After the Second World War, the drama of Protestant missions featured a diversifying cast of characters. Local actors in the Global South, alongside reform-minded missionaries from the North, revised the mission script. At the level of conciliar discourse, this can be seen in perhaps two primary ways: a widened table of leadership and a widening of the Christian mission itself. An increasingly diverse Protestantism shifted the trajectory of missions toward national control and social Christian emphases. Yet, these shifts in method and theology produced strikingly divergent results for mainline Protestantism and Protestant evangelicalism. For the former, the story was largely one of global dissolution, at least institutionally. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches (b. 1948), which represented the soaring hopes of the ecumenical movement, fractured under the pressure of radical student protests, postcolonial resistance, and declining donations from disillusioned churches in the 1960s and 1970s. Seen in a different light, however, mainline Protestant mission was the victim of its own advance, both abroad on so-called mission fields and at home in the United States. In many cases, mission schools directly contributed to the growth of nationalism through their curriculum and educational methods. Backlash against missionary leadership and control often centered around these educational institutions. In the North, while the institutions of mainline Protestant mission have largely declined, their progressive values are widely assumed today within wide swaths of American life in particular—especially within universities, mainstream media, and the Democratic Party. For Protestant evangelicalism, the mission story is largely one of global diffusion—explosive demographic growth, especially among those practicing Pentecostal forms in the Global South, and a rapid expansion of mission and relief organizations. Within a context of increasing diversity, evangelical mission agencies, rather than sidelining traditional Protestant mission approaches, constructed new forms of evangelical mission and social Christianity. This reshaping of global evangelicalism was the result of a multidirectional conversation often led by Latin Americans. Indeed, an entire generation of theologians, shaped by the global Cold War, rejected the importation of traditional mission methodologies. As Latin Americans shifted to postcolonial social Christianities, they pulled many in global evangelicalism with them. In terms of theological methodology, they synthesized the pursuit of justice with the evangelical offer of personal salvation. While the vast majority of Christians lived in Europe and North America in 1910 (the year of the epochal Edinburgh World Missionary Conference), in 2010 the vast majority of Christians lived in the Global South. Thus, at the level of conciliar discourse, the evangelical table of leadership and theology increasingly reflected its demographic center located within contexts of poverty, injustice, and widespread inequality.
David C. Kirkpatrick
During the decades of the Cold War, belief and power blended in ways that better integrated Protestant evangelicals into the mainstream American political culture. As the nuclear age corresponded with the early Cold War, evangelicals offered an eschatological narrative to help make sense of what appeared to many to be an increasingly dangerous world. At the same time, the post–World War II anticommunism that developed during the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower made room for evangelical interpretations that supported their good-versus-evil rhetoric. Evangelist Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders consistently referenced Cold War events and promoted Christian nationalism while at the same time calling on Americans to turn to God and away from sin. Evangelical missionaries, who had long interpreted the world for fellow believers in the pews back home, were agents advocating for American values abroad, but they also weighed in on American foreign policy matters in sometimes unexpected ways. By the time the Cold War world order had fully emerged in the 1950s, cold warriors were fighting the geopolitical battle for influence in part by promoting an “American way of life” that included religion, allowing evangelicals to help shape the Cold War consensus. White evangelicals were more ambivalent about supporting the civil rights movement that challenged the inclusivity of that consensus, even though civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. made the case for civil rights using moral and spiritual arguments that were familiar to evangelicalism. As the long sixties brought divisions within the country over civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and the women’s rights movement, evangelicals participated in the political discussions that captivated the country and were divided themselves. By the 1970s, conservative evangelicals helped to create the Religious Right, and a small group of liberal evangelicals began to contest it. The Religious Right would be more successful, however, in defining political evangelicalism as the culture wars extended into the 1980s. Conservative evangelicalism matured during the Reagan years and become an important part of the conservative coalition. Even as the Cold War ended, the political networks and organizations that evangelicals formed in the second half of the 20th century, both conservative and progressive, have continued to influence evangelicals’ political participation.
American propaganda cast the Cold War as one of history’s great religious wars, between the godless and the God-fearing, between good and evil. It was a simplistic depiction that was supported and promoted in the highest echelons of government and by the leaders of America’s key institutions. During the course of the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, U.S.-Soviet rivalry was transformed from a traditional great power struggle into a morality play that drew on firmly entrenched notions rooted in the American past, above all American exceptionalism and its sense of mission. Truman made religion America’s ideological justification for abandoning America’s wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower used religion to persuade the world that America was a force for good in the international arena. The resulting anti-communist crusade was to have profound consequences for Christian America, contributing to both religious revival and religious repression in the early Cold War period. Over time it caused irrevocable alterations to America’s religious landscape. The anti-communist dynamic unleashed embraced anti-liberalism and was a factor in the rise of the Christian Right and the decline in America’s mainstream churches. In addition, the image of a godless and evil enemy dictated an irreconcilable conflict that precluded the very modes of diplomacy and discourse that might have helped avoid the worst excesses, costs, and consequences of the Cold War.
The United States has been uniquely God-centered among Western nations, and that includes its foreign policy. From George Washington to the present, all presidents and policymakers have had to consider God in varying degrees either for their domestic audience or because they believed in a version of Providential mission in the world. In the beginning, the new United States was filled with religious people whom the founders had to consider in crafting the founding documents. In time, the very idea of the United States became so entwined with the sense of the Divine that American civil religion dominated even the most secular acts of policymakers.