The Gospel of Freedom & Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II

The Gospel of Freedom & Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II

The Gospel of Freedom & Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II

The Gospel of Freedom & Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II

Synopsis

In the decades after World War II, Protestant missionaries abroad were a topic of vigorous public debate. From religious periodicals and Sunday sermons to novels and anthropological monographs, public conversations about missionaries followed a powerful yet paradoxical line of reasoning, namely that people abroad needed greater autonomy from U.S. power and that Americans could best tell others how to use their freedom. In The Gospel of Freedom and Power, Sarah Ruble traces and analyzes these public discussions about what it meant for Americans abroad to be good world citizens, placing them firmly in the context of the United States' postwar global dominance.
Bringing together a wide range of sources, Ruble seeks to understand how discussions about a relatively small group of Americans working abroad became part of a much larger cultural conversation. She concludes that whether viewed as champions of nationalist revolutions or propagators of the gospel of capitalism, missionaries--along with their supporters, interpreters, and critics--ultimately both challenged and reinforced a rhetoric of exceptionalism that made Americans the judges of what was good for the rest of the world.

Excerpt

In 1959 James A. Michener published his first epic novel, Hawaii. Since World War II, Michener had carved a successful niche as a guide to the South Pacific. Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted his Tales of the South Pacific into the musical South Pacific. Hawaii never made it to Broadway, but it did become a best seller, a Bookof-the-Month Club Selection, and the basis for a 1966 movie starring Max von Sydow and Julie Andrews. As a novel that Michener intended to be “true to the spirit and history of Hawaii,” the book narrated encounters among various peoples, such as native Hawaiians and immigrants from Japan and China, who by the 1950s composed a significant proportion of Hawaii’s population. Large sections of the 937-page book focused on two other significant groups in Hawaii’s history: the Calvinist missionaries who came to the islands in the 1820s and their descendants. When Michener’s novel became a movie, the missionary story constituted the entire plot.

While both the movie’s and Michener’s focus on the missionaries made sense in terms of Hawaiian history—the evangelists and their descendants had affected the islands—they also made sense in terms of the book’s own context. Hawaii was published fourteen years after the end of World War II, a time that had solidified the United States’ new role as a world power. the questions missionaries posed about the effects of encounters between different groups, particularly groups with disparate power, and what cultural changes the more powerful in a cultural encounter should advocate (or impose) were questions as Germane to the 1950s as to the 1850s, if not more so. the questions the missionaries’ actions raised posed ongoing concerns for the world’s new superpower. This larger import became clear at the end of the novel when one of the early missionary’s descendants traveled the South Pacific during World War II and compared the effects of colonization . . .

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