On “The U.S. Culture Wars Abroad: Liberal-Evangelical Rivalry and Decolonization in Southern Africa, 1968–1994”
The problem of the archive is a well-worn topic for historians. But sometimes the sheer contingency of the historical record—what we can and cannot learn about the past through documentation—is so glaring that it demands comment. I had this in mind as I came across records of a twenty-something Australian missionary named Ian Grey, who was stopped by the Mozambican border guards in 1987 as he tried to cross over into neighboring Malawi. It had been more than a decade since Mozambican freedom fighters overthrew Portuguese colonialism only to find themselves in a prolonged civil war. The border guards who questioned Grey worked for the Marxist ruling party, Frelimo. As they went through his belongings and thumbed through his diaries, they noticed reference after reference to Renamo, the anti-communist militia fighting the Mozambican government. (The U.S. State Department compared Renamo to the Khmer Rouge and accused it of frequently resorting to rape, mutilation, forced labor, and arbitrary executions). Grey was taken into custody and soon put on trial. His arrest, a result of a young man’s decision to document his ties to the Renamo militia, reverberated some 8,000 miles to the United States and documented a series of relationships that would have otherwise been lost to historians.
Soon after his arrest, Grey confessed to being a Renamo “messenger boy.” He explained to the international press corps that his Pentecostal missionary group brought equipment and supplies to Renamo and smuggled out information, which it quickly relayed to the militia’s allies outside Mozambique. This work for Renamo was performed by an international crew but one supported and heavily subsidized by Americans. Among its benefactors were televangelists Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and countless Pentecostal and evangelical churches from coast to coast.
Had it not been for Ian Grey’s blunder, we may not have known many of the details of evangelicals’ work in Mozambique. Without the historical record created around his trial, we would have a more sanitized version of events. Of course, every historian must reckon with how the figures they study purposefully obscure some of the more unsavory aspects of their past. But the issues posed by the archives are especially acute for the history of American evangelicals.
The modern evangelical movement began in the early 1940s as an attempt to overcome the bad branding of the fundamentalist movement in previous decades, which had become synonymous with reactionary politics, antisemitism, and anti-intellectualism. Figures emerging out of the fundamentalist movement, who began calling themselves evangelicals in the 1940s, engaged in a prolonged and largely successful public relations campaign to bolster their image. In due course, they also reformed their movement.
Beginning in the 1940s, the evangelical movement looked to history to create a usable past. Evangelicals imagined themselves as descendants of George Whitfield, who organized revivals across colonial British North America, and the Methodist circuit riders who spread Christianity to newly colonized lands during the early republic. It was a history preferable to that of the more recent fundamentalist movement. By the 1950s the face of evangelicalism was Billy Graham, a handsome and charismatic preacher who tried to keep his ministry scandal-free. And he mostly succeeded until 2002, when the National Archives released taped conversations that exposed his antisemitism—allegations he had previously denied. An unredacted and more embarrassing tape was released by the Nixon Library in 2018. Jews “had a stranglehold on Germany. On the banking of Germany, on everything in Germany,” Graham told Nixon in the unredacted tape. “And the media!” And it was just as bad in the United States, according to Graham. Hitler “went about it wrong, but this stranglehold has got to be broken or [the United States] is going down the drain.”
Just as evangelicals worked tirelessly to gain public legitimacy during the Cold War, so too did a generation of historians of evangelicalism search for a usable past for their fellow believers. Understanding evangelicalism as a set of theological commitments, they rooted the movement’s history in a series of “great awakenings.” Fundamentalism became merely a short, wayward detour in the centuries-long history of American evangelicalism. Since then, a new generation of scholars has complicated this narrative by showing how racial and gender hierarchies were deeply embedded in the rise of evangelicalism in the United States.
Just as evangelical history became more complicated, some scholars transitioned from searching for a usable past to developing a usable future. Some scholars began arguing that the future of evangelicalism is global and diverse, and that global evangelicalism therefore serves as an antidote to the white Christian nationalism that has increasingly gripped American evangelicals. This optimistic narrative of evangelicalism is one that my article in the Journal of American History disputes.
The events surrounding Ian Grey’s arrest in Mozambique are important because they tell us that there is no neat division between the culture wars in the United States and the formation of global evangelicalism. Right-wing Pentecostal missionaries in Mozambique were not only battling the Marxist government but also their fellow Protestants who supported Frelimo rule. These left-wing Protestants organized through the World Council of Churches, at the time the largest Protestant and Orthodox body in the world. Beginning in the late 1960s and inspired by the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the World Council of Churches committed itself to atoning for the racist sins of Christianity by aiding liberation movements across the world, with a special focus on freeing Southern Africa from the yoke of Portuguese colonialism and white minority rule.
As I found in my research, the catalyst for this effort—which Protestant officials called the Programme to Combat Racism—was the Black Power activist James Forman’s interruption of a Sunday service at Riverside Church in New York City in 1969. He read from his Black manifesto, which demanded $500 million in reparations. In the ensuing weeks, Riverside’s mostly white parishioners became horrified as they learned Forman’s demands for reparations were being taken seriously by liberal Protestant denominations in the United States, as well as by the World Council of Churches. When the World Council held a strategy session on combatting racism in London in 1969, Forman’s lieutenants also interrupted that meeting and presented an international version of the Black manifesto. Out of the reparations debates came the Programme to Combat Racism, which spent down the World Council’s endowment as a way of demonstrating the organization’s commitment to redistributing power from the colonizers to the colonized.
The liberal American Protestant and World Council officials’ accommodation of the Black Power demands for reparations was met with a counter-mobilization by evangelicals. Fundamentalist firebrand Carl McIntire showed up to Riverside church soon after Forman, demanding reparations of his own. Evangelicalism’s flagship journal, Christianity Today, denounced reparations as a “shakedown.” Billy Graham resolved to organize an international Christian movement that could counter the World Council of Churches. And the bestselling non-fiction book of the 1970s, an evangelical account of the end times called The Late, Great Planet Earth, mocked the idea that Protestant churches are “filled with blatant and insidious institutional racism” and condemned liberals for “joining forces with those who oppose everything that is known as traditional Christianity.” Evangelicals’ disgust with reparations was a motivation for the global countermobilization they staged in the 1970s, including in Mozambique.
It is difficult to predict how global evangelicalism will develop in the coming years. But the Ian Grey episode reminds us to be cautious about making overly optimistic projections. As events surrounding his arrest reveal, many of the same forces that led American evangelicals into the culture wars also fueled the rise of the global evangelical movement.
Gene Zubovich is an associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, where he teaches U.S. and the World, Human Rights, and Religious History. He is the author of Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022). His most recent article in the Journal of American History is “The U.S. Culture Wars Abroad: Liberal-Evangelical Rivalry and Decolonization in Southern Africa, 1968-1994.” He is currently working on a global history of the American culture wars.