Missionaries have long been painted as part and parcel of an “imperial American foreign policy” by academics but as with most things academic, this view does not hold up to careful scrutiny. “I don’t like the term ‘cultural imperialism,’” Cambridge University lecturer Andrew Preston said in a lecture in Georgetown. “I prefer ‘cultural exchange’ or ‘cultural transfer.’”
Preston is the author of Sword of The Spirit: Religion In American War and Diplomacy. “The hard core missionary imperialists were the exception to the rule, I found out, when I got beyond the secondary literature and into primary sources,” Preston at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
“Missionaries were ‘cultural imperialists’ though inadvertent,” Preston avers. “The 19th century China missionaries who get such a bad rap promoted development and women’s rights to education.”
Preston has also taught at Yale. Although they may have been regarded as “imperialist agents,” missionaries often had an uneasy relationship with U. S. government officials. At the turn of the last century, “Mormon missionaries were persecuted for proselytizing in most of Europe outside of Great Britain,” Preston said. “They would then seek help from their embassies.”
The embassies did not know how to resolve their dilemmas. Finally, embassy officials sought guidance from Secretary of State John Hay, who had served President McKinley before becoming Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. If Mormon missionaries were not breaking local laws that were similar to U. S. laws, they deserved the full protection of the U. S. government, Hay decreed.
The beauty part about studying history by using primary sources is that you find that the real story is much more interesting than the comic book Robber Barons versions (think Howard Zinn) that garden variety professors like to pass on. For example:
• Jews in America successfully lobbied Teddy Roosevelt to pretest the treatment of Jews in Romania and Russia;
• Ironically, Jews in the Soviet Union would find President Nixon’s Jewish Secretary of State less sympathetic to their aspirations than the Protestant rough rider was.
“Henry Kissinger wrote a book in 1994 modestly entitled Diplomacy with a 134-page index that does not mention religion,” Thomas F. Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center noted. Farr also teaches at Georgetown.
By and large, though, we find in an in-depth survey of history that, in the words of a famous man, America does not dictate, it saves people from dictators. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, Preston found, made impassioned pleas to Stalin to end religious persecution in the Soviet Union, although it is hard to see what effect this had. Maybe he should have channeled his cousin.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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