U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Protestant Missions and the Cold War Academy

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.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great introduction to a marvelous address, LD.

    What amazes me about a Latourette is that he could complain about the evils of “secularism” to a church group in the morning, and yet go offer a report on China to the Council on Foreign Relations in the afternoon that was devoid of any religious typologies. That he voluntarily accepted the rules of the “secular academy” is not surprising; that he did so while condemning secularism speaks to a dimension of liberal and ecumenical Protestantism that still awaits incorporation in the stories we tell about them.

    • Mark,

      My impression of Latourette is that he was torn between two worlds. He was bound both to church groups and the world of China scholarship. As China studies professionalized after World War II, missionary voices were marginalized as a new direction of government and military China scholars came in to the academy with new methods (area studies) and political views that aimed to secularize China scholarship. Latourette was one of the few hold-overs from pre-war China scholarship and had to secularize his academic scholarship while continuing to play to his religious supporters. Definitely a difficult position and one in which he was remarkably successful, particularly considering the rise of younger, secular Yale China scholars like David Rowe and Richard L. Walker.

      • Wonderful additions to this discussion, Matthew.

        It seems liberal and ecumenical Protestants in general at least until the 1970s were thus torn. How do we capture that “torn-ness” in narrative form, that’s my question?

  2. I think there is a tendency to overstate the missionary legacy when analyzing China studies. While I agree that academic China studies was shaped by the missionary legacy, it is often difficult to disentangle China studies’ liberalizing impulse from the legacy of the New Deal. Even Latourette, who was the foremost missionary China specialist, viewed Christianity as one of several Western modernizing influences in Asia including economic aid and loosing immigration policies (particularly the hated Chinese Exclusion Acts). Other China specialists like Fairbank and Yale’s David N. Rowe, had even more ambitious modernization programs, but they largely were in line with the liberal thinking of the era: democratizing, modernizing industry, education, Western medicine, etc.

    Fairbank is probably the best example of the overemphasis of protestantism against the New Deal. Yes, he did have distant missionary connections and in his discussions of Chinese modernization he frequently cast missionaries in a positive light – especially when compared to the work of his critics during the 1960s. At the same time, when Fairbank was building the China studies field in the 1940s and 50s, he mostly relegates the missionary interest to the past. Looking to the future, Fairbank, in his landmark 1948 publication “The United States and China”, argues that Chinese development can only come about by a combination of technological and ideological. Ideological modernization would come in the form of democratic institution-building, educational techniques, and egalitarianism. Much of this book was written alongside Fairbank’s brother-in-law Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Vital Center” – in which he is acknowledged – and they share similar themes. Liberal protestantism may be lurking in the background, but I think Hollinger overstates the role in played in the creation of China studies, a field built by secular liberals with secular ends including raising living standards and materially transforming China into a regional power to hedge against the possibility of a resurgent Japanese empire.

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