America's New Internationalists?: Evangelical Transnational Activism and U.S. Foreign Policy

Date of Award

June 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Hans Peter Schmitz


American evangelicalism, Christian missions, HIV/AIDS, holistic mission, religious persecution, transnational activism

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Previously known for their domestic social and political activism, American evangelical Christians have recently been called the "new internationalists" for their growing transnational work and foreign policy advocacy. This dissertation examines the two following questions regarding this phenomenon: First, how have American evangelicals come to recover social action in general as an essential part of their foreign missions? The modernist-fundamentalist divide in the early twentieth century America made evangelicals reject the so-called "Social Gospel" of their liberal counterpart and embrace "spiritual" mission, such as evangelism and church planting, as the primary, if not the only, mission of the church. Evangelicals' current interest in various social issues beyond their borders exhibits a clear reversal of this emphasis. Second, how do evangelical activists address specific transnational issues? Is there anything distinctively "evangelical" about their approach to it? I answer these questions by examining what rhetorical strategies or "frames" U.S. evangelical leaders have devised and articulated in order to legitimate and mobilize support for their transnational activism and more U.S. government involvement. In doing so, I show how evangelical activists' shared religious beliefs and language justify, shape, and constrain their transnational political engagement and how the latter in turn reconstructs the former.

To answer the first question, I look into the often neglected history and theology of evangelical foreign missions. By utilizing existing studies by mission historians and theologians, along with my own textual analysis of mission archives and publications, I show how different conceptualizations of "mission" have been developed within global evangelicalism and are currently promoted and practiced by U.S. evangelical mission organizations. The two main points of contention among advocates of different frames of mission have been the relationship between evangelism and social action and the proper nature and extent of the latter. I find that the more holistic and socially oriented notion of "mission as transformation" has been increasingly favored as an alternative to the traditional focus on evangelism and church building, although the latter still remains prevalent among many U.S. evangelical mission agencies in practice.

My analysis of evangelical campaigns against religious persecution and HIV/AIDS abroad--the two issues that have garnered most attention from evangelicals in recent years--shows the basic tensions identified above between spiritual and social mission and, analogously, individual and structural approaches to social problems. Despite the call for a more holistic approach, I argue that the ways evangelical activists frame the two issues have been largely individualistic. In the religious persecution case, it is manifested in the individualistic notion of religion, the emphasis on religious freedom over other human rights, the distrust in governments of both the U.S. and persecuting countries, and the emphasis on saving individuals over promoting long-term, structural changes. In the global HIV/AIDS case, evangelical individualism is most clearly expressed in the promotion of individual moral and behavioral change through abstinence and fidelity as the best solution to the pandemic.

Although this individualism has often been considered as uniquely "American," I dispute the notion that contemporary evangelical transnational activism is primarily either a handmaiden of American imperialism or an extension of American domestic culture wars. Rather, it is better understood as a case of "rooted cosmopolitans" engaging in "reverse mission," indicating the importance of American religious communities' transnational connections and identities and their transformative impact on not only the communities themselves, but the broader U.S. politics and policy. My dissertation also supports the argument that religion and religious activism are neither static nor monolithic, but socially constructed though religious actors' dynamic interaction with their own religious tradition and surrounding social, political, and cultural environment.


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