Beyond the Borders: Radicalized Evangelical Missionaries in Central America from the 1950s through the 1980s
Degree awarded: Ph.D. History. American University
This dissertation examines the complicated relationship between radicalized evangelical missionaries in Central America and their sending communities in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. This was a volatile period in Central America, with the success of socialist revolutionaries in Nicaragua, severe repression in Guatemala and El Salvador, and the increasingly powerful presence of liberation theology in religious institutions and the communities they served. These potent forces deeply affected some evangelical missionaries and they grew more sympathetic to leftist movements in Central America. Missionaries sent out as representatives of these evangelical groups, with the goal of converting others into the fold, were thus converted theologically or politically themselves and no longer "fit" within their home communities.It was also a period of rapid change for American evangelicals. During the 1970s and 1980s, evangelicals grew more deeply committed to U.S. foreign policy, supporting Ronald Reagan's rise to the presidency, his vehement anti-communism, and his foreign policy goals throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. American missionaries in Central America were caught between these changing realities. When missionaries adapted their political and theological perspectives to adapt to transformative experiences in Central America, sending groups became uncomfortable sponsoring these radicalized missionaries who seemed to have forgotten what they were sent to Central America to do.This dissertation analyzes the ensuing conflicts between evangelical sending groups and these radicalized missionaries, which reveal several important things about the nature of missionary life as well as the nature of the evangelical community. First, there were specific, if often unspoken, beliefs about what it meant to be a missionary-- this was part of the power of the missionary narrative within the evangelical community. And second, the boundaries of evangelical identity, while often unspoken, were clarified by radicalized missionaries' violations of those boundaries. Evangelical identity turned out to be more all-encompassing than one might perceive at first glance. Theological boundaries were important, of course, but transformed missionaries soon discovered that there were political and cultural boundaries as well.
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