Earlier this evening David Hollinger delivered the inaugural lecture of the Danforth Distinguished Lecture Series at the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University at St. Louis. I am grateful for the opportunity to attend this week’s lectures and symposia as a guest of the Danforth Center, and glad for the chance to share some highlights with readers of our blog.
The overall title of Hollinger’s lecture series, “Protestant Foreign Missions and Secularization in Modern America,” links two seemingly unrelated phenomena. While Protestant secularization might be viewed in one sense as a response to external influences (some of which Hollinger discussed in his USIH keynote), it was also a response to inner tensions within liberal Protestantism itself, tensions that were called forth and highlighted by a missiological enterprise that unexpectedly pushed the mainline churches toward a pluralist cosmopolitanism.
This path from proselytism to pluralism was the subject of Hollinger’s lecture this evening, “The Protestant Boomerang: How the Foreign Missionary Experience Liberalized the Home Culture.”
In tonight’s lecture, Hollinger explained how the Christianizing and (occasionally overt but almost always implicit) Westernizing and imperialistic aims (or effects?) of the missiological endeavor in the first half of the 20th century were often problematized by missionaries themselves. Instead of – or at least in addition to – becoming emissaries for “Christendom” amongst non-Christian peoples, Protestant missionaries frequently ended up serving as emissaries on behalf of cultural “others” to the very churches and organizations in whose employ the missionaries served.
Hollinger’s entire lecture will be available in a few weeks at the Danforth Center website, so I will not post an exhaustive summary here. However, I did want to mention one particularly salient point that will, I think, be of interest to our readership, given our recent discussions of Cold War concerns and how they shaped (or did not shape) academic pursuits and concerns.
Hollinger identified and briefly discussed nine major areas of American cultural and intellectual life during and after World War II in which those individuals who had developed not just expertise but also empathy as foreign missionaries played – or tried to play – a major role in shaping policy and practice. From the protest against the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to strong condemnations of Jim Crow racism as one pernicious manifestation of a global phenomenon of white malice and menace toward peoples of color around the world, former missionaries or the children of missionaries articulated ideas and ideals of not simply tolerance but also a call to solidarity with racial or national or ethnic “others.”
As one questioner pointed out, these calls to conscience were often calls that went unheeded. The moral weight of liberal Protestant calls to respect or empathy or solidarity across (narrowing) chasms of difference often did not seem to tip the scales. If, for example, the calls to racial justice in the 1940s and 1950s were prescient, they were also often unheeded. But they did stake out some moral ground upon which the somewhat tardily awakened Protestant establishment could finally stand in solidarity with African Americans.
One area of American cultural life that was more immediately shaped by Protestant missions was, interestingly, the academy. Hollinger argued that the leading scholars and field-defining academics in various post-war area studies programs – China studies, Japan studies, south Asian studies – were very frequently former missionaries or the children of missionaries. Samuel Wells Williams, Kenneth Scott Latourette, Lucian Pye, Harriet Mills, Edwin Reischauer, John King Fairbank, W. Norman Brown – all these scholars had a “missionary connection” of one kind or another.
While it is certainly true that the impulse to found and fund area studies programs may have been impelled by Cold War political concerns, Hollinger cautioned against reducing the emergence of area studies programs to Cold War conceptions of America and “the other.” Hollinger suggested that many historians are “in the thrall of Cold War positivism,” appealing to the Cold War as a catch-all explanation for every significant historical development. Certainly, the concerns of “Cold Warriors” were significant in the emergence of these new fields. But there was also a pluralistic cosmopolitanism in how these fields developed that owed much to the experience and perspective of scholars who, though they may have left the missiological imperatives of their parents behind, were still profoundly shaped by the Protestant missionary endeavor.
In Hollinger’s telling, the secular academy owes some of its cosmopolitan pluralism to the Protestant evangelical establishment. How great that debt may be is an interesting question. I expect that it is a question Hollinger will seek to answer as he continues to explore the reciprocal relationship between the sacred and the secular in American intellectual life.