Melani McAlister is Professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University. This interview is based on her new book The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write The Kingdom of God Has No Borders?
MM: I was raised a Southern Baptist in North Carolina, and so the assumption many people make is that I wrote about evangelicals to understand my own past. But, in all honesty, I had no interest in writing about that, and I still don’t experience this book as being about my own history in any significant way – other than the fact that I get some of the jokes evangelicals make about Bible drills or summer camp.
Instead, I got interested in writing this book because I wanted to show the complexity of a history that I thought had been told as too entirely domestic, and too relentlessly white. I also realized that the international politics among evangelicals was more complex and interesting than I had acknowledged in my first book. That book, Epic Encounters, was a study of American images of the Middle East, focusing on popular culture and media. One chapter was on US views of Israel, and it included a discussion of the “prophecy talk” of white evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s, which was something I did know about from personal experience. When Epic Encounters came out in 2001, white evangelicals were in the news – with Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell both making aggressive comments about Islam in the wake of 9/11. So, at that point, I thought I would write a quick book about prophecy and politics among evangelicals after the Cold War. When I started that research, however, I realized that many more interesting things were going on in terms of evangelical engagement with international affairs – so much so that the discussion of prophecy became very minor—it was ultimately relegated to just a few pages inThe Kingdom of God.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Kingdom of God Has No Borders?
MM: The fundamental premise of the book is that, when international issues are taken into account, the history of modern evangelicalism looks different from the dominant stories we have about it. This book aims to both expand and challenge key components of the domestic story by showing how some theologically conservative Protestants in the United States came to understand themselves to be part of a truly global community, and to trace the impact of those transnational ties on thinking about race, gender, and the role of the US in the world.
JF: Why do we need to read The Kingdom of God Has No Borders?
MM: In the book, I tell a complex history of US evangelicals as part of a global community. Starting with controversies over racism and missionary work in the aftermath of WWII—including the role of missionaries in the Congo crisis of the early 1960s—and closing with debates over homosexual rights in Uganda in the 2000s, I show that evangelicals in the last seventy years were consistently engaged in politics, both domestic and international. I also highlight the fact that evangelicals have consistently disagreed about what their faith required of them politically and morally.
The focus of the book is on white and black theologically conservative Protestants in the US, but the story includes the Latin American leaders of the “social concern” faction at the Lausanne Congress in 1974, South African evangelical anti-apartheid activists (black and white), Arab Christians who challenge US policy in Iraq, and the theologically conservative Protestants in Uganda who supported the anti-homosexuality law in the 2000s. Global South evangelicals did not have one political view, and this is not a celebration of either their liberal views or their conservative impact. Instead, the book is an argument that American evangelicals were changed by their transnational encounters, becoming more liberal on race, sometimes more conservative on gender, and often more aware of themselves as just one part of a larger international network of believers. As Americans, they had wealth and power, but the story of the last few decades is a story of the rise of global South evangelicals into positions of cultural and moral authority.
So: read the book to learn a more complex story about evangelical history, to understand more about the debates that have shaped the community, and to see how one important subset of Americans came to understand their own role, and their country’s role, on the international stage.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)
MM: I was always interested in US foreign policy. Back in the 1980s, I majored in international studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I was involved in an array of causes, including anti-apartheid work. Before I went to graduate school, I worked for several years as a staffer for a peace group in Boston. It was in the role of activist that I actually became interested in culture. After trying to go out and convince people of our views on policy issues, I came to see that none of us come to our political opinions with pure rationality–on foreign policy or much of anything else. Our values matter, and our values are often shaped by forces we aren’t fully aware of or don’t recognize, including popular culture. So I went to graduate school in American Studies at Brown, and I studied the role of culture—including religious cultures—in shaping our views of the larger world.
JF: What is your next project?
MM: I am beginning work on a study of the popular culture of humanitarianism, focusing on the “long 1970s” (the late 1960s to the early 1980s). Tentatively titled “We Were the World,” the book will begin with the global response to the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-1970—where images of starving babies with distended bellies became the icon of a kind of activist humanitarian agenda on behalf of the Biafrans. It will end with the early 1980s concerts for Ethiopia. The basic argument of the book is that humanitarianism, like so many things, is a double-edged sword. Sometimes Americans became involved in humanitarian causes in problematic ways that were condescending and racialized; and yet sometimes they connected with those who were suffering in ways that reached toward genuine solidarity. Culture played a role in shaping our understandings, and thus our politics.
JF: Thanks, Melani!