American Evangelicalism in Transnational Context from the Cold War to Today

Endorsed by S-USIH

Friday, March 31, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: International Relations; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Religion


Historians now recognize the growth of American evangelicalism as one of the most significant national trends of the 20th century. However, much of the excellent scholarship on American evangelicalism has been confined by national borders, particularly in emphasizing American religious organizations, white evangelicals’ resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, and the domestic politics of education, abortion, and antifeminism that mobilized the New Christian Right beginning in the late 1970s. However, a new wave of scholarship has begun to reckon with the importance of evangelicalism as arguably the United States’ most impactful cultural export throughout the 20th century and up to the present. This new wave of scholarship, which includes the groundbreaking work of both Chair Melani McAlister and Commentator Lauren Turek, looks to the ways that conservative Christianity reshaped geopolitics, diversified in distinct regional contexts, and created new transnational ties. This panel contributes to this burgeoning field of scholarship by expanding the regions traditionally examined, recovering the political importance of religious action, and proposing new frameworks for understanding global religious phenomena and their American roots. Moreover, this panel examines the ways in which conservative Christianity was used in moments of real and perceived crisis: individual crises like the need for healing or prayer and emergencies of global (or even cosmic) proportions like the end the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war, or the moral decay of modern civilization. In situating American religion in transnational trends, this panel includes both internal and external perspectives. Specifically, two panelists deal with American Christians views of foreign policy and international affairs, and two panelists analyze the religious practice of non-American Christians including their stance toward the United States. Hilde Løvdal Stephens’s paper details the influence of American Pentecostal healing preachers on Norwegian Pentecostals in the 1950s, highlighting the ways in which an essentialized American religiosity fostered both the movement’s appeal and its resistance. Austin Steelman’s paper looks to the work of evangelist Francis Schaeffer in creating a narrative of declining Western civilization that motivated the New Christian Right to oppose nuclear disarmament and embrace a hardline stance toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s. Finally, Gene Zubovich’s paper argues that the end of the Cold War was the formative context for the “culture wars” that reshaped American views on globalization by following the work of evangelical and Catholic leaders of the conservative movement into the 1990s. In total, this panel seeks to open new lines of inquiry and present new insights withing one of the most important and exciting subfields in American and transnational history.

Papers Presented

From Cold War to Culture Wars

The idea that the United States is mired in a “culture war” emerged only a few years after the end of the Cold War. The first academic treatise on the subject, James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars, was published in 1991. The term came into widespread public use the following year, when presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan declared a culture war, which he described as a “war for the soul of America” at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Historians have noted this timing but they have not fully explored the link between the end of the Cold War and the subsequent transition to “globalization” and the “Washington consensus” as a process that facilitated the culture wars in the United States. This paper explores the origins of the culture wars as a confluence of the longstanding grievances of the Christian Right with these world-historical transformations. It does so by following three well-known figures—the antifeminist activist Phillis Schlafly, antiabortion activist Judie Brown, and the evangelical Senator Jessie Helms—into the 1990s, where they embarked on post-Cold War projects designed to shield America’s borders from the new threats posed by globalization. By showing how the end of the Cold War changed the minds of these figures about once-sacrosanct ideas, such as free trade, this paper sheds new light on the present-day politics of the Christian Right and their embrace of Trumpism.

Presented By
Gene Zubovich, University at Buffalo, SUNY

When God Spoke American: The 1950s American Healing Revival in Norway

Scholars have challenged the notion that Pentecostalism grew out of a uniquely American context. But to Norwegian believers, the Americanness of Pentecostalism has been a major factor in its attractiveness. Devout Norwegians, in a range of revival traditions, have nurtured their relationships with fellow believers across the Atlantic in a myriad of ways, via American preachers, connections with the Norwegian diaspora, religious radio and periodicals, and other means. This paper explores how the idea of America and Americanness shaped Norwegian Pentecostalism and religious culture in the 1950s. At that time, American Pentecostal healing preachers such as William Freeman, William Branham, and Oral Roberts visited the country. Thousands of people attended their meetings. The preachers received thousands of letters with prayer requests, and Pentecostal periodicals were filled with testimonies of how the American healing preachers had brought forth divine healing. To these believers, Americans seemed to be particularly close to God. The US was also a country that seemed uniquely friendly to spirit-filled Christians. Pentecostal periodicals were filled with letters from America from Norwegian preachers and lay believers who visited revival meetings across the States. The American influence, however, ultimately created a rift among Pentecostals and caused public debates in Norway about the limits of religious freedom in a country dominated by the Lutheran state church. Were the practices just “too American” for Norway? Examining religious and secular periodicals, this paper explores how Norwegian Pentecostals, other believers, and secular society made sense of the American influence on religious practice and ideas.

Presented By
Hilde Løvdal Stephens, University of Oslo

A Matter of World Affairs: The Labor of Female Prayer at the Largest Church

No community better exemplifies the late-twentieth century “explosion” of world Christianity than the largest church in the world. The Yoido Full Gospel Church grew to 800,000 members by the 1980s, in the wake of South Korea’s rise as one of the “Four Asian Tigers.” Though led by a male clergy espousing complementarian gender norms, membership has been majority female, representing a major shift in late-twentieth century Christianity—the average Christian in the world was no longer a European, but a woman in the global South. Women have served as the backbone of the Yoido’s Pentecostal movement as prayer warriors, evangelists and “cell group” leaders. In May 2019, for example, Yoido’s female majority congregation gathered to pray all day for global peace between the US and Korea amid North Korean threats of nuclear warfare. At the helm stood Paula White, a spiritual advisor to the Trump administration. Why have women at the largest church not only tolerated gender submission but also collaboration with controversial US evangelical leaders and political regimes? I argue that Yoido women engage in the “labor” of prayer as a means to participate in world affairs—not only adding to activities in the spiritual realm, but also in the economic and political realms of society. Prayer in the pews is a form of global engagement. Yet they are caught in the sticky web of negotiating their subordination to male leadership, a price they pay for a chance to engage the world through religious labor.

The War for Western Civilization: Francis Schaeffer and Evangelical Opposition to Nuclear Disarmament

In April 1982, as Billy Graham prepared to attend a six-day disarmament conference in Moscow, Francis Schaeffer, the evangelical pop-intellectual turned political activist, wrote his sometime ally a letter of dire warning. Graham could either chose the accommodationist path of Neville Chamberlin (as Graham had with regard to abortion) by quietly offering an imprimatur of legitimacy to the Soviet Union and the cause of nuclear disarmament, Schaeffer argued, or he could follow in Winston Churchill’s footsteps by criticizing the religious persecution of Soviet Pentecostalists and defend America’s military build-up. Graham countered that his private witness to the Gospel might outweigh public political statements, and that a thoroughly pro-life ethic required nuclear disarmament. But when Graham spoke out in favor of disarmament upon landing in Moscow, Schaeffer sent his letter to Graham to key Christian Right peers and allies including Jerry Falwell, Edwin Meese, Senator Jack Kemp, and Vice President George Bush. Schaeffer’s disillusionment with Graham flowed from the “biblical worldview” that he had popularized. In deeply Eurocentric terms, Schaeffer had long warned audiences and readers of the global advance of “secular humanism” that threatened to overwhelm Western civilization and its all-important Christian heritage. Schaeffer’s Manichean view became evangelical political orthodoxy as the New Christian Right supported Ronald Reagan’s hardline Cold War stances and opposed nuclear disarmament. This paper relies on the published works and private papers of Francis Schaeffer to understand the intellectual contours of evangelical Cold War views on foreign policy of the 1970s and 1980s.

Presented By
Austin Lee Steelman, Stanford University

Session Participants

Chair: Melani McAlister, George Washington University
Melani McAlister is Professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University. A cultural historian focused on the US in the world, her most recent monograph is The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (Oxford UP, 2018), forthcoming in paperback in 2022. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies, the editorial boards of Modern American History, Diplomatic History, and American Quarterly, and several committees of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. Her next project is a cultural and affective history of Third World solidarity in the late Cold War.

Presenter: Hilde Løvdal Stephens, University of Oslo
Hilde Løvdal Stephens is an associate professor of English at the University of Southeastern Norway. Her first book, Family Matters: James Dobson and Focus on the Family’s Crusade for the Christian Home, was published with the University of Alabama Press in 2019. She has published chapters and articles with Oxford University Press, American Studies in Scandinavia, Capellen Damm Akademisk and Kirke og kultur. She is a Fulbright alumna and has been a frequent commentator in Norwegian media on anything American.

Presenter: Austin Lee Steelman, Stanford University
Austin Steelman is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Stanford University interested in the intersection of political and religious conservatism in the United States in the 20th century. His in-progress dissertation "Paper Gods: The Bible, the Constitution, and the Evangelical Revolt Against Modernity, 1923-1986," connects American evangelicals' commitments to biblical inerrancy and constitutional originalism. Prior to arriving at Stanford, Austin earned a JD from Harvard Law School and worked as a litigator. Austin is also a part of Stanford's American Religions in a Global Context Program.

Commentator: Lauren Frances Turek, Trinity University
Lauren Turek is an associate professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, where she teaches courses on modern United States history, U.S. foreign relations, and public history. She is also the director of the Museum Studies minor and the director of the Mellon Initiative for Undergraduate Research in the Arts and Humanities. Her first book, To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations, was published in 2020 as part of the Cornell University Press US in the World Series. Her articles on religion in American politics and foreign relations have appeared in Diplomatic History, the Journal of American Studies, and Religions and she has contributed chapters to a number of edited volumes. She is currently at work on a new book that will delve into the Congressional debates and alliances that shaped U.S. foreign aid policies—and engagements abroad—during the twentieth century and is co-editing a volume on the history of religion and politics in the United States.

Presenter: Gene Zubovich, University at Buffalo, SUNY
Gene Zubovich is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He is a historian of the modern United States, with specializations in the history of US and the World, human rights, intellectual history, and religion. His first book, Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2022. His articles have appeared in The Journal of American History, Diplomatic History, The Journal of the History of Ideas, and Religions. He has also written several chapters for edited volumes on the origins of human rights, Christianity and decolonization, evangelicals, and the Cold War. He is currently writing a new history of the US culture wars in global context, which is tentatively titled Culture Warriors Abroad: a Global History of the US Culture Wars. His new research has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, where he is a fellow for the 2021-22 academic year.