A Localist Worldview
By Elizabeth Parsons
On the same day that President Barack Obama spoke at Cairo University, calling himself a Christian and quoting from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an, his energy secretary, Stephen Chu, delivered Harvard’s commencement address, in which he referred to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a humanist. The image of America’s foremost politician taking a public global stance on matters of faith juxtaposed with a watered-down local reference to one of this country’s foremost public theologians accords with a main observation in Robert Wuthnow’s new book. Boundless Faith maintains that American Christianity’s influence abroad is more palpable than closer-to-home impressions may indicate, demonstrating a lack of information and downright confusion that prevail here concerning attitudes and actions of American Christian communities.
Wuthnow has a reputation for producing insightful and timely analyses of this country’s evolving religious landscape; his latest work both continues that tradition and carries a challenge. The theologically and philosophically inclined, in particular, should heed his appeal for a major shift in understanding, not simply regarding the awareness that American Christianity is increasingly globally engaged, but of how that engagement fits in context. As a sociologist, Wuthnow is concerned about a dearth of empirical evidence regarding what American congregations are doing in the world, but his study is more than theoretical. Findings produced from the rigorous surveys and interviews on which he bases the book have convinced him that much conventional wisdom about what American Christians are up to is simply wrong. Yet, that does not mean that what is going on is altogether right. And because globalization has produced unprecedented interdependence, a clearer, more richly textured perspective is crucial. But Wuthnow observes that a cacophony of widely ranging analyses prevails, hampering American Christians’ abilities to assess coming challenges and opportunities.
For this reason Wuthnow steps back to examine the historical record regarding American Christian self-understanding and action in the world. What he terms “a localist worldview” has long been dominant. This is not synonymous with “self-referential,” however, for the evidence also reveals a consistent record of external engagement. Variously termed “missions,” “Social Gospel,” “ministry,” “outreach,” and so on, congregational engagement has been manifested in different structures and strategies over the centuries. To the popular American imagination, such actions are probably best typified by the image of European-Christian missionaries taking the Gospel to exotic locales.
Although the record of such endeavors is mixed, it is beyond dispute that Christians in lands formerly labeled foreign now outnumber those in Europe and North America. Wuthnow claims that a dominant thesis extrapolated from this global North to South shift has produced a “huge conceptual obstacle” blocking fuller understanding of what globalized American Christianity is all about. He traces this situation to an optimistic-sounding assertion propagated principally by the historian Philip Jenkins,1 and corroborated by others, that the demographic shift means that what American Christians do may no longer matter internationally, because Christianity is now vibrant and flourishing indigenously elsewhere.2
If Wuthnow is speaking principally to and about Americans, there is, indeed, something insidious about such an imposing intellectual, economic, and military society—of which American Christians are inevitably members—understanding itself as having no bearing on Christianity outside its borders. It is rather like Screwtape’s observation that the most effective lure away from God is not putting things into people’s minds, but keeping them out.3 In this case, we Americans, already tending to equate growth with goodness, seem insulated from scrutinizing assumptions, particularly about the effects of our pervasive power on any relationships with others. A more apt line of thought would be to wonder about the type of influence being exercised by American Christians internationally.
Here, Wuthnow’s detailed research is quite valuable, for he offers concrete data that can aid pragmatic discussions about global outreach conducted from a localist perspective. First, he simply provides information—on patterns of congregational overseas involvement, or on the types of policy issues that have been most affected by Christian activism, for example—so that American Christians can achieve a more comprehensive sense of how issues are understood and practices enacted in the United States. This is very helpful, especially as a balance to popular perceptions that conservative and evangelical Christian expressions are dominant domestically.
Second, he invites those of us who are American Christians to look at ideas that are typically invisible in day-to-day American life. This is hugely important because, unless American Christians grapple with the “taken-for-granteds” that are applied to our global relations, we will not have a proper appreciation for the experiences of others. It is admirable, for example, when American Christians, infused with a love of democracy, approach our sisters and brothers elsewhere as being one in the Spirit and one in the Lord. But, unless we understand how we are thinking of oneness (leaving aside Spirit and Lord), we may presume that all humans possess the same priorities, senses of identity, and senses of agency. At present, when projects conceived for cross-cultural partnerships (a word ripe for disguising power differentials) are not completed according to dominant American criteria, we may worry about money wasted and wonder why perfectly good work collapses when left in others’ hands. Meanwhile, we have spared ourselves the hard, painful effort of self-examination about what we are doing in other countries in the first place.
Boundless Faith provides rich fodder for such introspection. Wuthnow recounts examples of beneficial global engagement, but he also gives voice to American Christians who are uneasy about the results of their international encounters. He conveys a sense of personal caution, deeper than the book’s title might suggest, about the substance of much American Christian global engagement. Tensions inherent in practicing the Christian faith cross-culturally are not new, as Wuthnow documents when discussing the long missiological debate over balancing service and evangelism. But a number of factors distinguishing contemporary international involvement deserve close examination because of what they imply for future global relationships.
One especially pertinent factor is the professionalization of service efforts through nongovernmental and faith-based organizations. Wuthnow credits NGOs and FBOs as being partially responsible for increased American Christian international involvement. The NGO/FOB model also fits snugly with what he says is a popular narrative about this country’s spirit of generosity. And because NGOs and FBOs are neither specifically governmental nor corporate entities, and because they generally tend to have benevolent-sounding mission statements, well-meaning church goers may assume that these organizations’ intentions, and their results, are always for the common good.
But, squaring much NGO/FBO work with the biblical model of Jesus’ ministry can be disconcerting. Consider the role and influence of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a leading funding source for much American international NGO work and one that proffers authoritative views on foreign aid and development. The record is clear, however, that American foreign-aid policy has been designed to advance this country’s economic and political interests, particularly since the time of President Harry S. Truman. Under the Bush administration, USAID’s development mission became explicitly associated with diplomacy and defense as part of a threefold means of advancing the American agenda. To date, this same framework appears to be maintained by President Obama’s State Department. One could, as is often done, ask what difference this makes so long as good is being done. But the next question, “Is good being done?” seldom gets raised in public.
It is precisely this sort of question that Boundless Faith prompts churchgoers to ponder. Ultimately, Wuthnow suggests that the meaning of American Christians’ increasing global engagement calls for investigations of values, power structures, identities, and self-understandings. Shifting away from predominant assumptions about these issues—which counters forces that are most effective when invisible—will require a combination of humility and daring. Daring has historically seemed more abundant within our culture than has humility, but Wuthnow says globalization has “tempered American Christianity.” Perhaps this bodes well for that urgently necessary rethink.
- Philip Jenkins’s thesis is set forth in an Atlantic Monthly article, “The Next Christianity,” October 2002, 53–68, and in an entire book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002).
- It may not be entirely fair to suggest that the African and Latin American scholars Wuthnow associates with this thesis saw things in the same way as the dominant view. They may well have said what they did about the Jenkins-inspired proposition from a vantage point that included knowledge no Westerner would ever understand and/or for audiences completely different from Jenkins’s target audience.
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, With “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (Image Books, 1981), 18–19.
Elizabeth Parsons, MDiv ’98, served as a missionary in Southern Africa through the Episcopal Church USA and is now Lecturer in Mission Studies at Boston University School of Theology. Her book on religious and cultural ramifications of privatization policies enacted in Zambia will be published this year.