World Christianity and "Protestant America": Historical Narratives and the Limits of Christian Pluralism

Article excerpt

America's identity as a Protestant nation has long been a topic of extensive research. Relationships between America's "civil religion," exceptionalism, and global mission have sparked reflection across many disciplines. (1) Into the world of the twenty-first century, two momentous yet paradoxical developments are casting new light upon America's identity and mission. The first is the dramatic growth of Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The second is the rise of America to a status of unrivaled military and economic power. Demographically, the global South has created new Christian centers. But even as this trend continues, America remains the world's political and economic center, whose religious heritage continues to sanction its political mission. (2)

I use this paradox as an occasion to reflect upon historical narratives, specifically, their tendency either to stifle or to legitimate different ways of being Christian in the world. Demographics show overwhelmingly that it is possible to be Christian without being American. But they tell us very little about whether Africans or Asians can be Christian without reproducing "the American story." Can Christianity incarnate itself in ways that tell stories that depart from that of Protestant America? A mythology, deeply embedded in the consciousness of American Protestantism, makes this possibility highly problematic. This mythology views the Gospel as necessarily producing a certain type of history, one that begins in either chaos or tyranny and leads ultimately to a stable, powerful, and prosperous democracy.

If the southward expansion of Christianity levels any critique at all of Protestant America, it is by delinking the Gospel from grand narratives that are used to explain American progress. (3) Liberalism, rational debate, free enterprise, and rule of law are cherished ideals of both America and the former British Empire. Within these histories such ideals have come to represent a Judeo-Christian imprint on modernity, a biblical way of respecting persons, creating wealth, and holding states accountable to a higher law. Today, however, Christian congregations flourish in places where these institutions are at best partially formed. Does the absence of political or economic stability in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, or Guatemala call their Christian experience into question? Or does Christian growth in these lands serve in some way to provincialize Protestant America, perhaps by making its universal claims less universal or by releasing the Gospel from the story of the modern democratic nation-state? (4)

The following sections describe the tension between world Christianity and Protestant America as a tension between incarnational and covenantal historical narratives. Incarnational narratives, developed in the work of Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh, describe how the Christian religion was freed from its attachment to European lands and came to be appropriated by non-European peoples on their own cultural terms. (5) Such narratives are centered upon the doctrine of the incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh, the translation of the Gospel into the language and categories of local culture. In contrast, covenantal narratives are centered upon the Old Testament doctrine of God's covenant with Israel. Central to early Puritan faith, this doctrine formed the basis of America's sense of chosenness, its commitment to democracy and rule of law, and its mission to spread these ideals abroad. While incarnational narratives validate Christian pluralism, covenantal narratives diminish this pluralism by linking Christianity inseparably to the projects of democracy and the construction of an international order.

Can cultural and historical factors that differentiated African or Indian Christianity from that of their colonial masters do the same now, when the United States is the superpower? An important aspect of this debate concerns the persistence of ethnicity, tribe, caste, and supernaturalist belief in the lives of non-Western converts. …