Amy Stambach. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. Volume 31, Issue 3. July 2010.
This article analyzes the ideals and principles that organize American evangelical Christians’ work in Africa. Based on field research conducted among a group of American restorationist missionaries working in Kenya and Tanzania, the author argues that the education-oriented work of these missionaries is paradoxically socially encompassing, yet excluding. Missionaries themselves anticipate that their educational programs will help to connect Africans with a global community and that by evangelizing quietly, through actions more so than through words, they can establish a sustainable church that has buy-in at the grassroots level. On the ground, however, these missionaries’ work is neither fully integrative nor well established. Yet globalization, indigeneity, grassroots-focus, and sustainability are powerful organizing tropes that carry these missionaries’ projects forward.
Popular images of American Christian missionaries working in Africa are polarized. The picture of compassionate clergy providing humanitarian aid contrasts with the image of the charismatic evangelist using entertainment media to preach fire and brimstone. Just below the surface of these images is another: the idea that Africans are poor, constrained by traditional beliefs and superstitions, and victims of corrupt government and policies. This sub-textual image implies a solution, not unlike those of more than a century ago: that education and religion will enlighten the blind, drive out false notions and old customs, and integrate Africa and Africans into a market economy.
Social science research has perpetuated these contrasting images by characterizing Christian evangelism as, on the one hand, ‘selling Jesus through popular culture’ (Steìnberg & Kincheloe) and ‘exporting’ American religion to poor Africans (Brouwer, Gifford, & Rose) and, on the other, a powerful instrument for quelling conflict and building global peace, as though a problem’s sometime cause, religion, could also be its solution (Cole; Marshall). Such arguments reinforce orthogonal media images of Christian evangelism as bad and good. They miss the creative tensions and contradictions that provide momentum for, and sometimes stymie, evangelical work in Africa and elsewhere.
Advances in thinking about Christian fundamentalism challenge us to consider how religious beliefs and practices embed tensions that generate contradictions and paradoxes. Crapanzano, for instance, spells out how a literalist mode of thinking in American evangelicalism pulls believers away from the cultural centre yet constitutes the logic of mainstream liberal democracy. Omri Elisha), studying faith-based activism in the state of Tennessee, notes that conservative Christians self-reflexively identify paradoxes in their own work and regard principles of compassion and accountability as dialectical and productive, not contradictory.
Understanding and unpacking evangelical logics of power is likewise central to Michael Apple’s analysis of American evangelicals. Building on Eric Hobsbawm’s examination of the rise of religious and market fundamentalisms, Apple (2006a) details the logic by which American conservative Christians join their own aspirations for recognition to liberatory social movements. He also identifies how such Christians interpret—and sometimes misinterpret (whether unwittingly, he notes, is not always clear)—principles of democratic inclusion on which such social movements rest. In examining the role of conservative evangelicals in shaping US education policy, Apple asks, ‘How does their language … highlight certain things as “real” problems while marginalizing others? What are the effects of the policies they have promoted?’ (2006a, pp. 9-10).
Such questions help us to consider how theologically and politically conservative Christians’ work is paradoxically freeing but also supports dominance, how it calls for a sense of social engagement but also keeps itself removed from the mainstreams of life. That these evangelical Christians see the school as a ‘mini-mission field’ and equate free enterprise with their rights to act more or less unilaterally, reinforces connections many make among family, markets, schools, and government. Families are naturally nuclear and gender-divided, many of these evangelicals argue. Mothers are best suited to nurture and teach; markets are masculinized arenas where natural laws of supply and demand distribute resources fairly and widely; and governments are—or ought to become—lean, efficient administrative machines that promote policies in support of individuals’ opportunities. Apple suggests that this quartet of interwoven ideals about family, markets, schools, and government informs conservative Christians’ evangelism around the world. This powerful suggestion calls for empirical investigation of similar evangelicals’ operations overseas.
Americans Abroad: ‘Unevangelical Evangelicals’
I will take as my example the case of one theologically conservative group of American missionaries who teach and work in Kenya and Tanzania. In view that there are approximately 700 American-funded Protestant organizations operating outside the USA (figures are from 2005; see Weber & Welliver, p. 11), it is important to underscore that the particular group about which I am writing is characterized by its restorationist aspirations. That is, members of these churches seek to recreate, or as they put it ‘to restore’, the original church on earth. Restoration, as one historian of these churches puts it (Hughes, p. xiii), is ‘an effort to model the contemporary church after the … church described in the New Testament or to reproduce the behavior and practices of the [earliest] Christians’. Practically speaking, members of the American Restorationist Churches recognize it is virtually impossible to return to the ways of the past, but their aspirations for authenticity and original simplicity are reflected in their decisions to renounce ecclesiasticism and church hierarchy and to not use instrumental music during worship.
With 22 full-time salaried missionaries working in Kenya in 2005, and five of the same in Tanzania that year, the particular evangelical group on which I focus here counts itself among the top 13 US Protestant ministries with 500 or more long-term missionaries working outside the USA (Weber & Welliver, pp. 24-25, 143). Seen from one angle, this is a specific group of networked American missionaries working in East Africa; seen from another, it is part of a worldwide evangelical organization of American Restorationist Churches that constitutes one of many American Protestant ministries working internationally.
In the mid-1960s, two missionaries sponsored by an American Restorationist congregation located in Memphis, Tennessee established new mission churches in Nairobi and western Kenya. In the mid-1990s, these missionaries’ successors from the states of Virginia and Indiana began to ‘sow and water’ (as missionary leaders say) new churches in northern Tanzania. In the 1960s, restorationist missionaries called themselves the ‘quiet evangelicals’ for reasons that they did not faith-heal or favour speaking in tongues, and by the turn of the century they began to call themselves ‘unevangelical evangelicals’ to indicate how they performed their mission work, namely calmly and methodically, in the course of conducting the ordinary business of everyday life. Restorationist Christians are not the fiery American Pentecostals about whom journalists often write (e.g., Barmak; Duin; Rosin). Nor are they the more theologically liberal mainline churches associated with Europe’s ‘civilizing mission’. American churches that sponsor these missionaries derive historically from the early nineteenth-century Stone-Campbell movement in the USA, a movement whose followers continue to frame their work as promoting truth and unity through a literalist reading of the Bible (Casey & Foster).
This particular group of restorationist or ‘unevangelical evangelicals’ working in East Africa began to capture the attention of Kenyan and Tanzanian governments in the late 1990s for reasons that their work moved increasingly into the public realm. After the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, missionaries from these churches provided counseling to American diplomats and East African personnel. In the early twenty-first century, they began to offer new English language programs for public school students and adult business people. Many of these American missionaries regarded independent East African governments as weak and unable to deliver basic social services to Africans. To remedy this, they sought to create a system of church-sponsored activities that, in the spirit of offering local communities sustainable choices beyond those delivered through state programs, provided Africans a parallel system of government that at times partly interfaced with the state and at other times worked independently. Missionaries thus began to work in public schools, health clinics, the media, and orphanages, and they carried out their projects in a manner that reflected the then-rising tenets of neo-liberalism: belief in the use of market-derived principles to improve and fund social services; the transfer of management models from the business sector into the public sector; and the development of public-private partnerships involving governmental agencies and private groups, including faith-based organizations.
Missionaries in this group anticipated that their work would ‘bring Africans into the global economy’ and that by evangelizing at the grassroots level without an elaborate church hierarchy, they could ‘cultivate the church’ in an ‘indigenous and sustainable way’ that would eventually lead to independent congregations and make their own missionary work irrelevant. This rationale of bringing good to the poor informed their recruitment on American Christian college campuses, where college students embraced the church’s vision of connecting Africans to a market economy. On the ground, however, these missionaries’ work was neither fully market-based (in the sense of championing competition and free enterprise), indigenous (in the sense of valorizing African beliefs and practices), grassroots (in the sense of involving many people at local levels), nor sustainable (in the sense of enabling African leadership to carry on without missionaries), yet these are powerful organizing tropes that carry their projects forward. Family, markets, schools, and government are closely connected to one another in missionaries’ conceptualizations, though never in fully stable ways. Their integration generates ‘structures of feeling’ (Williams; cf. Apple, p. 167) that provide participants with a sense of identity. By tapping into symbolically and emotionally laden topics that are key sites of social change—such as the division of labor within families; children’s education; health, marriage, and morality—missionaries’ projects work affectively on and through the body. Their work helps people to imagine themselves as being part of a larger collectivity, in this case of transnational Christianity.
Research and Rationale
The work described herein unfolded in the following way. In June 2002, I interviewed and observed American missionaries working in Tanzania, including in schools and marketplaces. I spent a portion of time the following spring (2003) observing non-denominational church services in the USA and interviewing American evangelicals, particularly students and faculty at Christian universities and colleges. In 2003, a research assistant conducted interviews in Kenya on my behalf, and in 2005, I conducted follow-up research in Nairobi (Kenya) and in northern Tanzania. Ethnographic evidence presented here thus spans three countries across nearly four years, and in a larger sense is informed by my longer-term experience working intermittently since the early 1990s in northern Tanzania (Stambach).
Ethically, I treated the participatory component of my field research—which involved attending Sunday services and occasionally translating from English to Kiswahili for missionaries—as an opportunity to understand how East Africans responded to missionaries’ public outreach. Through participation, I saw that many East Africans were polite toward the missionaries but did not fully engage with or take up these missionaries’ messages. missionaries’ control of texts and pedagogical materials (including art supplies and certificates) had the effect of resurfacing social relations without necessarily changing or transforming them. I argue elsewhere (Stambach) that East Africans engage in missionaries’ educational projects through local frameworks associated with cursing and blessing, with spirit mediumship, and with ideas of reciprocity associated with a regional complex known as cwezi-kubandwa (Berger; Doyle). Here my point is to highlight how American missionaries transpose and extend their own cultural schema onto a social landscape they only partly understand. In this regard, I find William Sewell’s vocabulary describing social structures as virtual and as memory traces that take on different degrees of value in different times and places (chap. 4, especially p. 129) to be useful for understanding that missionaries’ curricular programs are not structurally deep but are materially powerful.
My rationale for conducting extended field research across various locales is buttressed by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson’s discussion of ‘the field’ as ‘site, method, and location’ and from Ulf Hannerz’ theoretical discussions about multi-sited ethnography. Gupta and Ferguson argue that ethnography’s hallmark is less its history of situating research in specific geographic field sites than in understanding how ideas, issues, and cultural practices play out across sites of disparate power relations. Their argument is useful when studying linkages through which people seek to shape their worlds, and it lends itself to the development of what Hannerz and others (see especially Marcus) have described as multi-sited ethnography. Defined as field research that locates ‘the field’ in networks of social relationships that shift and move across space, multi-sited ethnographic research focuses on how various people and communities inter-relate. In studying a transnational movement such as these American evangelicals’ educational work in East Africa, then, I find is useful to adopt a multi-sited approach in tracing and following the exchange of ideas within and across locations.
In the following two sections, I introduce two projects undertaken by these missionaries in East Africa. The first is an English language program located at an under-funded public primary school located in northern Tanzania, in a bustling regional capital. The second is a ‘Marriage and Family in Africa’ course, taught at a Bible college located outside of Nairobi.
Tanzania: Students’ Art Portfolios
After an hour’s conversation in her office in which she detailed the value of missionaries’ English teaching, the Tanzanian head teacher of Musoma Primary School pulled from a cupboard some portfolios that the missionaries had helped Tanzanian students make. There, in a binder, were a dozen folders of students who had not taken portfolios home. The content of each revealed the Christian inflection of missionaries’ academic teaching. Indeed, American evangelical missionaries were aware that their work conveyed aspects of their faith. They described their form of teaching ‘the Jesus method of instruction’, by which they meant that they taught as Jesus did: by example, and in doing good. In making this comparison, however, the missionaries did not reference Jesus or use any lessons from the New Testament in their public school teaching, nor did they ask students directly to engage with questions about religion. Technically they were in harmony with the spirit of Tanzanian government rules, which stipulated that they not identify themselves as Christians but that they could use the Old Testament on grounds it was also read by Muslims. The Jesus method, missionaries hoped, created the conditions for religious engagement and conversion. It did not primarily involve the cognitive grasping of information about religion but introduced Old Testament stories’ basic points and created a space for Tanzanian students to inquire further.
The first item located at the top of each portfolio was a Certificate of Completion signed by the missionaries. To my surprise, the certificates described the English course as one administered by a ‘Christian Centre’, yet when I later asked if this was not a violation of their promise to remain religiously neutral, missionaries justified this self-identification on grounds that by the time students received this certificate, the English course was finished (a justification that belied their own sense of the temporality and conditions of their agreement to remain unidentified). In other words they were true to the letter but not to the spirit of their agreement that they not reveal their religious identity; and ironically, in this regard, they really did not act in good faith.
The second art object in students’ portfolios depicted the biblical creation story. Designed to teach numeracy and names of animals, the project consisted of drawing the events of the creation story along the four sides of a piece of construction paper. A second sheet was pasted over the first and included seven windows each opening to reveal the story’s days. Another art project likewise rendered a sacred text ordinary. Each student had made a mask of one of the animals preserved in Noah’s ark. In class, they had acted out the story of Noah and had sung songs about the flood.
In less overtly religious ways, though in measures that also rendered sacred texts ordinary, folders included a world map, a clock, and a picture of students’ families. The classroom lessons associated with each pertained to English words for countries, time, and relatives; and each again corresponded to Old Testament stories. Regarding maps, the lesson on geography was tied to the story of the fall of Jericho. The names of landmasses on students’ maps oriented the viewer to Europe and the Americas. Neither the Middle East nor Zanzibar (the island located off of the Tanzanian mainland that had been the mid-nineteenth-century seat of the Omani Sultan) was identified on students’ art projects.
Regarding time, students learned an American form of two 12-hour cycles, not the 24-hour English system that is widely used in Tanzania; nor the Arabic-derived Kiswahili system by which the American equivalent of seven o’clock a.m. or seven o’clock p.m. is saa moja or ‘one o’clock’ (so named for the first hour of the morning and evening). The face of the clock in each student’s portfolio was drawn on a paper plate—itself an artifact from the USA that missionaries had brought with them, along with other ‘art supplies’. The biblical lesson used for this subject was less directly tied to an Old Testament passage, but in the course of teaching about time, the missionaries spoke about time for prayer and personal reflection. The hours of prayer were not those of Muslims’ five-times daily but of morning, evening, and mealtime prayer—Christian orientations to the ritual.
Regarding relatives, students’ crayon drawings of families represented their nuclear, not extended, families—even though in many local households, other than two parents and their biological children resided together. Given the view that the nuclear family serves as the moral center for many American evangelicals, the art lesson about nuclear families was structured around a Christian sense of familial sociomorality. Most students drew pictures of fathers in suits and mothers in dresses and high-heeled shoes—attire that many Tanzanian as American families would associate with special occasions. Each student had labeled family members ‘mother, father, sister, brother, and me’ and signed their name at the bottom.
Interestingly, none whose folders remained in the cupboard had drawn themselves or their mothers with covered heads, even though a handful of Muslim girls at the school covered their heads during the school day and others had mothers who did so at home. Likewise, none had drawn more than one mother in their picture, even though some students’ fathers had second wives. Asked later whether any missing portfolios had included polygynous families, an American teacher said that even if students had begun to draw second wives, the missionaries would have discouraged it. Although not illegal in Tanzania, polygyny was considered by these missionaries to be immoral. New Testament teachings authorized only heterosexual monogamous marriages, and the family consisted of biological parents and their children—a model reflected in these portfolios.
The question of whether Muslim polygynous households were depicted is relevant in discussing this school. The East African Muslim Welfare Society had officially owned Musoma School prior to national independence. In the 1960s, the school was nationalized and began to be administered by the independent, officially secular government. In the late 1990s, however, in the context of growing policy calls for private re-investment in public sectors and for governmental cooperation with faith-based groups, some Muslims requested that the school be returned to Muslim ownership. This however did not happen and instead the school partnered with American missionaries.
Many Muslim parents appreciated the value of English internationally. They accepted the missionaries’ rationale that in order to get a job in the global economy Tanzanian students had to speak English fluently. And they agreed that the missionaries were filling a gap that the government did not provide: the language of instruction in public primary schools was Kiswahili, not English, and only families who could afford to send their children to expensive private academies had the luxury of ensuring that their children learn English. But many Muslims felt that missionaries’ manner of teaching was restrictive and that these American evangelicals did not adequately incorporate nor even acknowledge the practices and beliefs of Muslims. For, as Lamin Sanneh notes (1994), the practice of recreating religious forms is itself implicitly Christian: Islamic expressions seldom if ever translate religious texts into visual forms or everyday vernaculars.
Thus in using art to teach Old Testament stories to Tanzanian children, American missionaries sought to convey and shape a Christian identity through academic lessons. They embedded in English lessons a particular Christian way of representing the family and of depicting sacred texts. To be sure, these missionaries did not openly preach in this public school. They did not proselytize. But arguably they violated the spirit of neutrality in shaping students’ families as monogamous and nuclear, and in rendering as something ordinary the exceptional stories inscribed in Old Testament texts. Interviews and conversations with these missionaries suggest missionaries saw the acts of drawing a monogamous family, or of creating a 12-hour clock, as a means of Christianizing the students. ‘Our main goal is to get Tanzanian students to the point where they can recognize spoken English, where they can hear it, hear the way it’s supposed to sound, and start learning how to speak it’, said one American missionary. She went on to note that ‘another advantage to the program is that the kids will invite us to their homes and by doing that we can meet their parents and their families’ and that she and other missionaries had read John Dewey’s work and used it as a framework through which to structure students’ sense of self through meaningful activity. In both form and content, then, portfolios were designed to convey an aspect of a Christian subjectivity. Yet, as I describe toward the end of this piece, this is not exactly how East Africans engaged with Americans’ work.
Kenya: Health Education
Another natural reason to which these missionaries pointed in offering their services to East Africans was that their group provided effective guidance in family counseling and health education. This was a rationale I saw most clearly developed in the context of their work in Kenya. One of the resources developed and used by these missionaries to teach East Africans about health education was the text An Exciting Marriage: An Answer for AIDS (Fielden & Fielden). Published by American non-denominational missionaries working with a related Christian group in Kenya, the text includes sections titled ‘Marriage: What is it, What is it Not?’, ‘Some Facts about Family Planning’, and ‘Marriage is Not Polygamy’.
The text opens with a preface and introduction that frame the book’s contents in terms of ‘God’s plan’ and stresses that modern Christian marriage differs from tribal customs in Africa. Written for adults enrolled in courses taught at the Nairobi Bible College (NBC, a pseudonym), the book was intended to educate future East African teachers of primary and secondary school students; for one of the qualities that these missionaries looked for in hiring teachers into their programs was an ability to counsel younger children in Christian family ways. Toward that end, NBC offered General Education courses designed to raise the general standards of students’ lives. General courses included classes on study skills (‘prioritizing, listening, note-taking, library use’), public speaking (‘study and practice of basic skills necessary for effective public speaking’) and English (‘a three-hour course in college level English, with a focus on interactive listening, reading, and writing’). Also included were two courses ‘Marriage and Family in Africa’ and ‘Introduction to Christian Counseling’. The former examined ‘problems related to family planning, polygamy, divorce, and extended family relationships’. The latter contrasted Christian ministry to ‘secular psychology and practice’.
Explicitly, the Exciting Marriage text remarks that a Christian marriage is ‘one of the best protections against AIDS’, and it sets up this description against negative depictions of Muslim and traditional African practices, including polygyny and female circumcision. In a subsection on polygyny, for instance, the text connects ‘strife between the Arabs and the Jews that is still going on today’ to multiple wives: ‘Abram is described as a great man of faith in Hebrews 8:11 … [But] Abram was wrong in taking another wife’. In an East African context this statement refers to the ‘sins’ of Muslim polygynous marriage. The subsection also suggests that polygynous forms of traditional African marriage contravene the original intent and spirit of the New Testament. One subsection asserts: ‘In the beginning God intended for one man to have his one wife and that the two of them should be one. Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 19:4-6′ (emphasis in original).
In a chapter titled ‘What Men Should Know about Women’, female circumcision is denounced on grounds ‘it does not destroy the urges’ and, as a preventative to unfaithfulness, the text encourages students to think about marriage in terms of a partnership in business: ‘In every successful business there must be cooperation of partners. Marriage is the same. If you want your marriage to succeed, do your part and fulfill your half of the work.’ This business metaphor is extended in a passage that describes marriage as a contract. ‘Marriage is a legal and binding contract between a man and his wife. To break that contract by divorce angers God.’ Here, marriage is organized patrifocally (‘a man and his wife’—a formulation arguably in keeping with East African ideals of patrilineality) and authorized through church and law, themselves inseparable.
In conveying ideas about marriage and family, American evangelicals stress teaching by examples. Indeed, Teaching by Examples (Crowl) is the title of another text used at NBC. Given to all East African students enrolled at the college, the book ‘is designed to help teachers and evangelists train their students and listeners more effectively in the things of God’. The text is divided into three large chapters (Attitudes, Behaviours, and Faith) each of which includes a series of allegorical stories. One of the early stories given in the first chapter is about a new husband who successfully endures the tribulations of his wife who did not wish to marry him. The lesson concludes that an African family is built and grown through patience and perseverance—a lesson that is echoed in a third text used at NBC: Teaching in the African Church: What and How to Teach Today’s Christians (Beckloff & Beckloff).
Also emphasized in Teaching in the African Church is the theme of teaching through stories and by example, and the possibility of using family counseling and instruction to build a Christian community spanning nation-states. The goal of a Christian education, the text suggests, is to build a global community. The Bible is seen as the ultimate template for creating a common Christian world culture. Part 1 of the book examines how to reach people individually; Part 2 has to do with what to teach in the African church; and the last sections stress historical and contemporary connections between the West and Africa. Thus as with English language instruction in Tanzania—though arguably less insidious as a form of cultural interruption for reasons that NBC students expressly seek a Christian education—courses on marriage and family planning in Kenya framed these missionaries’ services as culturally universal, geographically global and institutionally interconnecting.
How are we to interpret these missionaries’ activities? What are the creative tensions that move their work forward? And how does this case of American missionaries teaching in East Africa pertain to the critical work that has been done on American evangelicalism?
Teaching Equals Preaching
To return to Apple’s articulation of the paradoxes of evangelical Christianity, it is not enough to look for the good and the bad in evangelical religious movements, nor enough to say that the lessons embedded in missionaries’ work are necessarily the lessons missionaries’ students learn. The connections that affectively link missionary-teachers and their students draw upon a promise of education to improve people’s material and spiritual lives. Indeed a fundamental interplay between the hopes and opportunities associated with schooling and salvation, on the one hand, and the perceived spiritual impoverishment of ‘unsaved people’, on the other, gives this American evangelical movement a degree of internal logic and social traction. For at the core of these evangelicals’ work are two connected conditions, one that they enter into an arena where there is real need for material and educational assistance (here HIV/AIDS education and English language instruction) and two that putatively secular institutions such as nation-state schools and health care programs can, and should, be infused with religious principles.
What I wish to add to Apple’s analysis is a qualification about the integration of markets and families. Apple argues (2006a, p. 172) that ‘corporate capitalism and the export of US culture are now overtly and without apology defined as among the highest expressions of God’s will’ and he suggests that the ‘unbridled expansion of such a market to all the world’s nations (and ultimately to schools as we have seen) is [in evangelicals’ conceptualizations] God’s will’. Yet as we see above the market is less a primary motivation or organizing metaphor for missionaries’ work than are evangelical visions of the family. Yes, these missionaries consider that the market is politically neutral, and they harness their work to it. (One missionary stated, ‘I should have been a salesman instead of a preacher.’) But the affective locus of their work is the family, specifically individuals’ reproductive health and social wellbeing.
In recognizing the centrality of the family we can grasp the manner in which missionaries’ work in East Africa is imbued with a neo-colonizing logic that seeks to reshape African students’ sense of belonging and community. Where critical work on evangelicalism in the USA insightfully identifies the discriminatory logics of race, class, and gender that are reproduced though evangelical preaching, I wish to point out here how these logics inform American evangelicals’ reproduction of older historical relations of power and dominance—particularly insofar as this neo-colonizing logic is identified, resisted, and in some cases, creatively reworked by many East Africans.
As noted, some Tanzanian primary school students had left their portfolios at school in a cupboard, forestalling any easy connection these missionaries had hoped to make between the school program and students’ families. East African parents—including some who worshipped with these missionaries—held complicated views of missionaries’ work. Some used connections with Americans to advance their own, and their children’s, education. One father (in Kenya) encouraged his son to travel to the state of Texas and ‘evangelize Americans’. In fact, this son, an assistant to these missionaries, later attended on scholarship a Christian college in the USA. Other East Africans who encountered these missionaries sometimes saw these Americans’ work as patronizing. ‘They come here and treat us like children, handing out money but giving us little control’, reported more than one Kenyan who worked with missionaries at NBC. Other Kenyan churchgoers likewise questioned missionaries’ approachto social problems. Some observed that to condemn a man for marrying more than one wife, or a person for contracting HIV/AIDS, would be tantamount in an East African context to cursing or castigating extended kin, and possibly even tantamount to shunning immediate parents or spouses. This form of social censure, some said, would lead to the greater destruction of families. For these Kenyans, like these missionaries, saw the family as a building block of global Christianity (albeit they had different ideas about families, borne of different cultural histories). However, these Kenyans differed from these missionaries in regarding marriage and family counseling more pluralistically.
In presenting themselves to their African interlocutors as outside experts who could improve Africans’ lives, American evangelicals reproduced the relations of inequality that were characteristic of twentieth-century colonialism. These Americans presented themselves as possessing the knowledge needed to lead African ‘others’ toward a better future and, in promulgating a binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in their teaching logics—a binary of ‘we Christians and those Muslims’ and of ‘the saved’ and ‘the unsaved’ which itself suggests a ‘horror of mixing’ as Apple refers to Americans’ racializing logics (2006a, p. 175)—these American missionaries transposed particularistic and even parochial American ideas of cultural discreteness onto their field sites in East Africa. They assumed Christians and Muslims do not share the same extended families (they do in some instances in East Africa), and they used the family to create mono-cultural, mono-religious entities that excluded cultural and religious others. In fact this focus on health and reproduction framed social identity in terms of biology; and the biologization of social identity, anthropologists remind us, is a form of racism.
Moreover, in setting up an expectation that the future will be better, these American evangelicals adopted a colonialist conceit that they can provide services and opportunities that move poor communities forward. This teleological vision of the good life—which in missionaries’ discourse is ‘salvation’—is not unlike the promise of development embedded in prescriptive governmental and international policies. Both differentiate the good from the bad and, unlike progressive forms, offer solutions through external agents.
Certainly, the functional logic of these American missionaries castigates colonialism, racism, and power hierarchies, but whether always intentional or not, the underlying logic of teaching religion by teaching English, or of averting health risks such as AIDS by promoting a particular kind of family, has the effect of embedding a cultural hegemony whose overt absence hides or erases its presence. This absent-presence of colonial sentiment moves the evangelical missionary project discursively forward. Ideas of belonging and exclusion validate individuals’ participation and give group membership meaning.
In sum, the work of these ‘un-evangelical’ evangelicals is paradoxically liberating yet excluding. This observation has implications for how we think about the nexus of religion and pedagogy, namely that it is never morally, politically, or ideologically neutral even thought it might operate superficially as such.