Robert WUTHNOW. Boundless Faith. The Global Outreach of American Churches. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Xii + 345 pp. $22.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-520-26808-1. Reviewed by Anthony J. BLASI, 4531 Briargrove St., San Antonio, TX 78217
I recommend that social scientists move from the Preface and Introduction to the Appendix, where the 2005 Global Issues Survey on which much of the book is based is described. It sampled American church attenders, and readers with a scientific interest would want to know that and other details. Wuthnow also used qualitative interview responses from clergy and lay leaders, especially those involved in international outreach. Then the reader is advised to proceed to Chapter 1.
The traditional concern of congregations was with family and community problems. In contrast, international experience and globalization characterize them in the twenty-first century. Despite this change, which came about in the twentieth century, a “Global Christianity Paradigm” emerged, a paradigm that Wuthnow rejects. It holds that while Christianity is expanding in the southern hemisphere, American Christianity is turning inward. Wuthnow argues that American Christianity is still influential because influence comes from connections, not demography, and that even the demographic claims of the Global Christianity Paradigm are faulty; the number of Christians in African and Latin America grew more dramatically before 1970 than after. He disputes the “back story” of secularization in America and another “back story” of the necessity of reversing colonialism as relevant. “Despite Christianity’s shifting population, a very significant share of its financial and organizational resources remains in the United States and Europe” (p. 59).
A more appropriate context is globalization, which has “four faces.” There is a monoculture, which is most relevant to elites. Then there is glocalized diversity—the local importation and adaptation patterns that diversify both local and the international religion. A third face is beneficent markets—churches promoting fair trade coffee, for example, and financing micro-business. Then there are immiserating dislocations, with churches resisting consumerism on the one hand and often promising prosperity on the other. The history behind the American churches’ involvement in globalization is that of overseas missions, a history that Wuthnow narrates in some detail. In the course of the twentieth century the emphasis shifted from evangelization in many cases to development and relief.
The 2005 survey data show 76% of congregation members attending in congregations that collect funds for overseas disaster or hunger relief. The funds are sometimes sent to trusted agencies and sometimes channeled through special overseas relationships. Some 74% sponsor missionaries, either particular missionaries or through an organization specializing in overseas work. Missionaries are often hosted as visiting speakers. In general, evangelization and aid are complementary, not competing, interests. Smaller percentages engage in peace making and furthering religious freedom, which are seen by many as political or beyond the purview of the congregations. More send people abroad in short-term missionary work.
The author succeeds in making his case, except for the claim that American Christianity has much influence on the foreign policies of the United States government. Most of the cases cited suggest that the government uses churches to support policies that have already been decided upon. The one policy that seemed to come from the churches was the 2000 drive to forgive the foreign debts of the poorest nations. In general, religious agencies have been more effective in affecting the implementation of foreign policy rather than its legislation.
One can conclude from the study that American Christianity has not withdrawn from the wider world, that American congregations are not merely self-help organizations that ignore that wider world, and that American Christianity’s voice in foreign affairs is not a uniquely Evangelical one. I highly recommend the volume.