Sarah E. Ruble: All Americans Are Missionaries

The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II, by Sarah E. RubleIn the decades after World War II, Protestant missionaries abroad were a topic of vigorous public debate. Public conversations about missionaries followed a powerful yet paradoxical line of reasoning, namely that people abroad needed greater autonomy from U.S. power and that Americans could best tell others how to use their freedom. In The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II, Sarah Ruble analyzes these public discussions about what it meant for Americans abroad to be good world citizens, placing them firmly in the context of the United States’ postwar global dominance.

Last month, Ruble wrote a guest post about the idea of American exceptionalism in the show “The Network.”. In today’s post, Ruble writes about the history of American missionaries and the questions their work raises.

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“But since there really aren’t many foreign missionaries anymore,” said the man sitting across the table from me, “what is the relevance of your work?” It wasn’t what I wanted to hear: he was a professor on a hiring committee; I was a graduate student whose dissertation subject was the American missionary movement since World War II. A question that undermined the value of the field I had spent years of my life studying was not one I wanted to hear at a job interview.

I had, however, a ready answer: his premise was wrong. Because it was a job interview, I phrased my statement a bit more diplomatically. I explained that the American missionary movement had lost the public prominence it had once enjoyed and that the bulk of missionary personnel had shifted away from mainline Protestant groups and to evangelical organizations. Thus, even a person deeply involved in a mainline denomination (which this man was) might be under the impression that the missionary movement was almost non-existent. Yet, far from non-existent, the United States has in the twenty-first century a larger missionary force than ever before.

That left the relevance question. If an evangelical missionary went abroad and no mainline Christian (or university academic or major newspaper) heard about it, does that make the missionary irrelevant? At the time, I argued that it didn’t. Today, a few years after that interview, I would say the same thing but more emphatically.

2012 marks the two hundredth anniversary of the first Protestant American foreign missionaries. Over the course of those years, the movement’s fortunes and its public presence have waxed and waned. In 1812, the movement boasted five missionaries sailing to the Indian subcontinent. One hundred years later, its most prominent members were recruited for diplomatic missions. Yet whatever the public perception of missionaries, their work raises significant questions, even for people who might have little interest in the movement itself.

To take one set of questions: can you share ideas across cultures without harming other people or coercing them? Under what, if any, conditions? To grapple with these questions, you might look at missionary work in China at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. American missionaries in those years were proud of the work they did among Chinese women. They celebrated, among other things, that the Christian message stood against foot-binding, a practice the missionaries saw as both uncivilized (a word they threw around a lot) and hurtful to women. As many missionaries saw it, they were bringing a message that freed Chinese women from sin, both personal and social.

So what are we to make of these claims? Were the missionaries helping Chinese women (by freeing them from a practice that harmed them) or were they meddling in a cultural practice they did not understand (thus harming cultural ties and heritage)? Did the missionaries and the people among whom they worked have equal power in their relationships so that whatever cultural changes occurred were products of persuasion rather than coercion?

If those questions still seem irrelevant (who, after all, is going abroad today and talking about foot-binding?) try this: don’t think about missionaries in 1885 talking about feet but think about Americans in 2012 talking about the universal right of free speech or the importance of the separation of church and state. Under what conditions can people who believe in those ideas carry them abroad and share them with people who might disagree? Can those ideas be communicated in a way that does more good than harm? If the people with whom you are talking disagree, do you accept their decision?

William Hutchison started his 1987 monograph on missions, Errand to the World, with a telling story. A British scholar gave an address on missionaries to a large group. Afterward, a man approached him with a question. The man prefaced his question with an apology, “I’m a missionary.” “Don’t apologize,” the speaker replied. “All Americans are missionaries.”

The United States has missionary instincts—a desire to spread its message, be it democracy or freedom or capitalism, abroad. Studying missionaries in particular contexts helps us to think about questions that are by no means irrelevant for a country that supports Peace Corps volunteers, non-governmental agencies, business folk, not to mention its own military, as they, in various ways, evangelize for different pieces of the American vision.

Sarah E. Ruble is assistant professor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College and author of The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II.

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