Monday, January 27, 2014

Robert D. Woodberry: "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy"

Robert D. Woodberry
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In yesterday's blog entry, I noted Robert D. Woodberry's article, "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy," American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 2 May 2012). He seems to have proven his thesis, that stable modern democracies are significantly dependent upon the presence of independent Protestants who missionized various places around the world. I won't deal with his statistical data since I have no competence in that area; I will instead quote extensively from his paper in passages where he offers substantive reasons for why Protestant missions led to democracy. Here's his summary of the argument, which describes the role of nonstate, conversionary Protestants (CPs):
I discuss the following arguments in more detail in the history section, but in brief, CPs such as Protestant missionaries wanted people to be able to read the Bible in their own language and wanted to facilitate lay religious involvement. Thus, as CPs tried to spread their faith, they catalyzed mass education, mass printing, and civil society -- hampering elite attempts to monopolize these resources. Protestants themselves did not always provide the most educational, printing, and civil society resources, but Protestant initiatives spurred others to invest heavily in these areas and to pressure governments to create schools that restricted Protestant content. These resource transfers to non-elites helped alter the class structure, fostered the rise of political parties and nonviolent political movements, and facilitated broader political participation.

In addition, Nonconformists (i.e., non-state-supported Protestant denominations) historically suffered from discrimination and persecution by governments and state churches. Thus they fought for religious liberty and against state interference in civil society. In addition, both Evangelicals in state churches and Nonconformists wanted a "converted clergy." Thus in the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, CPs generally sided with Enlightenment elites against state churches and their conservative allies. When they lacked this religious support, Enlightenment elites had a small power base and typically set up either autocratic or unstable and illiberal democratic regimes.

Finally, nonstate missionaries moderated colonial abuses, particularly when abuses undermined conversions and in British colonies (where CPs had greater influence). To reach their religious goals, nonstate missionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anticolonial political organization, and facilitated peaceful decolonization. Of course, Protestant economic and political elites were as selfish as anyone else. Protestant slaveowners fought slave literacy, and Protestant settlers exploited indigenous people; however, when missionaries were financially independent of the state, of slaveowners, and of white settlers, missionaries undermined these elite co-religionists in ways that fostered democracy. (246a)
Woodberry's thesis is not entirely straightforward. The particular circumstances, as much as religious beliefs, shaped nonstate, conversionary Protestantism's activities. But the CPs did play a significant role:
Those who doubt the religious roots of democracy typically overemphasize its Athenian, Enlightenment, and Deist roots. However, religious factors are also important. Modern democracy differs greatly from Athenian democracy, and Enlightenment theorists incorporated many legal and institutional innovations from earlier religious movements. In fact, arguments for political pluralism, electoral reform, and limitations of state power were originally framed in religious terms.

For example, Calvinists tried to reconstruct states along "godly" lines and limit sinful human institutions. Perhaps as a result, most Enlightenment democratic theorists came from Calvinist families or had a Calvinist education, even if they were either not theologically orthodox or personally religious (e.g., John Locke, Rousseau, Hugo Grotius, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton), and they secularized ideas previously articulated by Calvinist theologians and jurists. For example, Hobbes' and Locke's social contracts are secular versions of Puritan and Nonconformist covenants, and Locke's ideas about the equality of all people are explicitly religious.

Although stated in secular form, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights derive most directly from earlier colonial covenants, compacts, and bills of rights that were generally justified explicitly in biblical and theological terms; many were written before Hobbes and Locke expounded their ideas. Only 7 of the 27 rights enumerated in the U.S. Bill of Rights can be traced to major English common law documents. Even between 1760 and 1805, political writings quoted the Bible more often than either Enlightenment or classical thinkers (34% versus 22% and 9%, respectively).

Furthermore, the strength of Calvinism and Non-conformism better predicts where democracy emerged than does the strength of Greek and Enlightenment influence. (248a)
I wonder if these numbers cover the substantive story that needs to be fleshed out. Perhaps the Bible was cited more because it held more authority for most people, not because it contained democratic ideas. In other words, secular and Enlightenment views may have 'borrowed' the cloak of religious authority to make their position more persuasive. This assumes, of course, that the Bible is vague enough -- on the political system it supports -- for democratic ideas to be read into the text. Nevertheless, the impact of CPs was real:
One mechanism through which CPs dispersed power was massively expanding access to printed material and news. Scholars often claim that printing and capitalism birthed the public sphere and that the public sphere in turn enabled democracy. CPs greatly accelerated the development of mass printing, newspapers, and the public sphere for several reasons. First, CPs changed people's ideas about who books were for. According to CPs, everyone needed access to "God's word" -- not just elites. Therefore, everyone needed to read, including women and the poor. Moreover, books had to be inexpensive and in language that was accessible to ordinary people, not in foreign languages or classical versions of local languages. Second, CPs expected lay people to make their own religious choices. They believed people are saved not through sacraments or group membership but by "true faith in God"; thus, each individual had to decide which faith to follow. CPs used printed material to try to convert people, which forced other groups to use such materials to compete for ordinary people’s allegiance. This competition helped give rise to mass printing. (249a)
The principle of free individual choice clearly played a huge role, sometimes by example:
CPs advocated mass literacy so that everyone could read the Bible and interpret it competently. Their attempt to convert people through education threatened other elites and spurred these elites to also invest in mass education. (251a)
These are all plausible explanations, but Christianity in general -- if we include Catholics and Orthodox -- would not seem, in itself, to be obviously conducive to the development of stable democracies. In fact, state-supported Protestantism seems to have been as nonconducive to the development of stable democracies as were Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Two things, I think, remain to be done: 1) detailing the ideological links between stable democracies and the religious beliefs of independent Protestants to show how these religious views supported the secular ones, and 2) explaining in detail how the democratic character of these religious beliefs arose within the context of a Western Christendom that had never been especially democratic. These are important for a bigger question that interests me, namely, whether or not Christianity, in general, was in some way more conducive to the emergence of modernity.

In other words, is there something about Christianity -- in contradistinction to, say, Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism -- that makes its democratic reinterpretation more easily accomplished?

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At 6:22 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

"...nonstate missionaries punished abusive colonial officials..."

Very interesting posts on a fascinating topic. That said, I'm having trouble imaging how the above might have been accomplished. In what way could missionaries have "punished" colonial officials? What authority to punish did those missionaries possess?

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Pardon me: imagining

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If you read the article (rather long), the punishment is mediated by public opinion in the missionaries' home country -- the missionaries reported what was happening to their home congregation, and those religious believers spoke out.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:13 AM, Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...


At 9:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That link doesn't seem to work -- not from my computer, anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Let me try to link.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:20 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

This is a theme in the Afterward to the International Authors edition of The Scarlet Letter, which can be viewed here:


Also, Professor Bernard Bailyn makes a related point in his book The ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Read a summary of Bailyn's related thesis here:

Sources for an American Idea of Revolution

In light of this material, it behooves us to look critically at the ideas Max Weber advances in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which is less of an analysis of the weaknesses of liberal/Lockean economics than it is an ideological spear-point for authoritarian technocratic hegemony.

At 5:37 AM, Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

Oops, thanks!

At 5:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, could you explain your point about Weber?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

TSI, you're welcome!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:42 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Explain my thesis or state it?

I think I have stated it plainly enough.

Explain it? Well, I take it as Q.E.D. That is, Weber is pretty clear himself on what he is up to.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I read Weber thirty years ago, so my memory is rusty, but what I recall from Protestant Ethic is that it was an analysis of the association of Protestantism with capitalism, not "an ideological spear-point for authoritarian technocratic hegemony."

In some of his other works, Weber analyzes "Instrumental Reason" as one form of rationality, but I didn't see him advocating it as a medium for organizing a totally regulated society. Indeed, he seemed worried by it.

However, I've not read Weber in a really long time, so I can't recall his points so well . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:52 PM, Blogger Sonic Pockets said...

Woodberry's statistical research and collection of data is fascinating. As people have mentioned, Weber - and more recently Deepak Lal - have argued in favour of varying cultures producing different economic and social results. It has, however, always been an ambivalent issue until now.

What Woodberry seems to be doing is putting figures and considered research to such claims and mobilising the support of modern information technology.

Woodberry's work may also find some evidence in the co-rising of of Protestantism and democracy in South Korea over the last 60 years.

Regardless of one's cosmological beliefs or how we perceive the ultimate, the differing effects religiosity can have in shaping society is an intriguing concept.

At 5:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, S.P. I've not read Lal, but this gives me an idea of his views.

Jeffery Hodges

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