Book Review: The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, by Melani McAlister

Review
02.27.2020

Melani McAlister. The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of Evangelicals. Oxford University Press, 2018. 394 pages.

For those of us in “advanced” societies, radical changes in communications technologies, transportation, and the expansion of wealth in recent decades have transformed our consciousness of the world and our place in it. Growing portions of our educated and professional classes fashion themselves “global citizens” rather than Americans or Germans, even as nationalist movements push back against this conceit. With expansive information technologies, events in Hong Kong, Venezuela, or North Korea, let alone Paris or London, enter our mental fields with frequency and occasional insistence. The world feels smaller.

Given this context, Melani McAlister’s The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is a timely addition to the literature on evangelicalism. While evangelicalism has always focused its energies on the intensely localized reality of the individual soul in need of salvation, its commitment to the universal salience of Christ’s gospel and the necessity of worldwide evangelism has endowed the movement with centrifugal force. McAlister’s book aims to understand American evangelicalism in light of its international presence and engagement over the past half-century, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM IN INTERNATIONAL CONTEXTS

McAlister follows the standard pattern of defining evangelicalism in terms of its commitment to the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, the work of Jesus on the cross, the necessity of personal salvation for the forgiveness of sins, and evangelism. Regarding who counts as such, she casts a broad net to incorporate those who answer yes to the question of whether they are evangelical or born again. This yields around 30 percent of Americans, including many African Americans, Latinos, and others who might be excluded by more stringent polling methods.

McAlister suggests that American evangelicals have had two predominant postures toward the rest of the world in the past half-century. From the stance of “enchanted internationalism,” evangelicals have looked upon the vibrant worship and expressive faith of those in the global South with longing, contrasting it with the Weberian disenchantment they see in their own contexts and hoping for a measure of re-enchantment. Through “victim identification,” evangelicals have seen the suffering and broken body of Christ in their persecuted brothers and sisters abroad, even as they see themselves facing growing persecution from secular forces at home.

With these postures in view, McAlister provides a series of case studies grouped by the broad categories of networks, body politics, and emotions. International networks in the early postwar period included institutions, ideas, conferences, and other points of connection that brought people together across borders. The politics of the body arose in contexts of injustice and oppression, such as apartheid in South Africa or the persecution of Christians in communist, Muslim, and other countries. Through emotions and the orientations of their hearts, evangelicals have constituted their networks, imagined bodies literal and figurative, and facilitated political commitments.

Within what she calls the “constantly evolving network” of global evangelicalism (98), McAlister takes us far afield, from missionary martyrdom amid the bloody violence of newly independent Congo to conflict in Israel, from the war in Iraq to contemporary short-term missions.

EVANGELICALS AND SOCIAL ACTION

One of McAlister’s more notable chapters involves her treatment of the important Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, which contained a tension between evangelicalism’s traditional focus on the salvation of individuals and a social concern for the structural and systemic issues of global poverty, racism, and injustice. McAlister suggests that tension, which held a measure of dynamism, snapped as the 1970s unfolded as figures like Francis Shaeffer helped define a conservative evangelical agenda that stressed opposition to abortion, the sexual revolution, and secular humanism. By the 1980s, with the Moral Majority in full swing, liberal and conservative evangelicals had divided in their international political concerns, with the former seeking to overturn South African apartheid and the latter focused on anti-communist efforts.

Contestation and conflict between Christianity and Islam animate several of McAlister’s chapters, including her treatment of the “10/40 Window” of countries resistant to Christian witness and her account of the growing consciousness of international religious persecution and the 1998 passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. Islam also intersects with two chapters set in Sudan and South Sudan, and with a chapter on the short-term mission efforts of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) in Cairo.

In general, McAlister applauds evangelicals of the Left and their particular social concerns and worries about the impact of those of the Right. Concerning the latter, for instance, she assesses that anti-communist fears were overwrought, hostility or wariness toward Islam is misguided, and opposition to homosexuality in Africa and elsewhere is regrettable. Still, organizations like World Vision and IVCF have embodied some of the comprehensive vitality McAlister found at Lausanne, combining theological conservatism with a structural emphasis on issues like race, poverty, and cultural imperialism.

Writing as a self-described “secular person” (233), McAlister is fair-minded and thoughtful in her assessment of evangelicals. She is also an excellent historian. Her book is deeply researched and well written, with a flair for illustrative stories and timely insights. More stories and insights on Pentecostals—or perhaps a chapter or two—would have enriched the text. The global growth of Pentecostalism in the past several generations has been a remarkable development, and inclusion of their experiences would have complicated McAlister’s analysis in interesting ways.

Readers seeking to understand recent evangelical history in a global context will find The Kingdom of God Has No Borders an engaging and informative read.

By:
Jonathan Baer

Jonathan Baer is associate professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.