The Author’s Corner with David Kirkpatrick

KirkpatrickDavid C. Kirkpatrick is Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University.  This interview is based on his new book A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write A Gospel for the Poor?

DK: Writing this book was an exciting journey that took me to five countries and allowed me to interview fascinating characters around the world. I was especially motivated to bring the voices of marginalized yet deeply influential Christians into established and ongoing conversations. As I started the project, I began to uncover ways in which the influence of Latin Americans had been hidden or excluded, including through translation and adoption by American leaders. As a Spanish speaker myself, I was also motivated to translate Spanish materials for an English-speaking audience and to narrate the ways in which these leaders navigated their bilingual world. At times, progressive Latin American evangelicals used their bilingualism to their advantage, saying one thing in English and another in Spanish. This type of historical recovery motivated me throughout the project. But more importantly, I think their story was worth telling: A Cold War generation of Latin Americans who demanded a place at the table of global evangelical leadership, seeking to strip Christianity of its white, middle-class, American packaging. Within a fraught and contested space, they sought to construct a gospel for the poor.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Gospel for the Poor.

DK: In A Gospel for the Poor, I argue that the intellectual scaffolding of the Evangelical Left was built not in the American public square but in Cold War Latin America. In this context, transnational conversations provoked the rise of progressive evangelical politics, the explosion of Christian humanitarian organizations, and the infusion of social justice into the very mission of evangelicals around the world and across a broad spectrum of denominations.

JF: Why do we need to read A Gospel for the Poor?

DK: A Gospel for the Poorfuses the worlds of Pope Francis and Billy Graham. Many of the main characters in the book are familiar to readers—Graham, John Stott, Carl F. H. Henry, Stacey Woods (founder of InterVarsity-USA), Gustavo Gutiérrez, and others. This story not only recasts well-known Christian leaders but also argues for the importance and inclusion of lesser-known activists such as René Padilla, Orlando Costas, and Samuel Escobar. In order to do so, I utilized a far-flung set of archival materials mostly outside the United States—dusty boxes in René Padilla’s Buenos Aires garage, binders in Samuel Escobar’s apartment in Valencia, Spain, John Stott’s travel diary at Lambeth Palace library in London, long-thought-lost meeting minutes from Seminario Bíblico in San José, Costa Rica, papers of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Oxford, and, of course, the collections at Wheaton College to name a few. Alongside bilingual interviews, this subaltern dataset flavors the narrative and reframes key events and leaders.

A Gospel for the Poor seeks to answer key questions about progressive Christianity such as, why did many evangelicals in the North greet these ideas as family rather than foein contrast to their reaction to the so-called Social Gospel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Thus, we turn not to centers of power but to a revolutionary Latin American university environment, examining a cluster of political and social forces reshaping the post-war Americas:  rural-urban migration flows, the resulting complications of urbanization, and the rapid expansion of the universities, where Marxist ideas of revolutionary change presented a growing appeal to students around the world. In turn, this produced a renaissance of social Christianities in the U.S. and buttressed an increasingly interventionist evangelical foreign policy, as well.

For the Evangelical Left, they required theological justification for their political action and when searching for words to describe a gospel for the poor, key members turned to the Global South and language that was forged within the Cold War. In the words of Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren, the Latin American Evangelical Left provided a “different theological ecosystem.”

Ultimately, A Gospel for the Poor contributes to an exciting ongoing conversation on evangelical internationalism and social Christianity. In this story, progressive Latin Americans became trailblazers, playing the role of controversial truthtellers and prophets, bringing to bear the reality of the Majority World into the consciousness of powerbrokers in the North. The role of progressive Latin Americans as a bridge between younger, emerging evangelical leadership in the Global South and the evangelical establishment was crucial to the task of challenging loyalties. In fact, it is fair to say that one cannot understand the contextual turn of global evangelicalism in the postwar period without understanding their role within it.

JF: When and why did you decide to become a historian?

DKMy path to becoming an historian of World Christianity was rather circuitous. I have long been fascinated by the relationship between the United States and Latin America, with all their crucial intersections whether migration, religion, or politics. In college, I studied Spanish and lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, between my sophomore and junior years. Through many journeys prior and since, I fell in love with Latin American culture and history. In conversations and research, the shadow of the United States was ever-present. In grad school, I fell in love with archival research and interviewing—a love relationship that still motivates my work. But perhaps more than anything, two mentors shaped my journey as an historian—Doug Sweeney at TEDS and Brian Stanley at Edinburgh. They took me under their wing and, through hundreds of hours of mentorship, taught me how to think, research, and write. To me, they are also tremendous examples of Christian voices in our contentious contemporary world. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

JF: What is your next project?

DK: I have two current book projects that are well under way, both surrounding the issue of global religious violence. I am co-editing a collection of essays with Jason Bruner provisionally titled A Global Vision of Violence: Persecution, Media, and Martyrdom in World Christianity. We have a tremendous lineup of scholars with diverse perspectives. My second monograph is titled Blood and Borders: Violence and the Origins of the “Global War on Christians.” Blood and Borders situates American evangelicalism within in a transnational frame and foreground religious violence against Protestants in Latin America. It provides a fresh take on how American evangelicals view themselves, their neighbors, and their place in the world—a world that declared war on their perceived global family.

DK: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner With Melani McAlister

McAlisterMelani 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?

MMIn 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?)

MMI 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?

MMI 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!

Covart’s Amercian Revolution Reborn Recap: Part 2

In her most recap (2 of 6) of the recent American Revolution Reborn conference at Penn, Liz Covart covers the session on global perspectives.  This session featured papers by Kate Carte Engel, Caitlin Fitz, Aaron Fogleman, and my beloved Ph.D advisor Ned Landsman.  Here is a taste of her coverage:

Biggest Takeaway: Scholars should study the Revolution in a global context because it is useful to compare American experiences with those in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, & South America. 

Biggest Question: Should we expand our periodization of the American Revolution to cover the years 1760 to 1825? 

Panel Summary: 
Engal advocated for more studies that use religion to understand the American Revolution. Up until now the story of the founding has been largely secular, but what happens if we look at the Revolution through the lens of Protestantism? What were the implications of the Revolution for religion?

Fitz would like to see the periodization of the Revolution expanded to 1775-1825. This periodization allows scholars to compare the American Revolution with Latin & South American revolutions. This comparison deepens our understanding of American republicanism and ways of thinking. As Latin & South American countries declared independence they passed legal measures that ended slavery and promoted racial equality. Americans followed these actions in newspapers and no one reacted because the distance of South America from the United States rendered South American events abstract concepts.

Fogleman has found that immigration throughout the Atlantic was much higher from 1777 on than previously expected. Fogleman does not believe in the notion that the Revolution secured slavery and increased racism. When Fogleman studied the American Revolution in the Atlantic context, he found that slavery declined from its 1760s numbers during and after the Revolution.

Landsman believes that American historians have not sufficiently attended to the British aspect of the British Empire. Imperial reformers looked at including the 13 colonies in the formal 1707 union, but by 1763 the Americans had so much sovereignty that the British had little left to give to make the union appealing, aside from the sovereignty of Parliament. Reformers discussed the idea of eventually moving the imperial capital to North America, but British officials were wary of making any concessions that might suggest that the imperial capital would move, especially when America seemed to be pursuing a Republican path.

Read more here.