August 16, 2004
The Missionary Position
Martin E. Marty
Correction 8/23: The reference provided for the Daedalus article in last Monday's column, "The Missionary Position" was incorrect. The correct reference is Daedalus Vol. 133 Issue 3.
"Strange bedfellows: Paul Wolfowitz and Hillary Clinton, Donald Rumsfeld and Michael Ignatieff, Thomas Friedman and William Safire" applauded the last State of the Union Address (2002) with its claim (paraphrased accurately here by anthropologist Richard A. Schweder) "that there are non-negotiable demands for the design of any decent society;" non-negotiable "because they are grounded in matters of fact concerning universal moral truths" and that they can be defined "in ways that are (a) substantial enough to allow the United States to lead the world ... in the direction of reform, and also (b) objective enough to avoid the hazards of cultural parochialism and ethnocentrism -- for, as [the President stated] We have no intention of imposing our culture."
Schweder, a former colleague and lively skeptical questioner, calls this triad "the missionary position." Advice: haste ye to the library and read his "George W. Bush and the Missionary Position" in Daedalus (Summer, 2004), as it would make an excellent charter for discussion in church, state, school, town hall, or Great Books Club. I'm serious. Reaction to the State of the Union's claims suggest a notable divide, "not between Left and Right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican" but "between those who embrace universalizing missionary efforts of either a religious (Christian, Islamic) or secular (human rights, international liberationist) sort -- and those who react to such missions with diffidence, doubt, distrust, indignation, and even fear."
Schweder, of course, is in the second group. For what it's worth, with Isaiah Berlin, I would be ready to say that there are absolutes, but that no one can be sufficiently sure of one's own grasp of any to impose them on societies. Schweder's analysis is so tightly packed that I cannot reproduce it here; he is not interested in promoting mere relativism. But he does show that past attempts -- I'd say every past attempt -- to live out, always by force (for states need force of arms or capital or clout), this "missionary position" has been shown in later times or by others to have been parochial, provincial, and culture-bound. Exhibit A: when the British took the missionary position in the 19th century, accepting "the white man's burden" to impose its civilization on a savage world. Schweder illustrates by referencing the different ways freedom of speech, freedom of religion, family privacy, and respect for women have been lived with, often creatively, beyond the scope of any missionary position and imposition.
My question, using his four illustrations: we "Bible believers" would be hard pressed, would we not, to find Old or New Testament or Christendom era (313-1776?) discoveries, claims, or supports for what the President called defenses of liberty and justice "because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere." All people? Ancient Israel? Early, medieval, or most "Reformation" Christianity? We had to borrow from the Enlightenment (1776, 1789) to find the right and true things that we have come to support.
One Christian "right and true and unchanging" virtue professed in the biblical tradition is humility. Even with Bob Dylan's phrase, "with God on our side," the "missionary position" always lacks that central motif.
Reference: Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume 153, No. 2, pp. 26-36. Schweder's essay is one of eight on "Progress."