Curtis, “Holy Humanitarians”

9780674737365-lgA Protestant earnestness has characterized America’s relationship with the outside world from the beginning. Protecting Christian missionaries, and their schools and hospitals, was a key factor in America’s policy towards China in the late 19th century, for example, and President McKinley said it was necessary for America to take control of the Philippines in order to Christianize the population. American leaders wouldn’t talk that way today, of course. But a missionary impulse to do good works in the world is still very much a part of America’s self-image.

An interesting-looking new book from Harvard, Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, discusses the historical link between American nationalism and humanitarian aid campaigns. The author is Tufts University religion professor Heather Curtis. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

On May 10, 1900, an enthusiastic Brooklyn crowd bid farewell to the Quito. The ship sailed for famine-stricken Bombay, carrying both tangible relief—thousands of tons of corn and seeds—and “a tender message of love and sympathy from God’s children on this side of the globe to those on the other.” The Quito may never have gotten under way without support from the era’s most influential religious newspaper, the Christian Herald, which urged its American readers to alleviate poverty and suffering abroad and at home.

In Holy HumanitariansHeather D. Curtisargues that evangelical media campaigns transformed how Americans responded to domestic crises and foreign disasters during a pivotal period for the nation. Through graphic reporting and the emerging medium of photography, evangelical publishers fostered a tremendously popular movement of faith-based aid that rivaled the achievements of competing agencies like the American Red Cross. By maintaining that the United States was divinely ordained to help the world’s oppressed and needy, the Christian Herald linked humanitarian assistance with American nationalism at a time when the country was stepping onto the global stage. Social reform, missionary activity, disaster relief, and economic and military expansion could all be understood as integral features of Christian charity.

Drawing on rigorous archival research, Curtis lays bare the theological motivations, social forces, cultural assumptions, business calculations, and political dynamics that shaped America’s ambivalent embrace of evangelical philanthropy. In the process she uncovers the seeds of today’s heated debates over the politics of poverty relief and international aid.

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