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  • THE GOSPEL OF FREEDOM AND POWER: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II by Sarah E. Ruble
  • Mark Hulsether
THE GOSPEL OF FREEDOM AND POWER: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II. By Sarah E. Ruble. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2012.

Sarah Ruble offers a valuable analysis of how Protestant missions related to anti-colonial movements in the global south, although she remains undecided about the stance she wants to take toward a trend of missionaries making alliances with anti-colonial movements.

Ruble’s two best chapters, treating mainline and evangelical missions since 1945, trace how missionaries’ earlier relatively unnuanced support for US policies transitioned toward disassociation from these policies. This shift—accomplished in the name of freedom, local autonomy, and social justice—sparked neoconservative backlash. Ruble also offers a narrower chapter on relations between anthropologists and evangelicals, focusing on the Summer Institute of Linguistics, plus a chapter entitled “Gender” which centes on a deailed analysis of Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord and John Grisham’s The Testament.

Ruble draws on middlebrow journalism—both specific discussions of missions and wider punditry about foreign relations—from Christianity Today, Christian Century, Methodist denominational magazines, and neoconservative publications. She supplements this with representations of missionaries from popular literature and journalism—including James Michener’s Hawaii, Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, and Henry Luce’s punditry. Her bibliographic roads not taken are noteworthy. She downplays international ecumenical networks, with the sole exception of the 1974 Lausanne Conference. The World Council of Churches, the matrix for many emergent debates, goes virtually unmentioned. Despite Ruble’s stress on missionaries imposing themselves on foreigners, she writes little about how this unfolded on the ground nor about published exchanges between US missionaries and foreign Christians. [End Page 131]

Sometimes Ruble seems fairly sympathetic toward missionaries, especially those who are moderate evangelicals. We learn about their “intractable paradox” (162) of wanting foreign people to be free of coercive US influence, yet feeling that US people have useful things to contribute—in one key case, “inspir[ing]” without “impos[ing]” (161) opposition to clitoridectomies. In a fallen world, missionaries “could not simply abjure action” (166). Ruble occasionally implies, although rarely underlines, that one could restate “engagement with the locals” as agreeing with one subset of locals who support certain changes, in sharp conflict with other locals. It would be easy to document, for example through decades of publications by the Maryknoll Press, how missionaries informed by liberation theologies accented this latter point—up to and including support for anti-US revolutionary movements.

At other times Ruble’s qualified sympathy for (selected) missionary choices is difficult to discern through a fog of snark. Repeatedly she frames her above-noted paradox as a lose-lose proposition. Missionaries lose by being “part of a U.S. phalanx” (156), but when they make alliances with anti-colonial movements or critique global capitalism through appeals to universal Christian values or human rights, they lose again by “reify[ing] the logic of [U.S.] power” (9). Willy-nilly, they are guilty of “Wilsonian” arrogance and American exceptionalism in every decade and situation. Such argumentation is most striking in Ruble’s chapter on gender. Despite an opening section addressing how missionary subcultures have historically provided an arena for gender contestation, this chapter primarily takes a winding path through the above-mentioned novels, building toward a conclusion that all missionary behavior (whether old-school patriarchal, technocratic, or feminist) reified “hegemonic masculinity” (149) linked to the “logic underwriting U.S. power” (152). Undoubtedly this would be appropriate to stress in many cases, but here it comes off as highly sweeping and abstract.

Although Ruble marshals interesting information about an important topic, her book would benefit from a clearer and more substantive line of argument. Unleashing her sympathetic voice, Ruble notes how the “Wilsonian paradox” may reduce “to say[ing] that people have a perspective and, all things being equal, want others to share it… they could hardly be faulted for having a way of seeing the world” (157). However, it is symptomatic, first, that these words appear within a paragraph dominated by her snarky...


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