Interpreting Christian missions as foreign policy is a meritorious hermeneutical strategy. This article traces how North American missiology has mirrored US foreign policy through seven historical eras, then concludes with reflections and potential perspectives on the topic of mission as the church’s “foreign policy.”
As the church conducts her mission in the world, the historical moment of each era inevitably shapes the missiology of each generation. The foreign policy of nation-states shapes the ideas and practices of Christian mission.
By using foreign policy as an interpretive framework of Christian mission, this essay explores how mission can be viewed as “Christian foreign policy.” After introductory remarks on the general relationship between foreign policy and Christian mission, a historical survey examines how North American Protestant missiology has mirrored US foreign policy.
Foreign policy is a course of action or set of principles which a national government adopts to define its relations with other countries or groups. This developed strategy sets forth the purpose and agenda of the insider’s relationship with the outsiders, outlining when, where, and how to engage others. A nation’s foreign policy identifies its goals, the basis of such objectives, and the instruments for accomplishing them.No country’s foreign policy is ever static but always evolving to satisfy the domestic interests of a country in an ever-changing global context and new administrations. The acceptable manners of conducting international relations develop with time.
Likewise, missiology is the church’s set of principles that define its relations with outsiders, thus outlining when, where, and how Christians are to interact with non-Christians. In light of foreign policy studies, we can study Christian mission as the church’s foreign policy. Although missiology necessarily transforms from era to era to meet the needs of a dynamic world, every generation identifies strategic objectives and means for Christian mission. Whether elaborated or not, this foreign policy of the church guides missional practices.
Missiology and foreign policy share commonality because each field must answer the same fundamental questions: Who are ‘we’ (the insiders)?, Who are ‘they’ (the outsiders)?, How should ‘we’ relate to ‘them’?, and Why should ‘we’ relate to ‘them’ in that particular way? As earnestly as Protestant mission practitioners desire to follow the biblical precedent in thought and action, the reality remains that each generation operates within a particular socio-political context that undoubtedly influences the aims, means, narratives, problems, solutions, and models of mission. We might expect that foreign policy would influence Christian subjects, considering the tremendous resources that governments expend to propagate nationalistic narratives and construct national identities.
In this article, I do not portray the Christian missionary movement as the naive servant of nationalistic and imperialistic agendas. Yet, the nationalistic objectives of the US government did nevertheless shape how the church viewed her missiological task, even though the motivation of most American missionaries was foremost spiritual and theological.This essay does not portray American Christian missions as extensions of the government but explores how the foreign policy of the US government cast a shadow over the theology and practice of American mission.
Interpreting Christian mission from the vantage point of foreign policy certainly includes limits. Firstly, any one theory is incapable of integrating all of the historical data into a comprehensive model. Not every mission impulse is related to foreign policies, and conversely, not all foreign policies shape mission approaches. Foreign policy is prominent in the contours of missiological models due to their unique similarities, but we must consider other cultural factors.A synthesis of topics as broad as foreign policy or mission will suffer from selective analysis and artificial harmonization. We should understand the relation between foreign policy and mission as more fluid and tacit than wooden and direct. Nevertheless, the historic mirroring of US foreign policy and North American Protestant missiology reflects one influence upon missions.
By holding the foreign policies and mission strategies of seven distinct eras in the same line of vision, I examine their similarities. My proposed title for each section encapsulates both the government’s and the church’s policy towards “foreign nations.”
Pioneering Westward (1790–1880)
During her first century, America was reluctant to act on the international stage, due partly to her limited powers as a newly birthed nation but also because of the great opportunities in the neighboring lands westward of the original colonies. George Washington outlined the earliest US foreign policy in his farewell address of 1796, when warning against involvement in political intrigues with foreign nations. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine warned European powers against interfering with nations of North and South America and implied the United States alone would complete the settlement of North America. During the mid-1800s, the rapid expansion of US territory through settlement of Native American lands guided the policy and captured the heart of young America. The concept of Manifest Destiny reflected the jingoistic belief that (white, European) America was commissioned by God to mediate divine blessings through settlement of the western frontier, just as Israel was to be exalted through the conquest of Canaan.The compass of God’s purposes for America pointed westward, not abroad.
This preoccupation with domestic opportunities and general disinterest in foreign affairs also characterized nineteenth-century Christian mission. As the American political borders expanded westward, the church followed in mission. The Congregationalists of New England formed state-based mission societies in the first decade of the 1800s “to Christianize the heathen of North America and promote Christian knowledge in the new settlements within the United States.”Soon after, other denominational mission boards (Presbyterians in 1816, Methodists and Episcopalians in 1820, Baptists in 1832) and Bible societies were founded to meet the specific needs of the frontier mission to European settlers and indigenous peoples. Since African slaves and Native Americans were the “foreigners” for early Protestant Americans, the North American church focused primarily on these home missions, in contrast with European missions that invested heavily in Europe’s African and Asian colonies during the nineteenth century.
Expanding Abroad (1880–1919)
Propelled by domestic needs, America stepped abroad with confidence and optimism around 1900. Reconstruction, westward expansion, industrial growth, and rapid urbanization wrought an American thirst for overseas markets. This forced the domestic-focused country to adopt expansionist policies. Influenced by Alfred Mahan’s vision for the US to become a naval power, Republicans expanded the concept of Manifest Destiny to include interests overseas.The acquisition of the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam in the Spanish-American War of 1898—America’s first significant foreign conflict—clearly established America’s ascending military power and imperialistic aims. Theodore Roosevelt (US President, 1901–1909) expanded America’s involvement in foreign affairs by meddling in Chinese markets, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Panamanian revolution. As superpowers often do, America began to view herself as “the primary agent of God’s meaningful activity in history” during the high imperial era.
The government’s expansion into foreign arenas opened new doors for missional opportunities overseas. Western Christians viewed the imperialistic gains of Protestant Britain and America as God’s means of paving the way for an era of great missionary success.The Missionary Review, The Gospel in All Lands), conferences (e.g., Northfield Conferences, the Ecumenical Missionary Conference) and sending agencies (e.g., Africa Inland Mission, CMA, and “faith missions”). As the primary mobilizer of American missions, the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) tapped into America’s youthful optimism and inflated confidence, reflected in their ambitious motto, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” However, the harsh realities of World War I (1914–1918) soon checked the overseas march of the American church and government.From 1880 to the climax of mission activity in the early 1920s, missionary personnel and financial giving increased seven-fold. By 1914, half of the 29,000 Protestant missionaries were from North America—a remarkable fact considering hardly any North Americans were involved in overseas missions just 100 years earlier. For both the US government and the American church in this period, “China had become the major American field and Latin America had been added to the earlier spheres of interest.” Supporting apparatuses sprouted in the late 1800s to facilitate this burgeoning missionary movement. These include: Bible institutes and missionary training schools (e.g., Moody, Gordon, Nyack, Biola), journals (e.g.,
Retreating to Isolationism (1920–1939)
In the period between the two World Wars (1918–1939), America retreated from foreign affairs.The rapid shift back to isolationism began when the Senate rebuffed Woodrow Wilson’s proposal for America’s membership in the League of Nations in 1920, thus absolving America of any foreign military commitment. America withdrew economically as well during the Great Depression; protectionism from foreign competition led to the highest tariffs in American history. As an implicit condemnation of America’s expansionistic foreign policy, the Neutrality Act of 1935 and other similar Congressional measures prevented future entanglement in foreign affairs by banning loans and sales of munitions to warring countries. Americans intentionally retreated from the international scene by actively resisting foreign relations.
For the North American church, the 1920s and ’30s represent a marked slump in mission activity. The resignation of Samuel Mott in 1920 during the SVM’s marked decline indicated the “Great Century”Laymen’s Report (1932) questioned previous missionary assumptions, motives, and methods. The American church began to doubt its missionary activity. The fretful years of the Great Depression increased ecclesiastical isolationism by restricting revenues for foreign missions.of Christian mission had concluded. The levels of involvement in foreign lands reached in the early 1920s would not be surpassed until after World War II. Missions (like the foreign policy of expansionism) were not only abrogated but also heavily criticized. For example, William Hocking’s influential
Spreading around the World (1940–1959)
World War II (1939–1945) and its aftermath established America as the world leader in global politics. A pragmatic approach to international relations pulled America into global affairs on multiple fronts: Russia, Western Europe, and the Pacific. Even after World War II concluded, American troops and weapons remained spread around the world for a protracted period under Truman’s “containment”—a policy of rearmament and collective security designed to avoid another war. The financial backing of the Greek monarchy fighting communist insurgents in 1947 marked the first time America had chosen to intervene in affairs outside of the Americas during a time of peaceand commenced the beginning of America’s global fight against communism. The onset of the Cold War years caused America’s foreign policy to become remarkably global in scope.
After World War II the American Protestant church experienced revitalization in terms of mission. Christian soldiers who encountered the world for the first time during their tours of duty returned overseas as missionaries. For example, former Air Corps pilots founded the Mission Aviation Fellowship in 1945. This revival was most prominent among post-war evangelicals, whose mission agencies proliferated to serve the burgeoning missionary force. The number of foreign missions from America doubled from 1935 to 1952 and would double again by 1970.Mainline churches in America invested resources in forming the World Council of Churches to coordinate global mission activity. The church’s renewed interest in foreign matters was part of the larger revival of domestic post-War religiosity—itself a bulwark against “godless Communism.”
Negotiating Polarized Agendas (1960–1989)
The 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s were decades of intense critique, confrontation, and turmoil in American society. Political leftists pushed for social reforms in response to hawkish Cold War policies. While the White House remained combative against threats of communism, university students protested against military conflicts and questioned the morality of a warring nation meddling in foreign affairs. The nation’s approach to international relations was polarized into “hawks” and “doves.”
Missiology during this period of social upheaval was likewise polarized into the contrasting approaches. The resurgence of conservative evangelicals continued, while mainline liberals invoked a moratorium on Western missionary activity.Missionaries from mainline denominations declined from being 34% of the North American Protestant Missionary personnel in 1960 to only 11% in 1980. On the other hand, evangelicals by 1973 “provided 66.5 percent of the funds and 85 percent of the personnel for American Protestant overseas missions.” In terms of mission education, Dana Robert notes how mission programs in mainline university-related seminaries virtually disintegrated in the 1970s as politically-active student bodies rejected the church’s mission legacy as imperialistic and exclusivistic. Meanwhile, evangelical seminaries such as Fuller, Trinity, and Asbury flourished. The polarization of ecumenical and evangelical mission agendas (social justice vs. evangelistic witness) in the 1960s and ’70s mirrored the schisms of America’s foreign policies. Conservatives remained intentional and even confrontational towards the “other,” and liberals questioned such engagement as imperialistic.
Meeting Global Needs (1990s)
The Clinton doctrine of “enlargement” of free-market democracies after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 defined America’s foreign policy along economic and humanitarian lines. Clinton (US President, 1992–2000) inaugurated a new period of economic globalization characterized by free trade agreements, open markets, and economic aid.Due to America’s dependence on global resources and markets in the new borderless economy, Wall Street rivaled the Pentagon as the heart of American’s foreign policy. America also increased its involvement in global issues such as the environment, human rights, arms reduction, poverty, and negotiations of peace processes. The American military became involved in humanitarian missions that did not involve American national interests, in places such as Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Ethiopia, and Kosovo. This altruistic foreign policy of the Clinton administration made America responsible for addressing humanity’s needs on a global scale.
Similarly, the church since the 1990s has given more attention to economic and humanitarian objectives, in contrast to propositional approaches. Acceptable forms of Christian mission now include business development, debt relief, legal justice, inter-religious dialogue, environmentalism, reconciliation, and AIDS treatment. The topics addressed in the 31 Lausanne Occasional Papers from the 2004 forum in Thailand illustrates how evangelical missions, which had rejected social forms of mission for most of the twentieth century, were incorporated into “holistic” approaches to address wide-ranging, global issues.
Islam vs. Globalization (2000–present)
Twenty-first century America has navigated the tension of two pulls: the desire for a multi-polar and international impact, and the intractable vortex of the Islamic Middle East. Affairs in the Muslim world hampered global ambitions. The attacks of 9/11 instantly reshaped American’s foreign policy and even its self-identity. The Bush Doctrine targeted global terrorism and the “Axis of Evil” (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea), which aided terrorists. The administration maintained a strong commitment to “nation-building.”But while Bush sought to promote democracy around the world, the “Global War on Terror” diverted most resources to the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama emerged as a popular resistor to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He sought to untangle America from the Middle East and “pivot towards Asia” to advance American’s political, economic, and climate interests in the growing Asia-Pacific.However, Obama could not escape the two wars he inherited, and then faced the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Syrian Civil War. Problems in the Middle East frustrated his internationalist program.
American Christianity in the twenty-first century likewise navigated the twin realities of globalization and Islam. Regarding the former, Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom (2002) noted the historic geographic shift of global Christianity towards the South and East. The new global mission had become “from everywhere to everywhere.” With this shift, mission conferences now gathered the international church. For example, Lausanne’s Cape Town 2010 hosted 4,500 people from 200 nations, garnering the title “Most Diverse Gathering Ever.” The church and her mission has become multipolar and polycentric. This has involved a de-centering of American mission efforts and partnering with Majority World leaders as equals.
America’s political and military engagements in the Middle East have attracted the church’s attention to the world of Islam. The encounter has been more conceptual than personal, as American Christians seek to comprehend Muslims. For example, the late Nabeel Qureshi produced several best-selling books about Islam,and the 2020 conference of the Evangelical Theological Society focused on “Christianity and Islam,” yet the amount of missional engagement (in terms of American Protestant workers residing in Muslim-majority countries) has remained stagnant.
This article refrains from analyzing the post-Obama era, as I may be too close historically to discern the impact of Trump’s isolationist doctrine of “America First.” However, the recent rise of global nationalism and aggressive populismreflects the intersection of national idealities and contemporary identities. Historical distance may reveal how such cultural currents are shaping contemporary missiology. I suspect Christian missiology will become further divided, as we see fault lines already emerging within evangelical approaches to justice and mission.
Conclusions and Implications
The modern missionary movement has commonly been portrayed in either (1) hagiographic terms of gospel bearers overcoming hardship to save souls or (2) critical terms as the religious arm of imperial powers bent on subduing foreign lands. In response to a Eurocentric interpretation of missions history, newer histories of mission examine how national populations in the global south adopted and adapted the message.creators of history (whether that history is interpreted positively or negatively) but also exist as the creations of history. By examining the relationship between governmental foreign policy and American Protestant mission trends, I offer a fresh historical hermeneutic approach. Juxtaposing American missiology and US foreign policies provides us insights to how American missiology of each era parallels the prevailing foreign policy.Yet, minimal historical scholarship has understood the Western missionary movement as the object being acted upon and influenced by other factors, such as foreign policy. Western missions are not merely the
So what is the precise relationship between foreign policy and missions? The link is best viewed as one of correlation likely derived from a common source—a shared worldview or national mythology. Both the interpretative ideologies of mission and foreign policy stem from a common national mythology shaped by notions of identity, otherness, purpose, and even notions of salvation. For Christian mission practitioners, foreign policy functions as a sort of mirror, in which the readily identifiable assumptions and values of state actors expose parallel tendencies in our missiological theory and practice. The above historical survey suggests the architects of American foreign policy and missiology drink from the same wells. Despite our pious intentions, we missioners today ought not locate ourselves as exceptions, as though we have escaped the magnetic pull of national narratives. Christians from all nations, to a certain degree, are beholden to socio-political influences. The relationship may even be one of indirect causation, as when outsized elements of foreign policy (e.g., America’s response to 9/11) sway national ideologies, which, in turn, shape the means and ends of Protestant missions.
We missioners must grapple with the meaning and significance of this relationship. In doing so, I suggest at least two important questions we must ask. Has the North American church adopted political ideas uncritically and lacked appropriate biblical reflection? When has the church redeemed the political currents of its generation in pursuit of her biblical mission to the world? Reflecting upon history’s meaning remains essential for God’s people in pursuit of her mission in the world.
To illustrate some potential benefits of the framework of this article, I observe some personal notes. Living abroad affords greater opportunities to interact with people from the US State Department. I have pursued these as a means of learning dialogue. During informal conversations with Peace Corp members or public lectures, I have observed their assumptions and approaches. This in turn has offered new light upon the theories and practices of my own “foreign policy.” In addition to personal interactions, I have found the magazines Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs to offer helpful analysis of global affairs and international policy. Mission practitioners, especially in sensitive contexts, often avoid associating with governmental ideas and actors. This is perhaps a response to historical moments when missions and government became too intertwined, such as nineteenth-century missionaries advancing European “civilization” or covert agents assuming religious identities. But despite such examples of historical co-opting, we ought not to distance ourselves from political institutions to maintain our illusions of distinction from their influences. In the end, missions and foreign policy both have the same aim—constructing and implementing an ideological narrative of the world.
Jayson Georges (PhD candidate, Durham University; MDiv, Talbot School of Theology) has lived in Asia for fourteen years. His publications include Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (IVP Academic, 2016) and the website .
1 For historical investigations into the relationship between mission and foreign policy, see William Imboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy: 1945–1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Robert Jewett, Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2008); Elliott Abrams, ed., The Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).
2 Frederic Pearson and J. Martin Rochester, International Relations (New York: Random House, 1984), 107.
3 R. Pierce Beaver, “Missionary Motivation through Three Centuries,” in Reinterpretation in American Church History, ed. Jerald C. Bauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 113–51.
4 Examples include philosophical discourses, technological advancements, social movements, artistic innovations, economic fluctuations, environmental changes, and political events.
5 Ezra Stiles, The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor: A Sermon (Hartford, CT: General Assembly, 1785).
6 For the religious nature of America’s westward expansion see Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1998), 113–62; Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 1995).
7 Article four of the constitution of the Missionary Society of Connecticut, cited in J. Herbert Kane, A Global View of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1971), 98.
8 Bradley J. Gundlach, “Early American Missions from the Revolution to the Civil War,” in The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions, eds. Martin Klauber and Scott Manetsch (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), 68.
9 Alfred Mahan, The Influence of Seapower upon History (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1890).
10 John Edwin Smylie, “National Ethos and the Church,” Theology Today 20, no. 3 (1963): 314.
11 Dana Robert, Occupy Until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 218.
12 Beaver, “Missionary Motivation,” 114–15.
13 John R. Mott, The Evangelization of the World in This Generation (New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1900).
14 To illustrate the radical pendulum shifting of American foreign policy, over 4.3 million American soldiers had been mobilized by 1918 for World War I. In 1939, “America had no entangling alliances and no American troops were stationed in any foreign country” (Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley, Rise to Globalism, 8th rev. ed., [New York: Penguin, 1997], ix). The personnel of American military forces surpassed 16 million people in 1945.
15 John Garraty and Mark Carnes, A Short History of the American Nation, 8th ed. (New York: Longman, 2001), 653.
16 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. 4, The Great Century, A.D. 1800–A.D. 1914 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941).
17 Ambrose and Brinkley, 83.
18 During this period, America became involved in each major region of the world: Latin America (Cuba and Nicaragua), Africa (Congo and Nigeria), the Middle East (Egypt and Palestine), East Asia (Korea and Vietnam), and Europe (Germany and the Balkans).
19 Robert Coote, “Twentieth-Century Shifts in the North American Protestant Missionary Community,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29, no. 1 (1998), 153.
20 Robert Mullin, “North America,” in A World History of Christianity, ed. Adrian Hastings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 451–52.
21 A leading figure of liberal missiology was J. C. Hoekendijk, who was suspicious of “churchism”—the assumption that mission occurred through the church. For more, see Bert Hoedemaker, “The Legacy of J. C. Hoekendijk,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 19, no. 4 (1995): 166–70.
22 North American Protestant Foreign Mission Agencies, 5th ed. (New York: Missionary Research Library, 1962), 119; Coote, “Twentieth-Century Shifts,” 153.
23 Gerald Anderson, “American Protestants in Pursuit of Mission: 1886–1986,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 12, no. 3 (1988): 111.
24 Dana Robert, “Mission Study at the University-Related Seminary,” Missiology 17, no. 2 (1989): 196–98.
25 Dietrich Werner, “Evangelism from a WCC Perspective,” International Review of Mission 96, nos. 382/383 (2007), 189–91.
26 For an analysis of the “Clinton Doctrine,” see James D. Boys, Clinton’s Grand Strategy: US Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War World (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015); William Hyland, Clinton’s World: Remaking American Foreign Policy (Westport, CN: Praeger Publishers, 1999).
27 David Claydon, ed., A New Vision, a New Heart, a Renewed Call: Lausanne Occasional Papers from the 2004 Forum of World Evangelization hosted by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, vols. 1–3 (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Press, 2004).
28 “Bush a Convert to Nation Building,” The Washington Times, April 7, 2008, . This remained a unilateral effort as his neoconservative appointments eschewed international collaboration.
29 Mark E. Manyin, et al., “Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalancing’ toward Asia,” Congressional Research Service, March 28, 2012, .
30 Peter Baker, “Obama Finds He Can’t Put Iraq War behind Him,” The New York Times, June 13, 2014, .
31 Ryan Lizza, “The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama’s Foreign Policy” The New Yorker, May 2, 2011, .
32 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
33 Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003).
34 John W. Kennedy, “The Most Diverse Gathering Ever,” Christianity Today, September 29, 2010, .
35 Allen Yeh, Polycentric Missiology: 21st-Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).
36 Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018); idem, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016); idem, No God but One: Allah or Jesus?: A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).
37 Yotam Margalit, “Economic Insecurity and the Causes of Populism, Reconsidered,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 33, no. 4 (2019): 152–70.
38 E.g., Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Philip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
39 Tobias Brandner, “Mission, Millennium, Politics,” Missiology 27, no. 3 (2009): 317–32. In the same issue of Missiology also appear two articles that are fine examples of analyzing paradigms of mission in their particular political milieu: John Hubers, “‘It is a Strange Thing’: The Millennial Blindness of Christopher Columbus,” 333–53; Alister Chapman “Evangelical International Relations in the Post-Colonial World,” 355–68.