The new evangelicals:

Global reflex

posted by David R. Swartz

As both Marcia Pally and David Gushee note, there is no historical reason why evangelicalism should identify with a single political orientation. There is also no global reason. Research on evangelicals in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is uncovering startling political diversity. Paul Freston, one of the most informed scholars on the subject, dismisses “facile equations of evangelicalism with conservative stances.” Historical and contemporary conditions, he writes, demonstrate “the distance of these actors—indeed, total independence of these actors—from the American evangelical right.”

Increasingly, many of these non-American evangelicals have begun to speak back to the United States, revealing American conditions not only as anomalous but also as subject to influence from abroad. Scholars are recognizing that despite the imperial nature of the “American Century,” influence flows in both directions. People of the two-thirds world have, in fact, shaped American evangelical missionaries and Cold Warriors.

This global reflex often takes progressive shape. Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, my history of the small, but energetic, American evangelical left of the 1970s and 1980s, chronicles the activism of just one of many international sources of non-rightist politics. Figures within Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL) are obscure outside evangelical circles, but they have voiced trenchant critiques of American consumerism and social injustices. As Samuel Escobar, a native of Peru and FTL’s first president, told thousands of delegates at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, “Christians in the Third World…expect from their brethren a word of identification with demands for justice.” Institutions such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the World Evangelical Fellowship, Christianity Today, Wheaton College, and World Vision have listened to a surprising degree. For example, under pressure from international evangelicals, World Vision de-Americanized in the 1970s, a move that resulted in adding economic development to the organization’s agenda of disaster relief and personal evangelism.

Escobar and World Vision represent the leading edge of what will almost certainly become a larger and stronger global reflex. 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.

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