Did Missionaries Contribute to the Growth of Secularism?

Protestants AbroadOver at The Christian Century, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester reviews David Hollinger‘s latest book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.

Here is a taste:

Protestants Abroad fits snugly within Hollinger’s long-standing narrative of the price that ecumenical Protestants paid as a religious community for their thinning of the particularism of Christianity. Clearly missionaries were prominent among the church leaders who got out ahead of the rank and file on controversial social and political matters and lost the loyalty of many of them. And the weight of Hollinger’s extensive biographical evidence is that they also pioneered the art of raising post-Protestant children who may well have admired their moral strength and shared their humanitarian values but found little need for their religious beliefs.

Hollinger himself remains impatient with those who persisted in “God-talk” long after he thinks it lost its plausibility, favoring post-Protestant “mish kids” over their still devout parents in this regard. But arguably, on his own evidence, there is something to be said, even if one does not speak it oneself, for God-talk or even Christ-talk. It may very well be that the tension between the universal and the particular was crushing for missionary theory, but was it so for missionary practice? There is little evidence in Hollinger’s book that this was the case.

Many of the numerous life stories in Hollinger’s books are tales of courage, courage that was for many of those who mustered it sustained by Christian belief, however thin it may have been. Civil rights activist and former missionary Ruth Harris was described by one of the students she inspired as “acting up for Christ”—not for humanity but for Christ. And the same might be said of many of those who gave us a more cosmopolitan republic. Could they have found the strength to act up elsewhere, outside the confines of Christian belief? Maybe, but in their Christianity was where they found it.

Thin God-talk is not necessarily weak God-talk; it can be wiry God-talk. God-talk lean, supple, and articulated alongside humility and doubt. Might one not cop to the considerable uncertainty that remains in even such wiry God-talk and despite doing so be moved by religious faith to do far more good than one might otherwise have done? The more cosmopolitan American republic that liberal Protestant missionaries did so much to create is of late under siege. If we are to protect it, perhaps a few courageous, die-hard ecumenical Christian survivalists will come in handy.

Read the entire review here.