Historians on the Hot Seat: David Swartz (How the majority world is reshaping American evangelicalism)

Swartz headshotThis week’s post spotlights historian David Swartz as part of a new series meant to focus on historians and their ongoing work: current projects, research efforts, innovative teaching, travel abroad, and other activities of interest. (Its not really a hot seat at this point, but maybe we’ll get some controversy going eventually!) Rumor has it that Chris Gehrz and John Fea may be here talking about new book projects in the near future.

I am excited to have David on the hot seat for this inaugural post. I’m a fan of David and his work. Soon after his last book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, was published I interviewed him and it generated a lot of interest. David’s next project is nearing completion with Oxford Press and promises to be the kind of innovative scholarship we have come to expect from him. He joins a growing list of historians (including Jay Case, who was also interviewed here several years ago) who are turning missions historiography on its head. Though we normally think of missions altering the culture of places where American missionaries are sent, these scholars are showing instead how involvement in missions ended up transforming American Christians in profound ways.Moral minority


THC: Where has your research agenda taken you after Moral Minority? Can you summarize your current book project? What, if any, relationship does this project have with MM? How did you land on this project?

Swartz: In 1974 nearly 3,000 evangelicals from 150 nations met at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Amidst this cosmopolitan setting—and in front of the most important white evangelical leaders of the United States—members of the Latin American Theological Fraternity spoke out against the American Church. Ecuadorian René Padilla condemned North American missions as rooted in cold efficiency, and Peruvian Samuel Escobar criticized American evangelical politics as myopic. The Fraternity’s bold critiques electrified Lausanne delegates from around the world. Padilla received a rare standing ovation, brought to an end only when Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham’s song leader, began to lead a hymn. More than a few international delegates saw “deep political overtones” in the ovation’s premature end.

Provoked by this startling insurgency, leaders rewrote the Lausanne Declaration. According to one satisfied observer, the new version dealt “a death blow to the superficial equation of Christian mission with the multiplication of Christians and churches.” Billy Graham declared, “If one thing has come through loud and clear it is that we evangelicals should have social concern. The discussion . . . about radical discipleship has caught fire.” Indeed, the Lausanne Covenant marked a decisive moment in neo-evangelical history. On a global stage, Majority World evangelicals spoke directly to North American evangelicals. This exchange would help spark mainstream evangelical campaigns against global poverty and human trafficking and for a more culturally sensitive missiology.

This scene in Switzerland, narrated in my first book, Moral Minority, demonstrates the significant role that transnational networks exerted on an emerging progressive evangelicalism. My next project—tentatively titled From the Ends of the Earth: How the Majority World Is Reshaping American Evangelicalism—seeks to expand this narrative to other geographies and sectors of evangelicalism. It will chart how evangelicals abroad and American missionaries “spoke back” to American evangelicals on matters of race, imperialism, mission strategy, economics, sexuality, and theology. As international telephone traffic quadrupled between 1991 and 2004, as air passengers from the U.S. grew from 10 million in 1975 to 60 million in 2000, as the Internet shrunk time and space, and as a striking 62% of active church members in the U.S. traveled or lived in another country, American Christians often returned home thinking more critically about their own heritage and assumptions. In the meeting of East and West in a globalizing twentieth century, influence flowed in multiple directions. Sometimes the empire struck back.

Swartz cambodiaTHC: Based on what I see on social media, your research has taken you to some pretty exotic places! And you’ve brought the family, correct? What were you researching? Who were you talking to? What was it like having the family along? What did you hope to accomplish on your travels? Were you successful?

Swartz: Visiting archives and immigrant churches in Boston and Los Angeles—and traveling abroad to Korea, Thailand, and Cambodia—has been a deeply rewarding aspect of my new transnational focus. And I’ve loved my family’s involvement in many of these trips.

In Thailand last year, I was researching the anti-trafficking movement for a chapter intended to show how American evangelical methods of social justice have changed over the last half-century or so. Our family spent a bit more than two months there during a sabbatical, and we had a terrific experience. I did over 90 interviews, and we still had time left over to visit an elephant refuge, eat exotic foods, visit markets, attend some fascinating churches, and do some dental work. We also learned a lot about our kids (ages 11, 11, 9, and 7). One of them—anxious about school and angsty about life in general—transformed before our very eyes. As soon as we landed in Bangkok, his face brightened. A bounce appeared in his step. It was beautiful to watch him blossom, and his new bearing has largely persisted even after being home for over a year now.Swartz cambodia 3

More recently, my wife Lisa Weaver Swartz, a sociologist of religion and gender, and I traveled to Cambodia (a big thank-you to the Global Religion Research Initiative for a project-launch grant!) to do more research. Our findings in Thailand were so interesting that we’re extending our scope to more of Southeast Asia for a separate book on the American evangelical anti-trafficking movement. We conducted over thirty interviews in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and the Cambodian coast. [Original images of David in Cambodia used here, including the banner image at the top, can be found here.]

Not all of my research trips are so exotic. A side project in recent months has been to gather material for a future project: a “biography” of a local Confederate statue. As part of the research, I’ve been taking friends and kids to local sites of Union and Confederate memory (Kentucky has both!)—cemeteries, statues, and historical markers. We’ve also been making a lot of trips to the Jessamine County Public Library, just a couple miles from our house. While they alternate between reading books at a nearby table and playing the old game “Oregon Trail” on library computers, I look at another historical artifact: nineteenth-century local newspapers on microfilm.

THC: Can you give us a nugget or two that you’ve found that you’re really excited about?

Swartz: I don’t want to give too much away yet (my editor has a draft of the manuscript with publication expected sometime next year), but I’m fascinated by the perspectival nature of historical narratives that seems to shows up in such sharp relief in transnational projects. In Seoul, for example, Korean evangelicals tell a very different story about the founding of World Vision. In Thailand and Cambodia, evangelical humanitarians on the ground have very different perspectives about the causes and solutions of human trafficking than Americans do. I’m excited to relay what I’ve learned from these non-American sources.

I’m trying to heed Tite Tiénou’s admonition to loosen “hegemonic research frameworks” by listening well. New narratives emerge when we consider that evangelical networks not only go out to, but also come from the ends of the earth.

THC: Where to do you see this project fitting into the literature?

Swartz: Literature on international Christianity, particularly in the Global South, is rapidly growing. Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity is perhaps the most prominent in this genre. But other works by Mark Noll, Mark Hutchinson, Paul Freston, and a host of missiologists also outline the contours of important demographic shifts within global evangelicalism. And lots more is coming, including a very important book by Melanie McAlister being released this week!Jenkins next christendom

Numerous scholars have begun to apply a reflexive lens to American history. In the fields of political and legal history, Mary Dudziak positions an American story in a global context. Cold War Civil Rights demonstrates how international pressure pushed American politicians toward passage of the Civil Rights Act. Scholars have also begun to track the influence of Indian Gandhians on the civil rights movement. In the field of religious history, Jay Case, author of An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and Global Christianity, has chronicled an evangelical global reflex at work in the nineteenth century. In addition to arguing that the most successful missionaries empowered the local population and adapted to local cultures, Case contends that the global experience also shaped Americans at home.

Not much scholarship, however, investigates this “global reflex” among evangelicals in the twentieth-century United States. I take Case and Dudziak’s work as models in my attempt to outline how global encounters shaped Billy Graham-style American evangelicalism during the Cold War.

THC: What is your writing style? Do you work on this project daily? What practices have you found to be helpful in meeting your goals?

Swartz: I’m a plodder. I don’t often have flashes of inspiration. It can take years of sources marinating in my head for good arguments and narratives to emerge on paper. I’m constantly jotting down notes in digital files that I won’t fully process until years later.

I do try to work on research projects every day. There are a couple of times a year when pressures of teaching and committee work and public speaking take me out of commission for a days or weeks at a time. But I try to keep those few and short. Even if I only have fifteen minutes to work on a book project, I edit footnotes, play with an outline, polish a paragraph—anything that keeps me moving forward, even if only an inch.

2 thoughts on “Historians on the Hot Seat: David Swartz (How the majority world is reshaping American evangelicalism)

  1. “the new version dealt “a death blow to the superficial equation of Christian mission with the multiplication of Christians and churches.””

    Thank you for your interesting post. The sentence above captures the debate well. The result is now that so much ‘mission’ doesn’t plant churches or see many people converted.

    I’ve always felt Lausanne failed to express the relationship between evangelism and social action well. I see the latter as part of the broader diaconal ministry of the church but, and it’s a big but, it presupposes the existence of the church.

    The other area of weakness in Lausanne is contextual. it was produced in the context of a Christian world, which was true even for those in majority Roman Catholic nations. Being distinctively Christian in our social engagement in post-Christian societies is much more challenging. The majority ethos in Western countries is now more likely to be hostile to any clear Christian witness as part of social engagement which completely decouples social engagement from evangelism. And that is not at all what the historic mission of the Christian church looked like.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Evangelicals, Anabaptists, Depression, and Christian Rock: The Hermeneutic Circle’s Top Ten posts of 2018 – The Hermeneutic Circle

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