Evangelicals and Empire, Part II: The Past

The second section of the book explores the connection between Christians and Empire in the past, focusing predominantly on Latin America and exploring the relationship of Pentecostals both to “evangelicals” and to Empire.

In chapter 8, Patrick Provost-Smith attempts to trace the genealogies of imperium and evangelium, noting how interconnected they were in imperial Spain, where an Augustinian notion of sovereignty as a gift of God was used to underwrite Spanish imperialism.  He described the imperial ambitions of the conquistadors, relating the story of how, after he had conquered the Philippines and named it after King Philip, one conquistador wrote to the King urging him to invade China, commenting on the wealth of goods and souls to be won there.  His rhetoric implied that God’s providence had given them the ability and the opportunity to conquer such pagan lands, for the benefit of all and most especially for God.  On returning to Mexico, this particular conquistador was arrested by the religious authorities, the Benedictine and Jesuit missionaries who opposed and criticised the Spanish conquest and colonization of the natives.  Though these monks and missionaries certainly would not fall into any modern definition of “evangelical”, their primary purpose was evangelization and the wellbeing of the people to whom they ministered.

Juan Martinez picks up on these notions in chapter 11, “Stepchildren of the Empire”.  After the US wrested control of the south-west from Mexico, many Mexican landowners stayed under the hope that they could keep their lands and livelihood.  They were wrong; Mexicans who lived in what became the American south-west were (and are) treated as colonized peoples.  Protestant leaders opposed the war at the time, but sought eagerly to evanglize the Catholic Mexicans, both for their own sake (which reeks of colonial marginalization of culture and religion, especially because it’s one Christian group over another) and to get a foothold in Latin America, which was almost entirely Catholic.  Evangelization was closely tied to Americanization (again, typically colonial), and the newly Protestant Mexicans were called evangelicos, a name they keep today.  But evangelicos were never allowed to fully integrate into the white Church, just as Mexicans have never really been able to integrate into white America, always treated as 2nd class citizens and even scapegoats for problems in the US.  Though rejected by white Protestants and the Catholic church that they left behind, evangelicos are growing in number, and are no longer a sub-group of white Protestants: rather than being a result of immigration and Americanization, these churches are growing in Latin America and then coming up with immigrants.  At the same time, white Protestant churches are doing a better job at integration, with many evangelicos going mainstream.  Catholicism is not exempt, with 40% of American Catholics now being latino/a.  The very presence of Latin Americans in churches in the US serves as impetus for resistance to Empire and the racism that is inherent to it: “The mere presence of undocumented evangelicos in evangelical churches challenges the practice of calling them criminals and wanting to ‘shut’ the border” (151).

Race is also central in chapter 12, which focuses on the racism that is inherent to Empire and the Christian responses of Jesse Jackson and Jim Wallis.  The authors note that Hardt and Negri reduce race to a subelement of multitude, subordinating the issue of race to economic or class concerns; race is apparently only important to them as a force to instigate Multitude, and when race is no longer a driving force of Multitude it loses importance.  The authors point out that the civil rights movements of the 1960’s began dealing with race relations and ended up dealing with economic inequality among all people groups.  They note that Black evangelicals, who were once much more united behind evangelical activists like Jesse Jackson, have increasingly become follows of the pietistic prosperity movements in evangelicalism (the same movement criticised as Abrahamic religion in Part I) as the Black middle class grows.  This suggests at least two types of “evangelicals”, those interested in social justice (potentially Multitude) and those interested in personal pietism and prosperity (potentially Empire).  The authors hold up the social activism coalitions of Jesse Jackson (PUSH/Rainbow Coalition) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners/Call to Renewal) as examples of evangelicals “actualizing multitudes…to collectively resist injustice” (168).

Chapter 13, “Where are the Pentecostals in an Age of Empire?”, also focuses on Latin America.  It begins by pointing out that “evangelicalism” and “pentecostalism” are both difficult to define, so we cannot simply conflate Pentecostals with Evangelicals despite the tendency of many to do so.  Likewise, we cannot necessarily connect Pentecostals to Empire: though they appear similar in some respects (both challenging old notions of power, both privileging innovation and novelty), Hardt and Negri’s description of Empire is based firmly in Western/European power structures and cultures, while Pentecostalism more often represents a large variety of voices.  The authors describe the impact of Empire in El Salvador, including death squads and many types of official persecution, arguing that evangelicos in general and Pentecostals in particular provided a powerful presence that represents Multitude.  Ultimately, the answer to the question “Where are the Pentecostals in an Age of Empire?” is “In the Spirit!”  The utopian ideals of Pentecostals do not align with those of Empire OR Multitude, but are centred on the Holy Spirit’s power to transform entire communities.

In chapter 10, “Political Complexities and Rivalries of Pneuma and Imperia”, Kurt Anders Richardson looks to pneumatology (theology of the Holy Spirit) as a necessary addition to Hardt and Negri’s notion of democracy based on love.  “What is lacking” in Hardt and Negri, Richardson claims, “is any reference to the sources of love necessary to sustain conditions of political and social survival and stability” (132).  He cites Paul’s spiritual, political theology and suggests that evangelicals must develop such theologies today.  He cites Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and his radical notion of complete religious freedom on theological grounds, as an example of a radical political theology that resists any religious notion of Empire.  The Church today has not f ormulated much of a response to Empire, but it has the means and the mandate to do so.

In chapter 9, “Empire’s Future Religion”, Sebastien Fath looks at the relationship between Neoconservatives (representing Empire) and evangelicals, noting that though they have an apparent alliance in the Religious Right in America, they are both governed by different eschatologies (theologies of last things/end times) that are ultimately incompatible.  Neocons are secular and often heavily invested in American civil religion, which puts the state in the place of God, and they follow a post-millennial eschatology.  In short, postmillennialism is the belief that through evangelism and social action we can eventually make a perfect world, with Christ (or in this case, America) finally recognized by all as the true King.  In contrast, most American evangelicals are premillennialists, who believe that Christ will return to judge the world, destroy it, and remake it because it will not improve without the direct action of God.  Evangelicals preach not because they think they can change the world, but because they want everyone to be saved from the coming wrath of God.  Otherwise, they’re concerned only with safeguarding the values of their community while they await the end (which goes very well with James Davison Hunter’s critique of the Religous Right’s response to secular culture in To Change the World).  This eschatological difference is often missed, but could provide the impetus for Evangelicals to resist Empire.  However, contra to Hardt and Negri’s notion of multitude which focuses on immanence, Evangelicals focus (often to extremes) on the transcendence of the returning Christ – meaning that Multitude under Hardt and Negri’s description is insufficient.

The final chapter of this section (ch.14) is a fascinating and candid conversation between Donald W. Dayton and Christian T. Collins Winn.  Winn, for the most part, interviews Dayton about the notion of “evangelicals”.  Dayton describes the history of the term, and how it ceased to be a useful term at least in the 1970’s, if not before.  The American habit of classifying everything on a Liberal/Conservative spectrum has meant that, in large part, the antonym of “evangelical” has been “liberal”, yet there are at least three different meanings of “evangelical”, dating back to the Reformation, that are all confused by our lack of terminology.  He points out that at times evangelicals were almost all post-millennialists (though now they are mostly pre-millennialists), and that either eschatology can be used to justify either Empire or Multitude: “Awareness of social location is central to how eschatology functions, especially in relation to political structures” (198).  In short, our lack of definition of evangelicals hides the fact that our social location has much more to do with whether we support Empire or Multitude than our religious thought.

It would appear, then, that the premise of this book must be inspired by its first essay, in which Jim Wallis attacks Empire’s (i.e. Bush’s) appropriation of Evangelical terminology and identity to support and justify itself.  The essays in this section have shown that this has occurred throughout history, and is not confined to this particular “evangelical movement”, if indeed it is a single movement.  Neither pre- nor post-millennialism itself drives Empire, though both can be used selectively and falsely to do so.  On their own, these eschatologies both give all glory to Christ and either serve as foundational to Multitude (in the social activism of post-millennialism) or at least resist the world-transforming attempts of Empire (in the “resistance to – ” model of the premilliennial Religious Right).  Much more inherent to Empire is racism and classism, which churches of all stripes tend to oppose (perhaps with the exception of the prosperity gospel, which I would argue draws more from Empire than it does from scripture!).  The most informative chapter in this section is the last, which deals with much more than I can summarize here but helps frame the discussion of this entire book.  Well worth a read.

Hopefully tomorrow, I’ll be back with part III: The Future.



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