Monday, June 8, 2020

David R. Swartz's "Facing West"

David R. Swartz is an associate professor of history at Asbury University. Areas of teaching and research interest include American religious history, twentieth-century American culture, global religion, Civil War memory, and issues of war and peace.

Swartz blogs at Patheos. His just-released book, Facing West: American Evangelicals in an Age of World Christianity (Oxford University Press 2020), deals with transnational religion. His first book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, earned positive reviews from the New York Times, Journal of American History, and the Christian Century.

Swartz applied the “Page 99 Test” to Facing West and reported the following:
Page 99 features the 1966 World Congress for Evangelism, which convened 1,200 delegates from nearly one hundred nations in Berlin, Germany. In front of hundreds of newsmen, including a reporter from the New York Times, two Huaorani converts from the lush jungles of Ecuador stood on a concrete stage. Komi Gikita and Kimo Yaeti were murderers who had been redeemed. As cameras flashed, the dazed men, who may have thought they were being worshipped, gave their Christian testimony. Rachel Saint, whose brother Nate and four missionary colleagues had been speared in the Ecuadorian jungle by Gikita’s father and others in the indigenous tribe, translated. Twenty-nine-year-old Yaeti, known back home as Red Squirrel, told reporters, “Before knowing Itota (Jesus), we killed. There was much revenge and much madness.” But after the killings, “we heard that the word of God is stronger than the devil. We listened. We were told that God said not to spear other people, only the wild hogs, the tapir, and the fish of the stream.” He concluded, “Before I lived sinning and God has done wonderful things for us and now I live well.” Of the ninety remaining members of the tribe, only five had not yet “received Christ as their personal Savior.” In fact, only a year before, Yaeti had helped baptize Nate Saint’s two children near the spot on a river where the massacre occurred. Now, dressed in suits and ties with their hair parted on the side, they stood as trophies of evangelical mission.

Page 99 describes how American evangelicals during the Cold War sought to reshape the world in their own image by preaching spiritual liberty, economic liberty, and political liberty. Indeed, they exercised immense power as they did things for and to other peoples, even those in the jungles of Ecuador, in their fight against godless communism. While a true story, however, this is not the thesis of Facing West. The story of Gikita and Yaeti in Berlin is a single story that does not account for the pluralistic, participatory, and multidirectional qualities of transnational networks. In short, the Page 99 Test fails.

The “empired,” in fact, struck back. Using case studies from Korea, India, Switzerland, the Philippines, Guatemala, Uganda, and Thailand, Facing West narrates how evangelicals in the Global South shaped religion in places like Kentucky and California. In the 1950s and 1960s many missionaries and their converts, noting the hypocrisies of racial segregation in a supposedly democratic and Christian American South, joined the civil rights movement. In the 1970s others challenged traditionalist methods of missionary work and American-style capitalism. In the 1980s evangelicals in the Global South pushed the humanitarian organization World Vision away from relief work to long-term, sustainable development work. In the 1990s global Pentecostals promoted spiritual enchantment as they critiqued American rationalism.

In more recent years, immigrants from around the world are provoking global encounters even within American borders. They seek to reinvigorate a white evangelicalism that is in demographic free fall. The current influence of international Christians may seem modest compared with 2045, when demographers project that the United States will become a minority-majority nation. It is possible that support for Donald Trump in the 2020 may be perceived in the 2040s as a last gasp of white Christian Americanism within a profoundly multicultural movement.

--Marshal Zeringue