Redeeming Freedom: Evangelicals and Democracy, Around the World and Across Time

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Timothy Shah
Council on Foreign Relations

Date: March 18, 2009

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Evangelicals around the world have a pretty poor political reputation – either as would-be theocrats or head-in-the-sand quietists. Mostly, this reputation is undeserved. Research on politically active evangelicals around the world and across modern history demonstrates that, compared with many other religious folk as well as adherents of various forms of secularism, they have often proven to be pioneers of democratic culture and politics. This is no accident. Evangelicals believe in a close and essential connection between social freedom and spiritual redemption, making evangelical Protestantism arguably the faith most at home with liberal democratic modernity.

Speaker Bio

Timothy Samuel Shah

Timothy Samuel Shah is adjunct senior fellow for religion and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), senior research scholar at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, and formerly senior fellow in religion and world affairs at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. At CFR, Dr. Shah coordinates a series of symposia on the nexus of religion and foreign policy, as well as a related study group and roundtable series. In addition, Dr. Shah conducts research on religious movements and their impact on global democratization, including evangelical Protestants in Africa and Latin America, Hindu nationalists in India, and Islamists in South Asia and the Middle East.

He is presently writing a book on religious nationalism in South Asia, where he has conducted extensive field research, as well as a book (with Monica Duffy Toft and Daniel Philpott) on the importance of religion for the study of comparative politics and international relations. Since 1999, he has served as research director for the international study, “Evangelical Protestantism and Democracy in the Global South,” and edited a resulting four-volume series published by Oxford University Press in 2008-2009. Dr. Shah’s articles on religion and its relationship to political theory and comparative politics have appeared in the Journal of Democracy, SAIS Review of International Affairs, Brandywine Review of Faith and International Affairs and the British journal Political Quarterly.

Dr. Shah has an AB magna cum laude with highest honors in government and a PhD in political science, both from Harvard University. He also studied theology and law at Christ Church, Oxford University in 1997-1998. His PhD dissertation on religion and the origins of liberal political thought in early modern Europe, completed in September 2002, was awarded the Aaron Wildavsky Award for Best Dissertation in Religion and Politics by the American Political Science Association in 2003. He lives in Rockville, Maryland with his wife and five children.

Event Photos

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Erik Owens, Boisi Center

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Timothy Samuel Shah, Council on Foreign Relations

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Alan Wolfe, Boisi Center

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David Lumsdaine, Gordon College

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Photos by Caleb Cole, Boston College MTS Photography

Event Recap

Timothy Samuel Shah, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Religion and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke on March 18 about the role of global evangelicalism in democracy around the world and across time. Shah began with the illuminating statistic that 600 million evangelicals, of the 700 hundred million evangelicals worldwide, live in the global south. This has major implications for social dynamics and political action.

Having recently completed a massive multi-year study of global evangelicalism, Shah argued that five definitive conclusions that can be made regarding evangelicalism and democracy. First, evangelicals are generally not very good at direct political activism and involvement because of ineffectiveness in idea and institution building, which is necessary for effective and sustainable political activism. Second, direct evangelical political involvement and activism has often been detrimental for evangelical Christianity’s reputation; it has spurred division and occasionally undermined religious authority. Third, contrary to conventional wisdom, evangelicalism is consistently at home with liberal democratic modernity. The primary principle for evangelicalism is the necessity and legitimacy of free choice in religion; one must choose to become a Christian. As a result, there is a deep and heartfelt affinity with evangelicals and modernity. Shah pointed out that both modernity and evangelicalism share an historical time period of formation. Fourth, evangelicalism has also characteristically deepened and strengthened liberal democratic modernity, not through formal political engagement but by empowering otherwise marginalized peoples. This is sometimes an indirect byproduct of evangelicalism rather than an intentional, politically motivated action. Finally, evangelicalism has avoided involvement in theocratic political projects designed to impose some kind of comprehensive Christian political society.

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Further Reading

Joel Carpenter, "Now What? Revivalist Christianity and Global South Politics," Books & Culture, March/April 2009.

Walter Russell Mead, “Our Geopolitical Moment,” Christianity Today, March 12, 2008.

Peter L. Berger, “Secularization Falsified,” First Things, February 2008.

In the World of Good and Evil,” Economist, September 14, 2006.

Timothy S. Shah, “The Bible and the Ballot Box: Evangelicals and Democracy in the ‘Global South’,” SAIS Review, Summer/Fall 2004.

Peter L. Berger, “The Global Picture,” Journal of Democracy, April 2004.

Robert D. Woodbury and Timothy S. Shah, “The Pioneering Protestants,” Journal of Democracy, April 2004.

Other suggested readings without links:

Balmer, Randall Herbert. 2006. Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, an Evangelical’s Lament. New York: Basic Books.

Brouwer, Steve, Paul Gifford, and Susan D. Rose. 1996. Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism. New York: Routledge.

Cromartie, Michael, ed. 2003. A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.

Freston, Paul. 2001. Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Freston, Paul. 2004. “Evangelical Protestantism and Democratization in Contemporary Latin America and Asia.” Democratization. 11 (4): 21-41.

Freston, Paul, ed. 2008. Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America. “Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in the Global South” Series, edited by Timothy Samuel Shah. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, Michelle. 2006. Kingdom Coming: the Rise of Christian Nationalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Lumsdaine, David H. 2009. Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Asia. “Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in the Global South” Series, edited by Timothy Samuel Shah. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ranger, Terence O., ed. 2008. Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa. “Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in the Global South” Series, edited by Timothy Samuel Shah. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shah, Timothy Samuel. 2009. “For the Sake of Conscience: Some Evangelical Views of the State.” In Sandra F. Joireman, ed., Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 115-143.