Salvation and Solidarity: Evangelical International Engagement in the Late 20th Century

AHA Session 59
Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 2
Friday, January 4, 2019: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Melani McAlister, George Washington University
Melani McAlister, George Washington University

Session Abstract

Recent political events have inspired much confusion and consternation about American evangelicals’ loyalties. Countless think pieces have wondered about evangelicals’ steadfast support for politicians who defy the very tenets of conservative morality that evangelicals claim to defend. Reflections on these issues have focused mostly on the arena of formal politics, the same arena that has constituted the main focus for the scholarship on evangelicals in recent US history. But to understand how evangelicals have shaped American society, culture, and politics, one not only should scrutinize formal political participation but also should explore more broadly what has mattered to evangelicals. Where do their loyalties lie?

While fifty-one percent of US evangelicals have donated to conservative political candidates or organizations, a whopping ninety-two percent have donated money and time to international missionary and Christian humanitarian work. For every dollar evangelicals have given to political campaigns, they have given twelve to overseas work. So to uncover what has animated American evangelicals’ commitments, one must look beyond the borders of the US and examine evangelicals’ global activism.

This panel explores that international activism by tracing the history of evangelicals’ efforts to combat and relieve what they perceived to be the spiritual and physical suffering of others around the world. Lauren Turek tracks the post-1970 spread of evangelical media and communication networks, which offered US evangelicals connections to Christians around the world and information about the religious repression faced by many of those Christians. Turek demonstrates that these networks served as a catalyst for evangelicals’ human rights activism in the US on behalf of other Christians around the world. Hannah Waits follows evangelical missionaries’ campaign to save the former Soviet Union by putting Bible-based curriculum in public schools throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States in the 1990s. Waits shows how this mission work inspired conservative evangelicals who wanted Bible-based curriculum in US public schools and ignited global opposition to US evangelicals’ cultural chauvinism and unreflective activism. And Paul Lim outlines how evangelical organizing against human trafficking developed in the US and Korea. Using a case study, Lim reveals that evangelicals’ preoccupation with sexual morality led them to focus exclusively on sex trafficking and to render “sex trafficking” and “human trafficking” as coterminous, thereby rendering less visible other forms of human trafficking, such as labor trafficking.

Together, these presentations point to the ways that global activism influenced evangelicals’ understandings of themselves and how they should use their growing power, both in the US and around the world. By examining different forms of international evangelical engagement, this panel expands our knowledge of how and why evangelicals developed the political and cultural commitments that have transformed US society over the past fifty years.

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