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The Humanities Conference 2003

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After the Missionaries: Cultural Responses to Globalization

Paul Harris.

Foreign missionaries could well be described as the original agents of cultural globalization. Their ambition was no less than the creation of a universal culture based on the values of Christianity as they had developed in Europe and America. It was a profoundly unrealistic ambition for a number of reasons.

Today, cultural forms of opposition to globalization vary radically between the North and the South and across the South. The two most visible and emblematic expressions of this opposition are anarchism in the North and Islamic fundamentalism in the South. The purpose of this presentation is to analyze them as symbolic rejections of the missionary project. This approach is useful because it sheds light on why cultural opposition to globalization takes such radically different forms in the North and the South. From this point of view, anarchism sets itself against the larger ambition of missionaries, while Islamic fundamentalism opposes their more limited effects.
The appeal of Islamic fundamentalism, by contrast, is rooted in indigenous revulsion to the much more limited effects of the missionary project in the South. Throughout much of the Islamic world, the impact of missionaries is notable less for the cultural values they raised up than for the ones they tore down. Missionaries were important early contributors to the waning confidence and coherence that has deeply destabilized traditional cultures around the world, but they lacked the means to replace those traditions with a coherent alternative. From the perspective of the South, then, missionaries are best understood as the advance guard for the profoundly unsettling effects of modernity.
Ultimately, each of these cultural forms is an unsatisfactory response to globalization, not least because they are so radically different from one another as to undermine the hope of a cross-cultural movement based on genuine international solidarity.


Paul Harris  (United States)
Professor and department chair
History Department
Minnesota State University Moorhead

I grew up in Rochester, New York, and attended the State University of New York at Binghamton and the University of Michigan, where I received my Ph.D. in American Culture in 1986. I was a Fulbright lecturer in Germany during 1984-85 and have taught U.S. social and intellectual history at MSU Moorhead since 1986. I am the author of Nothing but Christ: Rufus Anderson and the Ideology of Protestant Foreign Missions (Oxford, 1999).

  • Missionaries
  • Anarchism
  • Islamic fundamentalism

(30 min Conference Paper, English)