant attention to Christianity, Carlota McAllister’s on Guatemalan women who in 1979 resisted the right-wing government’s attempts to conscript Mayan villagers. In “Rural Markets, Revolutionary Souls, and Rebellious Women in Cold War Guatemala,” Christianity takes two guises, both Roman Catholic: the stridently anti-Communist hierarchy of the 1950s, and progressive priests of the 1960s and 1970s. Swartz’s Latin American evangelicals — critics of American hegemony and Marxist determinism alike — don’t fit such a typology.)

Read the conclusion of the paper>>

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