Classic studies of globalization have talked a lot about the spread of U.S. culture and religion, dubbed with names like “McWorld” or “Pentecostal Americanism.” Yet strangely enough, few scholars paused to ask how U.S. Christians themselves make and imagine globalism. In the interdisciplinary field of U.S. religion, this pattern is starting to change thanks to innovative work on missions, diplomacy, and transnational migration. But this creates another gap: studies in this vein focus on people who travel—missionaries, statesmen, migrants or (in my own earlier work) tourists and pilgrims. The thing is that few Americans fall into these categories, at least not most of the time. Statistically speaking, about 70% of U.S. Americans have been outside of the country at some point in their lives, but that travel is irregular and largely limited to North America, the Caribbean, and Western Europe. So we are left with a question:
How do U.S. Christians imagine and experience globalism in conditions of relative immobility?
This book project responds by tracing two hundred years of U.S. Christian efforts to cultivate discourse, aesthetics, sensations, and embodied exercises related to the world as a whole. These efforts promote a state I sometimes shorthand as the absent/present, in which physically absent beings—divine ones, of course, but also humans far away—are rendered present in some capacity for a brief time, or at least that is the hope. Of course, any type of globalism takes shape within culturally specific contexts. With that in mind, I focus on one site in particular: child sponsorship programs. This fundraising model, which began in Protestant missions and spread to NGOs in the mid-twentieth century, is distinguished by how it requests a defined monthly amount for ongoing support of a child, with some promise of communication between donors and recipients.
Sponsorship offers an excellent vantage point from which to explore the production of Christian globalism since only about 1% of U.S. sponsors actually meet the child they support. Yet they participate in an enterprise that circulates billions of dollars and millions of letters and photos around the globe every year. It is arguably the most profitable private Christian fundraising tool today, while also expressing and championing some of Christianity’s “biggest world-making dreams and schemes.” (Tsing 2000).
This world-making—its hopes and limitations—is the subject of my study.