The Protestant Boomerang

The Protestant Boomerang October 25, 2017

A book note.

David Hollinger, in his new impressive study called Protestants Abroad, with the subtitle revealing the point of the book: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.

the protestant foreign missionary project expected to make the world look more like the United States. Instead, it made the United States look more like the world. The missionary encounter with peoples beyond the historically Christian West yielded relatively generous dispositions toward the varieties of humankind, and led the missionaries to question many cherished beliefs of the folks at home. Missionaries, their children, and their closest associates became conspicuous players during the middle decades of the twentieth century in the Foreign Service, universities, foundations, churches, literature, journalism, the military, and several reform movements. Missionary-connected Americans advanced domestic programs that would later be called “multicultural” and foreign policies that prioritized alliances with nonwhite, colonized peoples. More globally conscious than all but a few of their contemporaries, the missionary contingent was the Anglo-Protestant counterpart of the cosmopolitan Jewish intelligentsia whose influence in expanding American public life has been rightly recognized. But while Jewish cosmopolitanism was intensely European, missionary cosmopolitanism was predominantly Asian.

Confidence in the eternal and universal validity of certain values propelled the missionary endeavor. These certainties, including the rudiments of the Christian faith, were expected to achieve a dominant place throughout the globe. But the project had ironic consequences. The “gospel of inclusive brotherhood” preached by the missionaries, observed the Congregationalist leader Buell G. Gallagher in 1946, flew back like a boomerang to the hands of those who had flung it outward, carrying on its return trip an awareness of the provincialism of its original construction. “The missions boomerang has come back to smite the imperialism of white nations, as well as to confound the churches,” wrote Gallagher. Sustained experience with the indigenous peoples abroad gradually led more and more missionaries to appreciate aspects of foreign cultures largely ignored by the classic ideology of missions. Even the pagan religions of Asia turned out to have some redeeming qualities. The “gospel of inclusive brotherhood” changed its meaning: there was a lot more to include than had been discerned at the start. What had been thrown “across Asia, Africa, and the Seven Seas” and supposed to stay there had come back. And when it came back, it was laden with an indictment of “cultural imperialism and arrogant paternalism” and a plea for a more genuinely universal human community.

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