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Review of Melani McAlister, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals

Author: John Young
Published: Winter-Spring 2021
In:

MD 12.1

Article Type: Book Review

Melani McAlister. The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 408 pp. Hardcover. $29.95.

Because of the enormity and importance of the church’s task in the present, it can be tempting to undervalue the study of its past, especially when that discussion goes beyond the evaluation of specific methodologies and approaches to kingdom work. Yet, it is precisely because of the enormity and importance of its task that the church of the present can ill afford to be ill-informed of its history. Though it offers little in the way of practical instruction (that is not its purpose), Melani McAlister’s excellent The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals provides readers a thoroughly researched, well-crafted, and sensitive but not sycophantic portrayal of the activities of American evangelicals on the world stage over the last half-century.

McAlister’s work builds on archival materials from a wide array of collections, supplemented by fieldwork, and its chief contribution is its broad perspective. Operating from a global vantage point, rather than merely local or national, allows McAlister to identify two major positions of American evangelicals vis-à-vis the rest of the world, This enables her to challenge past interpretations (usually situated at the national level) that have assumed a fixed evangelical predisposition towards American exceptionalism. First, McAlister contends that American evangelicals have often exuded an “enchanted internationalism” (9), which has sought a powerful, revitalized version of the faith on foreign shores in order to inspire greater devotion at home. Second, McAlister notes the prevalence of “victim identification” (11) rhetoric, or the desire to find global unity in a perceived shared experience of persecution, illustrating that some American evangelicals understood themselves to be living under the same kinds of legal and political constraints as persecuted evangelicals abroad. Whether seeking spiritual revitalization from their coreligionists or perceiving a shared burden with them, then, American evangelicals have understood themselves to be less exceptional than many scholars have previously argued. “The paradox at the heart of evangelical internationalism,” McAlister ultimately concludes, is that “God’s kingdom . . . is conceived as universal, borderless. And yet evangelicals, like everybody else, have lived in a world deeply divided by national borders, inhabited by refugees and migrants, riven by dramatically uneven distributions of wealth and power, and dominated by the United States as the most powerful state the world has ever known” (13).

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders consists of three thematic sections of five chapters apiece. The first section, “Networks,” illustrates how American evangelicals devoted themselves to creating organizations and institutions in pursuit of global community from the late 1950s onward. These conferences, television programs, publications, seminaries, Bible colleges, and the like have played, and continue to play, key roles in evangelical identity formation. At the same time, evangelical unity has been tested and sometimes fractured by political developments at home and abroad, such as the Civil Rights Movement or the process of decolonization in Africa. Even the famed 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization (the Lausanne Congress), McAlister observes, reflected the complex reality that while a younger, more socially conscious faction of evangelical leaders was coming to the forefront of the movement, “both groups—evangelism-first and social concern—would come to see Lausanne as their moment of triumph” (87).

“Body Politics,” the second section, covers the time period from 1967 to 2001 and tells how human bodies came to serve not only as sites of physical suffering but also as symbols of the suffering of the body of Christ worldwide. One manifestation of this trend came with the persecution of evangelicals under communist rule, publicized and dramatized by Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand. This trend spurred on the formation of a transnational evangelical identity rooted in suffering. Though the threat of communism served to unify evangelicals worldwide, the racial politics of South African apartheid did not. Defenders of the status quo and those who sought to challenge the system of racial segregation and exploitation both attempted to claim the mantle of bodily suffering at the hands of their foes. In subsequent decades, the popularization of the “10/40 window,” the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of “political Islam” did much to reshape the aims of missions experts, and American evangelicals became increasingly fixated on enshrining protections for religious freedom in law at home and abroad as the twentieth century came to a close.

The final unit, “Emotions,” builds on the insights of philosopher Sara Ahmed and highlights the importance of emotion as a motivating force for American evangelical activity abroad. “For those of us who study international affairs,” McAlister admits in one of her relatively few theoretical asides, “this approach takes us far away from rational actor theory by suggesting that our rationalities and our emotional attachments are deeply intertwined” (13). Topics in this section include the rise in popularity of short-term missions, often undertaken with the laudable goal of spiritual formation but frequently producing mixed or negative results in the locales visited. The aftermath of 9/11 and the increased presence of the American military in the Middle East have also served as divisive forces in American evangelicalism writ large, with many prominent figures demonstrating blatant Islamophobia and others seeking a productive working relationship between faiths. Even domestic political issues have had dramatic consequences for evangelical missions abroad, as wider US cultural changes have often outpaced similar shifts overseas. “When those disjunctures appeared,” McAlister observes, “it became clear that humanitarianism, debates about church doctrine, sexuality, and concerns over neocolonialism with the church were fundamentally intertwined” (266–67).

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is the product of a decade’s worth of work by a scholar with a remarkable ability to balance the forest of global perspective with the trees of individual lived experience. Of particular note in this regard is McAlister’s discussion of short-term missions in chapter eleven, which counterposes participants’ generally lofty intentions with the more ambiguous outcomes generated by such endeavors as a whole. Typographical errors do occasionally distract from the otherwise clearly written and logically organized presentation of the material. One unfortunate example in the epilogue has Donald Trump’s Department of Justice submitting a brief in the fall of 2016, rather than 2017, in the case of Materpiece [sic] Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (288). Yet the fact that these errors—which are not representative of the work as a whole—are some of the most notable shortcomings of the book should provide readers a sense of just how remarkable McAlister’s work is. Both academically- and practically-minded readers will benefit from her challenging and thought-provoking analysis.

John Young

Assistant Professor

Turner School of Theology

Amridge University

Tuscaloosa, AL, USA

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