American Evangelicals Looking Abroad

AHA Session 219
American Society of Church History 24
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Liberty Suite 5 (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Elizabeth Flowers, Texas Christian University
Seth Dowland, Pacific Lutheran University

Session Abstract

      This session spotlights twentieth and twenty-first century American evangelicals’ obsession with international events. More than most Americans, evangelicals fixed their attention abroad. They regularly heard harrowing tales from friends and family members on the mission field, and they spent countless hours parsing the latest news for signs of the end times. Fears of overpopulation influenced their politics of family, while concerns about justice sparked surprising support for Palestinians. These international obsessions proliferate in evangelical periodicals, sermons, and pamphlets. But in the recent outpouring of scholarship on evangelicalism, evangelicals’ foreign fixation has merited relatively little attention. This session remedies that by offering a glimpse of important new directions in the scholarship on American evangelicalism.

        Each of the four papers we propose looks at how evangelicals’ understanding of foreign affairs shaped not only their own subculture but also American policy itself. For instance, evangelicals’ apocalypticism demanded dramatic and immediate transformation; if Jesus’s return was imminent, there was no time to lose. Throughout the Cold War, evangelicals pushed for intervention lest the apocalypse come before the conversion of the lost. But apocalypticism was not the only prism through which evangelicals filtered foreign affairs. During the 1970s, evangelicals encountered warnings about overpopulation at the same time as pro-family issues began to dominate American politics, making for hard choices among thousands of missionary doctors serving countries where population growth was rampant. Figuring out what to do—and how to communicate a “Christian” response to donors—became a paramount task.

        Justice also mattered to evangelicals. The left wing of evangelicalism agitated their more conservative co-religionists from the 1970s into the twenty-first century, arguing that reflexive support for Israel was unbiblical. These progressive evangelicals trumpeted the Palestinian cause as a matter of caring for the poor and persecuted. By the turn of the twenty-first century, American evangelicals showed a mixture of responses to American foreign policy. The complexity of American evangelicalism showed up as ambivalence in evangelicals’ flagship periodical, Christianity Today, which hedged in its assessments of the Iraq war and of the debate over China’s attempt to secure “most favored nation” status. While foreign affairs still mattered, contemporary evangelicals seemed more interested in articulating a transnational identity than in sponsoring American military interventions.

        The audience for this session will include twentieth-century American historians from the AHA and from the American Society of Church History. We envision 15- to 20-minute paper presentations followed by a brief comment and a robust question-and-answer session. Because we expect audience members from a number of disciplines and subfields—including religious studies, religious history, and military history—the conversation has the potential to be particularly robust, with audience members bringing insights on everything from evangelical theology to diplomatic history. Ultimately, we hope to spotlight an important new dimension of evangelical historiography and to sponsor an important discussion on the ways foreign events have shaped American evangelicalism.

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