Protestant Missions and Democracy?
Alice Seeley Harris / Panos Archives
Andrea Palpant Dilley, writing "The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries" (Christianity Today, January 8, 2014), has something of genuine significance to report on the unexpected findings of one contemporary scholar, a sociologist named Robert Woodberry:
One afternoon . . . [in graduate school, Woodberry] attended a required lecture . . . . by Kenneth A. Bollen, a UNC–Chapel Hill professor and one of the leading experts on measuring and tracking the spread of global democracy. Bollen remarked that he kept finding a significant statistical link between democracy and Protestantism. Someone needed to study the reason for the link, he said.Woodberry knew that he'd found his vocation:
Soon he found himself descending into the UNC–Chapel Hill archives in search of old data on religion. "I found an atlas [from 1925] of every missionary station in the world, with tons of data," says Woodberry with glee. He found data on the "number of schools, teachers, printing presses, hospitals, and doctors, and it referred in turn to earlier atlases. I thought, Wow, this is so huge. This is amazing" . . . . Woodberry set out to track down the evidence for Bollen's conjecture that Protestant religion and democracy were somehow related. He studied yellowed maps, spending months charting the longitude and latitude of former missionary stations. He traveled to Thailand and India to consult with local scholars, dug through archives in London, Edinburgh, and Serampore, India, and talked with church historians all over Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa.Not just a vocation, but a vacation, too -- albeit a working one -- and an important trip:
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 2001, he noticed something significant in pursuing these differences:
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.His advisor, Christian Smith, cautioned him:
"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.
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."His faith was strong, but he needed proof:
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 . . . . [He] created a statistical model that could test the connection between missionary work and the health of nations. He and a few research assistants spent two years coding data and refining their methods. They hoped to compute the lasting effect of missionaries, on average, worldwide . . . . One morning, in a windowless, dusty computer lab lit by florescent bulbs, Woodberry ran the first big test. After he finished prepping the statistical program on his computer, he clicked "Enter" and then leaned forward to read the results.But he wanted to be sure:
"I was shocked," says Woodberry . . . . "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."
Determined to be his own greatest skeptic, Woodberry started measuring alternative theories using a technique called two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis . . . . "[The theory] kept on holding up" . . . . Woodberry's results essentially suggested that 50 years' worth of research on the rise of democracy had overlooked the most important factor.And what do other scholars think of Woodberry's work:
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."Similar to Max Weber's thesis on Protestantism and capitalism, but much better grounded! My question is: "Why did Protestantism have this effect?"
Anyway, fascinating . . . to learn that Annie Lennox was wrong!