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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Exporting the First Freedom


Event Recap

According to Martha Bayles, cultural critic and lecturer in the Boston College Honors Program, America’s image abroad has suffered mightily in recent decades. Speaking at the Boisi Center on March 10, Bayles discussed past and present trends in American cultural exportation. Although the quantity of contacts between the United States and the rest of the world has increased, the quality of these contacts has not. In fact, In fact, she said, foreigners’ esteem of the U.S. has diminished as a result of three major kinds of interaction: religious missionary work, study abroad programs, and American media.

While the number of American missionaries has increased, these trips are frequently being taken for short-term work, rather than life-long vocations. American missionaries are increasingly perceived as “gospel tourists” who bring paternalistic attitudes to local communities, said Bayles. Additionally, by sharing material affluence, such short term missionaries may actually subterfuge values of self-sustainment that long-term missionaries have built in underdeveloped countries.

Studying abroad has been another way Americans increasingly come into contact with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, Bayles noted, for some students such experiences have become an excuse for reckless behavior, as young Americans in foreign countries feel exempt from responsibility for their actions. Such behavior inevitably leaves negative impressions abroad.

Finally, Bayles pointed to the growing exportation of American popular culture since the end of the Cold War. Foreign box offices provide American film studios with twice the revenue of domestic box offices. While Americans usually recognize when films reflect or distort American popular culture, foreigners who know little of the U.S. cannot make that distinction. Pop culture frequently misrepresents religion in the U.S., for example, by omitting it entirely or portraying it as overly puritanical. As a result, Bayles, said, religious freedom and tolerance are given a bad name, and American credibility suffers even as we seek to engage in religious dialogue abroad.

Overall, Bayles said, Americans need to be more mindful of the United States’ image abroad. Failure to do so will have destructive consequences for dialogue and cooperation with other countries.