Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America

  • Paul Freston
  • Jan 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Freston, Paul Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001 368 pp. Hardback, $59.95. ISBN 0 521 80041 2.

Freston's project, as the title indicates, is an ambitious one. Several years in the making, apparently it has helped spark a major effort to be funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts on "Evangelical Christianity and Political Democracy in the Developing World." Freston will serve as the Regional Director for Latin America (p. xi).

The book is designed to fill a void in at least two senses. On the one hand, much recent research on Third World churches, activity, and theology has tended to focus on varieties of fundamentalism or Liberation Theology. Evangelicalism, however, has been exploding numerically worldwide and "on the ground" is much more of an important phenomenon than many recognize (and more important than the other two religious movements). In his Introduction Freston defines evangelicalism as exhibiting four basic characteristics: (1) conversion, (2) activism, (3) biblicism, and (4) crucicentrism (i.e., the centrality of the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross). This description does not allow evangelicalism to be limited only to a certain set of denominations or institutions.

On the other hand, his case studies on the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America demonstrate that two popular theories concerning the political implications of evangelical growth are unsatisfactory explanations of what is actual going on. One is the conspiracy theory, which argues that conservative North American political forces and actors are behind Third World evangelical political activity and are manipulating it for imperialistic ends. The influence of North America has been exaggerated (both by theorists and these North American actors themselves!) and the autonomy of local leaders and groups not given its fair due. A second theory attempts to compare the voluntarism of evangelicalism in the Third World and its potential for social change with other movements of the past, such as Wesley's Methodism. The problems with this model are that it tends to ignore the differences between these contexts and that it moves too quickly to conclusions when the data is too incomplete to warrant them.

The book is divided into four parts. The first is made up of only one chapter and covers Brazil. This is by far the longest chapter of the entire work, which is not surprising in light of the fact that the author is from Brazil and teaches sociology at a university there. This chapter, as he explains in the Acknowledgements, is based on articles that appeared in Social Compass and Journal of Contemporary Religion. The next three parts deal with Asia (7 countries), Africa (12 countries), and Latin America (7 countries), and each begins with a brief 'General Introduction" that provides a helpful orientation to the particular country studies that follow.

The Conclusion is extensive (40 pp.) and attempts to draw together some preliminary inferences from the data. The first subsection of this chapter ("Evangelical Politics in the Third World: Towards a Characterization") puts forward that local organization and religious and socio-political factors have proven to be more decisive in shaping evangelical attitudes and actions than theology. Accordingly, simplistic and overly generalizing theories are inadequate. The nature of evangelical political realities is as varied as the many contexts themselves. Along this line, Freston also stresses the significance of what he calls "local subversion"-that is, the tendency of local issues, trends, and personalities to override the historical stances of the worldwide Christian church. In spite of these many contextual differences, however, he does try to point out a series of common denominators (such as structures, mobilization, motivations, and political performance). Two tendencies that he finds disconcerting in relationship to evangelicals and politics are "corporatism" (where powerful churches and their leaders act to benefit their own groups and, on the basis of this commitment, try to seek a more powerful voice in the public square) and "triumphalism" (which reads the Bible in such a way so as to equate the church with Old Testament Israel and to assume a divine right to rule).

The second subsection ("The Implications of Evangelical Politics") focuses on whether evangelicalism is compatible with and conducive to democracy in the Developing World. Here again, simplistic theories cannot do justice to the multiple realities around the globe. At the same time, even though the Third World has its own unique histories, one can find the three classic Christian options toward politics: its rejection as worldly, the vision of creating a Christian state, and the advocacy of a principled pluralism (both political and religious). Nationalism is another topic inseparable from any discussion of democracy, and here, too, evangelicals have taken diverse stances that depend on local realities.

The final two, short, subsections of the Conclusion ("The Challenge of Politics for Third World Evangelicalism" and "Whither Evangelical Politics") bemoan the lack of substantive theorizing by evangelicals on political issues, like the nature of the state as a system, pluralism, power, and the relationship between political action and Christian ethics. Reflection on these topics is especially crucial now, as evangelicalism continues to grow and evolve. Worldwide evangelicalism is so diverse, though, that any kind of projections about the future, even those that might be based on a country like Brazil with its large evangelical population and years of evangelical political activity, are at best tentative.

The strength of Evangelicals and Politics is that it contains a lot of information about so many countries (27). Each chapter engages significant studies on that nation's evangelical population, and the bibliography at the end of the book can serve as a valuable resource for those who desire to pursue the discussions further. Nevertheless, the quantity of information makes for difficult reading. Chapters could be better organized in order to guide the reader through the overwhelming data; instead, they tend to move from one social theory to another, interspersing commentary and critiques. In other words, this work is more of a sourcebook than a sustained narrative. At the same time, the large number of countries that are treated necessarily results in unevenness in analysis and the quantity and quality of the sources that the author utilizes. One is never given reasons for this unevenness, and it is a surprise that some countries with a significant evangelical presence and history (e.g., Korea, India, China, Argentina) are given such little space in comparison with others.

All in all, for anyone interested in the topic, this is a good place to begin. Freston summarizes the important work done for each country and interacts with a multitude of hypotheses and authors. He is circumspect and cautious, not reticent to admit where he (and the field itself) needs to investigate more and avoid jumping to conclusions. He is hopeful for evangelical influence in the public realm, but he is also aware of the pitfalls and troubling tendencies (especially within certain strands of Pentecostalism). We can look forward to more research ahead by Freston and others that will build on this solid foundation.

M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary

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