Christian Globalism: Bridging Distant Ties

Christian Globalism at Home: Child Sponsorship in the United States (Princeton, 2020) reveals how U.S. Christians engage in global connections through child sponsorship, without leaving home.

Hillary Kaell
Hillary Kaell
Volunteers in Atlanta, USA, at the 'Operation Christmas Child' center, organizing and packing boxes for global distribution to children during the holiday season. Photo by Dave.

Can one forge real relationships with faraway people and places? Is it possible to experience aspects of a global reality that exceeds an individual’s capacity for knowing?

Aspirations for global connection can be found in endeavors from humanitarianism to social media technologies, international law to ecological activism. They also feature prominently in many religions, including Christianity, the world’s largest religious group.

At its heart, Christianity insists on the possibility of global connection. This expectant hope arises from the belief in a single Creator who rules the world as a whole. “Christian globalism” is a variant—and, in the West, often the root—of what some scholars call “oneness” ideologies.

Exploring Christian Globalism

Christian Globalism at Home moves beyond this basic, if complex, theological concept to ask how ordinary Christians in the United States engage in global projects. This perspective is crucial because most studies of religion and globalization have looked at exceptional people who are on the move, such as migrants, tourists, missionaries, or statesmen. Yet even North Americans, who are wealthy by global standards, travel abroad infrequently, if they go at all. In other words, we can better understand religion’s relationship to globalization by examining the daily processes by which Christians forge a global self—without leaving home.

Sponsorship circulates billions of dollars and millions of letters and photos around the world every year.

The key contribution of Christian Globalism at Home is to more deeply examine the practical nature of how people create and sustain global aspirations in living rooms, church lobbies, and shopping malls. It clarifies the concrete spiritual labor involved, arguing forcefully against any assumption that ‘being global’ is an abstract quality that is natural to Christians or a “flow” of ideas, as posited by many classic theories of globalization.

To look at the matter more empirically, the book focuses on a case study: child sponsorship programs in the United States, a fundraising tool that is ubiquitous in global projects. At a basic level, sponsorship asks individuals or small groups for regular payments to support an individual abroad over an extended period. Today, it usually costs about $40 US a month.

There is also some aspect of communication between donors and recipients. Enormously successful in Western Europe, North America, and Australia, sponsorship circulates billions of dollars and millions of letters and photos around the world every year. It has had significant social and political ramifications in the places where it operates.

Tracing the Historical Roots

To understand sponsorship’s success, Christian Globalism at Home traces its roots. Most studies assume it started among humanitarians after the First World War, specifically in Save the Children, a UK-based organization that is still influential today. However, my research began with sponsorship’s basic configuration: the way it combined a one-to-one approach – one donor for one child– with a pattern of giving the same amount of money each month. Following the history of this method, rather than a particular organization, I was able to pull back and find its roots in Christianity.

Before sponsorship was adopted by governments and humanitarian organizations in the twentieth century, it evolved among Protestant charitable entrepreneurs in Europe. They combined models from corporate capitalism with new evangelical ideas about saving children.

From shareholding systems in early corporations, they adopted the idea of many people giving small amounts of money on a regular basis. It gave them the freedom to move away from a dependence on bequests and traditional Catholic institutions. New theological ideas also made it seem possible, and even imperative, that young children could be ‘saved’ by Christian strangers and dedicated to God.

Protestant missionaries set up the first large-scale child sponsorship programs in the colonies. North America’s first foreign missionaries arrived in India and Sri Lanka in 1812-1813 and, within two years, they set up a sponsorship plan to raise funds for their schools. It was a runaway success.After a century in Protestant missions, early humanitarian organizations adopted sponsorship too.

Christian Globalism at Home clarifies sponsorship’s roots, and thus the continued impact of Christian forms and assumptions even in activities that are rarely associated with religion.

The Red Cross and Near East Relief ran large sponsorship plans in the First World War, when Americans could “adopt” children from places such as France or Turkey. By the 1930s and 1940s, sponsorship was integrated into new non-governmental organizations, such as Save the Children, Foster Parents Plan, and Christian Children’s Fund.

After the Second World War, it became strongly associated with children in war-torn Korea, Japan, and China. Today, sponsors in wealthy countries support about 10 million children worldwide, largely in the global south. Many NGOs that use sponsorship are still Christian, including World Vision which is the largest such organization with over 3.8 million children.

Christian Globalism at Home clarifies sponsorship’s roots, and thus the continued impact of Christian forms and assumptions even in activities that are rarely associated with religion.

Connecting Intimately to a Global Community

The book’s other central aim is to examine how Christians at home connect to the global ‘elsewhere’ they are asked to support. Christian Globalism at Home makes the case that sponsors do so through an array of often embodied performative, aesthetic, and discursive techniques. It examines practices that are rarely included in studies of globalization, such as playacting, feasts and fasts, multisensory exhibits, online hymnody, and many more.

The result is a more complete portrait of U.S. Christians’ global imaginary, which examines how sponsors think about issues such as economic and racial justice or how they come to trust global charitable organizations. Better understanding this process is essential if we want to know why people invest in certain kinds of projects. Christian Globalism at Home covers two centuries of history and, not surprisingly, many things have changed. For example, ideas about race have changed enormously. So have financial systems that inculcate trust, such as government-run audits of charities. However, a few things have remained relatively constant.

The book traces a necessary interplay between immensity and intimacy.

First, “love” plays a key role in Christian globalism, as a feeling but also as a mode of connection that many sponsors perceive as God’s mechanism of linking human beings together, even across vast distances. I argue that love is a foundational concept that merged nineteenth-century sentimentalism with proto-humanitarianism, especially in women’s global projects.

Sponsorship has always been pitched primarily to female donors. Conceptually, love is also linked to how sponsors think about their bodies as vectors that can feel what they assume faraway people must also be feeling, such as hunger, fear, or joy. The human body, which they believe stems from one Divine source, is understood as a point of global connection.

A second constant is how absence, miscommunications, and gaps in knowledge emerge, not as a by-product of failed globalization, but as a constitutive part of global relations. Third, I found an overarching pattern that surprised me. I expected that globally-minded Christians would focus on an intimate one-to-one connection with a child abroad. Previous studies of globalization stated that ordinary people are easily overwhelmed by the immensity of poverty or disasters, which leads them to lose interest in global projects.

 Thus, the key to sponsorship’s success was its ability to steer clear of ‘immensity’ and focus on a single individual. While this assertion is not entirely untrue, I found that Christians also cultivate immensity to feel more connected to God’s global presence and the fate of the world as a whole. Sponsors often hone practices that oscillate between sensory experiences of immensity (a God’s eye view) and the intimacy of human relations (the ‘one’ child). So, fundamentally, the book traces a necessary interplay between immensity and intimacy.

Redefining Global Engagement

Christian Globalism at Home asks why donors make investments in places or people faraway, arguing that we need to consider the imaginative sphere along with the tangible movement of money, people, or infrastructure.

Importantly, it refuses the idea that “being global” is natural for Christians, as is often implied in studies that trumpet how rapidly Christianity is spreading or how much money Western Christians donate abroad.

These studies look at global commitments in the rearview mirror once they have already been forged. Christian Globalism at Home makes the case for examining ‘being global’ as a set of practices that Christians cultivate on an ongoing basis.

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Ph.D., Harvard University. Associate Professor of Anthropology and Religion at McGill University, Canada, holding the William Dawson Chair. She edited 'Everyday Sacred: Religion in Contemporary Quebec' (2017) and authored 'Christian Globalism at Home: Child Sponsorship in the United States' (2020), which won the 2021 Schaff Prize. She also leads TERA (Technology, Ecology, Religion, Art), a collective of scholars and artists.