Studies on Global Christianity and the American Foreign Policy Historian

Today's guest post is written by Lauren Turek, a Ph.D. candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and a Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations annual meeting earlier this year. Her dissertation, entitled "To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelicals, Human Rights, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1969-1994," illuminates the complex ways in which religion and religious groups interacted with foreign policy, political culture, and the international human rights regime to shape America's role in the modern world.

Studies on Global Christianity and the American Foreign Policy Historian

By: Lauren Turek

In June 2013, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary released a report entitled "Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020: Society, Religion, and Mission." This report, which draws on data from the World Christian Database and the World Religion Database, highlights Christian demographic trends over the past forty years, underscores Christian concerns about evangelism and social justice, and offers projections for the coming decade. It also expresses concern about the intractability of social and economic ills, despite Christian humanitarian outreach. In a nutshell, the data reveals that the world's population has grown more religious since 1970; that Christianity--especially the Renewalist Christianity of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements--has expanded most rapidly in the Global South; and that, owing to these changes, the pattern of Christian evangelism has shifted as Southern nations have begun to send out more missionaries. These trends, which the Pew Foundation also explored in a 2011 report entitled, "Global Christianity," should come as no surprise to historians who study recent Christian history [1]. Yet, familiar or not, the findings in the CSGC  report and others like it raise a tantalizing array of historical questions.

As a historian of American foreign relations, I am keenly interested in understanding how American Christians, operating within the context of the global social, political, and economic changes of the late twentieth century, influenced international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. I find the CSGC and Pew Foundation reports intriguing because they provide hard data (and, in the case of the Pew report, beautiful visualizations) on the fluctuations, geographical extent, and denominational character of global Christian expansion vis-a-vis other religious traditions. The tremendous growth and change that world religions experienced over the past forty years emerged from a set of important historical circumstances, and, in turn, shaped the geopolitical order. Yet, though the reports acknowledge that historical forces contributed to this global transformation of Christian demographics, they do not explain how or why. Nor do they explain how these changes may have affected international politics. This isn't, after all, their intended function. It is a job and good opportunity for historians though. For that reason, I'd like to use the platform of this guest post (thank you, Cara!) to explore a few of the historical questions that the CSGC report in particular elicits for me, thinking about it from the perspective of diplomatic or foreign relations history.

Above all else, the report leads me to wonder how the demographic shifts that it outlines shaped Christian evangelism strategies beginning in the 1970s, and how the outcomes of these strategies may have accelerated ongoing religious change and affected relations between the United States and other nations. During the period covered in the CSGC survey, decolonization, economic crises, technological innovations, urbanization, mass migration, and the penetration of multinational corporations into the Global South combined with a welter of other forces to transform the world order. American Christians observed these changes as they unfolded, and responded to them with intra- and interdenominational debates about their implications for mission, evangelism, and social justice. By virtue of the transnational qualities of evangelism and social action, these debates and their outcomes had consequences for state-to-state relations.

The discussions about these issues that occurred before, during, and after the International Congress on World Evangelization (ICOWE), which the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association hosted in 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland, reveal the extend to which evangelical Christians engaged with these changes as they developed. Minutes from ICOWE planning meetings held in 1970 referenced social, demographic, political, and economic  transformations in the Global South explicitly, with an eye to figuring out how to work with these changes to advance evangelism [2]. Conference organizers emphasized the central role that evangelicals from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa should play at the Congress, generating invitation and speaker lists accordingly. Interestingly, debates about the relationship between evangelism and social justice, as well as appropriate methods of outreach to "unreached peoples" dominated the Congress [3]. Many of the planners and participants of the ICOWE predicted tremendous evangelical expansion in the Global South, called for greater support for indigenous evangelism, and urged a focus on social justice. It is striking that these same core issues animate the data collection and conclusions of the CSGC report, forty years later.

I use the examples of the ICOWE not to pursue a teleological line of questioning about how the Lausanne Movement, which emerged from the Congress, may have contributed to some of the changes revealed in the CSGC data (though that might also be interesting to contemplate). Rather, I think that reading the data in light of historical moments such as the ICOWE can sharpen our understanding of the major debates among and between Christians that grew out of an especially contingent and plastic moment in world history, and how these debates interacted with and contributed to ongoing global transformations. For example, how did increased evangelism by certain U.S. Christian groups in Latin America, Asia, and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s affect U.S. relations with countries in those regions? In what ways did the efforts of American Christians to connect and work with their increasingly independent brethren in the Global South influence their strategies for outreach and humanitarian aid? How have the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which the CSGC report discusses, coupled with Christian demographic changes abroad, influenced social action work by U.S. Christians? Does the fact that USAID provides support to U.S. Christians engaged in this type of humanitarian work have an effect on perceptions about the United States abroad, or on the spread of Christianity? How has the parallel growth of other major world religions, especially Islam, interacted with the expansion of Christianity, and what are the global implications?

Historians of recent American foreign relations who are interested in religion, especially Christianity, have begun to address some of these questions. Much work remains, however. Statistical data from Christian organizations, such as the CSGC report, can help us think about these questions in more detail by providing a common baseline for measuring change over time. In this manner, they can help us generate new questions to pursue as well.

[1] A number of historians, sociologists and missiologists have explored these changes, including Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Mark Shaw, Global Awakening: How 20th Century Revivals Triggered a Christian Revolution (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010).

[2] Congress on World Evangelism Planning Committee, "The World Congress on Evangelism 1971-1972," meeting minutes (February 7, 1970), Washington, D.C., BGEA: Media Office--Records (CN 345) Box 63, The International Congress for World Evangelization (aka the Lausanne Congress) (Folder 63-10, World Congress on Evangelism 1971 Minutes and Notes 1970), Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton, IL.

[3] J.D. Douglas, ed., Let the Earth Hear His Voice: International Congress on World Evangelization, Lausanne, Switzerland Official Reference Volume (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide Publications, 1975).


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks so much for these stimulating and timely reflections, Lauren. I'm part of a roundtable at the US Intellectual History conference this week (UC Irvine) which is taking up the question: Is evangelicalism an American word? We're particularly interested in the question of whether Christian expansion into the Global South can be termed "evangelical," or is that word going to recede in utility as we continue to map world Christianity. From your research, do you think that "evangelicalism," as a label if not a movement, has a future in a global age?
Lauren Turek said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lauren Turek said…
These are really fascinating questions, Mark. I'll be interested to hear about the comments that come out of the roundtable discussion.

Based on my research, I think that the groups and individuals that I study believe deeply that evangelicalism is and should be global, and that it is syncretic and adaptable rather than a strictly American phenomenon. Whether that is a true or not is, of course, up for debate. My personal sense is that the evangelicalism of the groups that I study has a definite American character to it; I'm curious to see how indigenous evangelicals in the Global South characterize themselves in the coming decades. If indigenous evangelism comes in a local form rather than an American "evangelical" form, is it still evangelical by virtue of it's aim (evangelism)?

Also, while it seems that the renewed globalization of the 1970s contributed to the spread of evangelicalism throughout the world, I'm not sure if this will translate in the current and future global age. The ongoing anxiety/concerns about reaching "unreached peoples" and about the relatively high proportion of people who have never met a Christian in certain regions that I see in the CSGC study (not to mention in the proceedings of the ICOWE) do raise questions about the efficacy or future of evangelicalism. Yet it is hard to ignore the rapidity and extent of the expansion over the past forty years.

These are all very stimulating questions for sure!

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