Via Q, an article from Christianity Today which demonstrates the link between the work of Christian missionaries and modern democracy.
The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries
‘This Is Why God Made Me’
Fourteen years ago, Woodberry was a graduate student in sociology at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (UNC). The son of J. Dudley Woodberry, a professor of Islamic studies and now a dean emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, started studying in UNC’s respected PhD program with one of its most influential figures, Christian Smith (now at the University of Notre Dame). But as Woodberry cast about for a fruitful line of research of his own, he grew discontented.
In essence, Woodberry was digging into one of the great enigmas of modern history: why some nations develop stable representative democracies—in which citizens enjoy the rights to vote, speak, and assemble freely—while neighboring countries suffer authoritarian rulers and internal conflict. Public health and economic growth can also differ dramatically from one country to another, even among countries that share similar geography, cultural background, and natural resources.In search of answers, Woodberry traveled to West Africa in 2001. Setting out one morning on a dusty road in Lomé, the capital of Togo, Woodberry headed for the University of Togo’s campus library. He found it sequestered in a 1960s-era building. The shelves held about half as many books as his personal collection. The most recent encyclopedia dated from 1977.
Down the road, the campus bookstore sold primarily pens and paper, not books.”Where do you buy your books?” Woodberry stopped to ask a student.”Oh, we don’t buy books,” he replied. “The professors read the texts out loud to us, and we transcribe.”Across the border, at the University of Ghana’s bookstore, Woodberry had seen floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with hundreds of books, including locally printed texts by local scholars. Why the stark contrast?The reason was clear: During the colonial era, British missionaries in Ghana had established a whole system of schools and printing presses. But France, the colonial power in Togo, severely restricted missionaries. The French authorities took interest in educating only a small intellectual elite. More than 100 years later, education was still limited in Togo. In Ghana, it was flourishing.
Like an Atomic Bomb
Those who know Woodberry can easily picture him there in West Africa—a tall, lanky man searching for answers with doggedness and precision. He might double as a film-noir private detective if you tossed a trench coat on his shoulders, turned up the collar, and sent him down a dark alleyway.”It was fun to watch his discovery process,” says Smith, who oversaw Woodberry’s dissertation committee. “He collected really rare, scattered evidence and pulled it together into a coherent data set. In one sense it was way too big for a doctoral student, but he was stubborn, independent, and meticulous.”What began to emerge was a consistent and controversial pattern—one that might damage Woodberry’s career, warned Smith. “I thought it was a great, daring project, but I advised [him] that lots of people wouldn’t like it if the story panned out,” Smith says. “For [him] to suggest that the missionary movement had this strong, positive influence on liberal democratization—you couldn’t think of a more unbelievable and offensive story to tell a lot of secular academics.”But the evidence kept coming.
Why the difference? Working on a hunch, Woodberry charted mission stations all across the Congo. Protestant missionaries, it turned out, were allowed only in the Belgian Congo. Among those missionaries were two British Baptists named John and Alice Harris who took photographs of the atrocities—including a now-famous picture of a father gazing at his daughter’s remains—and then smuggled the photographs out of the country. With evidence in hand, they traveled through the United States and Britain to stir up public pressure and, along with other missionaries, helped raise an outcry against the abuses.
To convince skeptics, however, Woodberry needed more than case studies. Anyone could find the occasional John and Alice Harris or John Mackenzie, discard the Nathan Prices, and assemble a pleasing mosaic. But Woodberry was equipped to do something no one else had done: to look at the long-term effect of missionaries using the wide-angle lens of statistical analysis.In his fifth year of graduate school, Woodberry created a statistical model that could test the connection between missionary work and the health of nations.
After he finished prepping the statistical program on his computer, he clicked “Enter” and then leaned forward to read the results.”I was shocked,” says Woodberry. “It was like an atomic bomb. The impact of missions on global democracy was huge. I kept adding variables to the model—factors that people had been studying and writing about for the past 40 years—and they all got wiped out. It was amazing. I knew, then, I was on to something really important.”
Cause or Correlation?
Woodberry already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy. Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren’t just part of the picture. They were central to it.”The results were so strong, they made me nervous,” says Woodberry. “I expected an effect, but I had not expected it to be that large or powerful. I thought, I better make sure this is real. I better be very careful.”
Three years later, Woodberry received half a million dollars from the foundation’s Spiritual Capital Project, hired almost 50 research assistants, and set up a huge database project at the University of Texas, where he had taken a position in the sociology department. The team spent years amassing more statistical data and doing more historical analyses, further confirming his theory. With these results and his dissertation research, Woodberry could now support a sweeping claim:
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.
In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple—if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.
Startling for Scholars
In spite of Smith’s concerns, Woodberry’s historical and statistical work has finally captured glowing attention. A summation of his 14 years of research—published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review, the discipline’s top journal—has won four major awards, including the prestigious Luebbert Article Award for best article in comparative politics. Its startling title: “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.””[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how ‘conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”
When Woodberry talks about his work, he sounds like a careful academic who doesn’t want to overstate his case. But you also pick up on his passion for setting the record straight.”We don’t have to deny that there were and are racist missionaries,” says Woodberry. “We don’t have to deny there were and are missionaries who do self-centered things. But if that were the average effect, we would expect the places where missionaries had influence to be worse than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes. Even in places where few people converted, [missionaries] had a profound economic and political impact.”
The Nations’ Educators
There is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to “conversionary Protestants.” Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in the areas where they worked.Independence from state control made a big difference. “One of the main stereotypes about missions is that they were closely connected to colonialism,” says Woodberry. “But Protestant missionaries not funded by the state were regularly very critical of colonialism.”
While missionaries came to colonial reform through the backdoor, mass literacy and mass education were more deliberate projects—the consequence of a Protestant vision that knocked down old hierarchies in the name of “the priesthood of all believers.” If all souls were equal before God, everyone would need to access the Bible in their own language. They would also need to know how to read.”They focused on teaching people to read,” says Dana Robert, director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University. “That sounds really basic, but if you look worldwide at poverty, literacy is the main thing that helps you rise out of poverty. Unless you have broad-based literacy, you can’t have democratic movements.”
Pull out a map, says Woodberry, point to any place where “conversionary Protestants” were active in the past, and you’ll typically find more printed books and more schools per capita. You’ll find, too, that in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, most of the early nationalists who led their countries to independence graduated from Protestant mission schools.”I’m not religious,” says Grier. “I never felt really comfortable with the idea of [mission work]; it seemed cringe-worthy. Then I read Bob’s work. I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. They left a long legacy. It changed my views and caused me to rethink.”
Sign of Greater Purposes
Skeptics remain, of course. In 2010, when Woodberry submitted his article to the American Political Science Review, the editors asked him to add case studies, run more regressions, and make all data and models public. For the article, he produced 192 pages of supporting material.”It’s a remarkable testament to his courage and endurance to get his work in a flagship journal,” says Philpott. “In order to make this article fly, he had to leave no stone unturned and anticipate every hypothesis. It’s an article whose thoroughness outpaces any I’ve seen.”But Bollen, whose talk prompted Woodberry’s initial research (and who later cochaired his dissertation committee), offers a word of caution. “It’s an excellent study. I don’t see any particular flaw, but it’s too bold to claim as an established fact. It’s a single study. We have to see if other people can replicate it or come up with other explanations.”