Although Donald Trump secured the 2016 election with the rock-solid support of white evangelical voters — by some estimates 80 percent — American Christianity is far from synonymous with white conservatism. Yet because of the political dominance of groups such as the once-vaunted Moral Majority and the reliable voting bloc of white evangelicals on the right, the public rarely considers the evangelical left when thinking about religion and politics.
But a global tradition of left-leaning evangelicalism has the potential to reshape the U.S. political landscape. If we shift our gaze from the U.S. political right, we can see an alternative tradition of evangelicalism that embraces social, economic, environmental and racial justice. As Christianity continues to grow and flourish across Africa, Asia and Latin America, understanding the diversity of the faith provides a window into a potential future of American evangelicalism.
The 20th century witnessed a tectonic shift in Christianity’s demographic center: In 1900, nearly two-thirds of Christians lived in Europe; today less than a quarter do. Yet as Christians have become less white, white American evangelicals representing the most conservative segment of the religion played an increasingly outsize role around the world even as their slice of the demographic pie diminished. In 1974, the American Baptist preacher Billy Graham summoned leaders to accelerate the evangelization of the world. In response, he nearly witnessed an evangelical civil war.
That year, evangelical leaders huddled in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a highly influential and world-changing meeting. Nearly 2,500 Protestant evangelical leaders from over 150 countries and 135 denominations gathered, funded primarily by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Time magazine called it “a formidable forum, possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held.”
Included in the diverse group were representatives of an emerging evangelical left, whose presence thrust the worldwide fellowship into conflict. As American leaders mapped strategies to spread their message on “mission fields” around the world, leaders from global south countries also demanded a seat at the table, bringing with them contexts of poverty, inequality and concern about widespread injustice.
At Lausanne, one plenary speech fueled a fiery protest, providing inspiration and an intellectual framework for the future of the global evangelical left. Ecuadoran evangelical René Padilla rebuked U.S. missionaries for exporting a deadly cocktail of capitalist rhetoric and evangelical salvation. He also rejected their brand of the “American Way of Life” and called on his audience to instead embrace a gospel for the poor, in what he called “misión integral,” a belief that social action and evangelism are essential and indivisible components of Christian mission.
On this global stage, the Latin American evangelical left, through the speeches of Padilla and others, sought to strip evangelicalism of its white, middle-class U.S. packaging and political conservatism. Padilla himself recalled seeing the body language of some North American leaders as he gave his speech — arms crossed, frowning faces. “They felt attacked,” he said. In sharp contrast, many “Third World” and progressive American leaders embraced the message, identifying with its content. Lausanne shined a spotlight, exposing fractures and fissures across this eclectic religious coalition.
Padilla’s speech wouldn’t have been surprising, however, if one understood the history and context of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America. Latin Americans took a leading role in postwar evangelicalism, converting Cold War pressure into religious activist energy. While the Catholic side of this story, the rise of liberation theology and Catholic social teaching, is widely known, the shared context is widely overlooked in the drama of Protestant evangelicalism. A generation of progressive Latin American evangelicals insisted that their church, too, should center on the poor — in Pope Francis’s words, to build “a Church which is poor and for the poor.”
After World War II, Protestantism had begun to gain a foothold in Latin America as most large cities swelled in size, and urbanization provided a new social context for religious life. Protestant churches flourished at the margins of this new urban environment, growing in places that traditional Roman Catholic structures largely struggled to reach, in part because of pervasive priest shortages in the region.
The growth of Protestantism also coincided with the increasing involvement of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America during the Cold War. Some Latin American military dictatorships were friendlier to Protestants than to Catholics, in part because the Catholic hierarchy rivaled state governments for power and influence, and increasingly sided with the poor.
The long-standing dominance of Catholics led some to see Latin American evangelicals as foreigners in their own land, whom they labeled “gringos” and Yankees. Many evangelicals faced fierce discrimination and even violence for their faith. Members of the Latin American evangelical left were doubly vulnerable, as some U.S. evangelical missionaries also treated them with suspicion for the challenge they presented to long-standing religious and ideological convictions. Marginalized by both Catholics and conservative evangelicals, an embryonic progressive coalition of evangelicals began to develop a left-leaning “social Christianity” in the late 1960s and early 1970s — ideas they soon dragged to the global stage.
The surprising progressive challenge at Lausanne coincided with a brief but influential political moment for the evangelical left in the United States. Under the first “born-again” president, Jimmy Carter, left-leaning Christians attempted to recalibrate beliefs on issues such as race, foreign policy and social justice. While Carter failed to win reelection, and leftist ideas about social justice failed to make political inroads among most white evangelicals in the United States, these ideas percolated and were embraced by an unlikely ally: global nongovernmental agencies (NGOs).
Today, over 500 Christian mission and relief organizations have drawn on the language of the Latin American evangelical left, using Padilla’s term “integral mission” as their official framework. These organizations are among the largest charities in the United States and the world. In 2015 alone World Vision boasted revenue of over $1 billion.
These organizations became a constant presence in evangelical churches and homes, where photos of “sponsored children,” for example, were stuck to refrigerator doors and promoted at Christian music festivals. They pushed evangelicals to embrace the pursuit of justice alongside their offer of salvation — souls and bodies saved from eternal damnation and temporal suffering.
In the United States, the impact of these ideas is most clearly seen in the wide embrace by white evangelicals of social activism such as combating sex trafficking and promoting water wells and medical missions. Many nonwhite evangelicals also embraced this movement, while sharing few political goals with their white evangelical neighbors and little affinity for the Republican Party.
As migration from Latin America, Asia and Africa to the United States and Europe has increased, the number of evangelicals with left-leaning ideas has, too. Some have even framed their migration stories through the language of “reverse mission”— of Christianizing the secular West in cities such as London, Los Angeles and Berlin.
By looking through a global lens, we see an alternative to U.S. white evangelicalism in the evangelical left. Its history reveals political and religious victories and defeats, negotiation and resistance. While socially conscious international NGOs are a powerful manifestation of the ideas debated at Lausanne, what this history shows most clearly is that evangelical Christianity is a global tapestry of faiths, in which diverse factions produce their own, often divergent answers and solutions to thorny social and political questions. An alternative to political homogeneity arises when seen through the eyes of evangelicals of color within and beyond the United States. Perhaps an alternative future arises alongside.