Feb. 19, 2004
Soon into his tenure as a professor at Calvin College, Paul Freston had an unexpected opportunity.
He had been planning to attend a conference at Michigan State University on the growth of Christianity around the world. But when the keynote speaker for the conference was unable to get to East Lansing because of weather, conference organizers called Freston in a panic, asking if he could substitute. Which he did.
The last-minute pinch-hit, says Calvin provost Joel Carpenter, speaks to Freston's abilities and what he brings to his new duties at the college.
"Paul Freston is one of the world's leading experts on Latin American evangelical Christianity," says Carpenter, "and on evangelicals' public role throughout the Global South. Christianity is the non-Western world's most dynamic religion, and Calvin is working hard to understand that dynamism and to partner with Christians from the southern and eastern nations. We gain a great deal of strength and wisdom for those tasks by having Professor Freston working with us."
Freston joined the Calvin faculty this school year as the first-ever holder of the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Christian Perspectives on Political, Social and Economic Thought. And while the title is a mouthful, so too are both the scope of the new chair's purpose and the breadth and depth of Freston's expertise.
Consider Freston's book Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America, a 358-page volume whose plain title belies the amazing wealth of material contained between its covers. The book, published by Cambridge University Press, has been hailed as "a pioneering comparative study of the political aspects of the new mass evangelical Protestantism of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia."
One reviewer said simply: "Freston offers keen insights into the intricacies, weaknesses, strengths, and struggles of indigenous Christians who are seeking to attain a secure place for themselves and their witness in rapidly changing countries."
In the book Freston looks at 27 countries in the three major continents of the Third World. And not just a cursory glance. He dug deeply into the religious and political connections in those 27 countries, many of which he visited and others of which he studied via personal contacts, documentary study and interviews.
It is that interdisciplinary sensitivity that made Freston such a good fit for the new Byker Chair, named for former Michigan State Senator Gary Byker and his wife Henrietta, parents of current Calvin president Gaylen Byker.
Says Gaylen Byker: "Many of the most influential thinkers of the modern age have stressed the interrelatedness of politics, society and the economy. No one discipline can provide a fully orbed analysis of the complex events, forces and ideas that sweep across our common life. Interdisciplinary studies, which link and merge approaches from these disciplines, have added dimensionality to our understanding of public life. This Chair was established to promote such study. And we're thrilled that Paul accepted our offer to be the first holder of the Chair."
The Byker Chair's express purpose is to "provide a comprehensive, Reformed Christian approach to the ways in which human interactions and structures are shaped and influenced by the dynamics of creation, the fall, redemption and historical development."
That's an important emphasis for Freston who says the Reformed approach to life always has resonated with him. For example, Freston says that the implications of evangelical politics for democracy, nationalism and globalization have great relevance beyond the Third World. He points to both obstacles and opportunities, hopeful that many of the evangelical movements may be able to define a new relationship between religion and the state, one that could pave the way to greater pluralism and equal treatment of people in countries throughout the world.
"It is important, in an increasingly globalized world," says Freston, "that evangelicals in the developed West learn from the social reality and political concerns of fellow-evangelicals elsewhere. Within the Third World, awareness of variety can promote suspicion regarding anyone's claim to have uncovered a definitive 'biblical politics'; but it can also help local politicians see that sometimes they defend positions which would be politically or economically disastrous for their fellow-believers in other parts of the world."
Freston notes, for example, that it's very hard to find any Third World evangelicals who supported the war in Iraq, while, in the United States, evangelicals were solidly behind the war.
"To many evangelicals in the Third World," he says, "evangelical politics in the States is a mystery. There's a totally different geopolitical perspective."
Having lived in Brazil and traveled to numerous countries for his book, Freston believes that evangelicals in Third World countries by necessity need to look beyond their borders, something he says, is more difficult to do when living in an affluent nation such as the United States.
"People tend to be less navel-gazing in other parts of the world," he says. "If you're on the periphery you're aware of both the periphery and of the center. You perhaps have a slightly broader view of the world."
A broader view of the world is critical in this day and age Freston says.
"Lack of understanding of global religious reality can be costly," he says. "If terrorism is one of the weapons of the weak, we need to know what the religions of the weak are, and what political options they authorize. Christianity today is predominantly a non-Western religion and probably the main religion in the Third World. More of the world's poor are now Christian than Muslim. So what are their political tendencies? For American Christians this is an important question not just for 'homeland safety' but also for international justice."
Such questions were also a hallmark of Gary Byker, who studied history and sociology at Calvin despite never having attended high school! He parlayed that Calvin degree into a career as a successful businessman and politician, serving in the State Senate from 1968 to 1979.
Freston came to Calvin after almost two decades in higher education in Brazil, most recently at Universidade Federal de São Carlos. He is a native of England who graduated from Cambridge University, with a B.A. degree emphasizing in Latin American Studies. He received his Masters degree in history from Cambridge, his Ph.D. degree from University of Campinas in sociology and did his post-doctoral work at Oxford University. He also has a master's degree from Regent College in British Columbia and worked in Brazil with that country's equivalent of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.