Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Missionaries Create Democracy?

There's a long and interesting article at Christianity Today about the research conducted by sociologist Robert Woodberry into the correlation between the development of stable liberal democracies in developing nations and the work of missionaries there.
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.
While studying the Congo, Woodberry made one of his most dramatic early discoveries. Congo's colonial-era exploitation was well known: Colonists in both French and Belgian Congo had forced villagers to extract rubber from the jungle. As punishment for not complying, they burned down villages, castrated men, and cut off children's limbs. In French Congo, the atrocities passed without comment or protest, aside from one report in a Marxist newspaper in France. But in Belgian Congo, the abuses aroused the largest international protest movement since the abolition of slavery.

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.
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.

"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."
Like a mechanic taking apart an engine only to rebuild it, he had to counter his own theory in order to strengthen it. That meant controlling for a host of factors: climate, health, location, accessibility, natural resources, colonial power, disease prevalence, and half a dozen others. "My research assistants were entering all these variables, and the missions variable was amazingly robust," says Woodberry. "[The theory] kept on holding up. It was actually quite fun."

Fun, but hard to believe. Woodberry's results essentially suggested that 50 years' worth of research on the rise of democracy had overlooked the most important factor.
This is fascinating stuff. Though as a Catholic, one wrinkle stood out to me:
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."

For example, Mackenzie's campaign for Khama III was part of his 30-year effort to protect African land from white settlers. Mackenzie was not atypical. In China, missionaries worked to end the opium trade; in India, they fought to curtail abuses by landlords; in the West Indies and other colonies, they played key roles in building the abolition movement. Back home, their allies passed legislation that returned land to the native Xhosa people of South Africa and also protected tribes in New Zealand and Australia from being wiped out by settlers.

"I feel confident saying none of those movements would have happened without nonstate missionaries mobilizing them," says Woodberry. "Missionaries had a power base among ordinary people. They [were] the ones that transformed these movements into mass movements."

He notes that most missionaries didn't set out to be political activists. Locals associated Christianity with their colonial abusers, so in order to be effective at evangelizing, missionaries distanced themselves from the colonists. They campaigned against abuses for personal, practical reasons as well as humanitarian ones.
Whether this has to do with Catholicism itself or with cultural factors that shaped Protestant versus Catholic missionaries would be an interesting question. Woodberry suggests that it may have to do with Protestant tendencies, such as the desire to have all ordinary Bible read and interpret the bible for themselves. There's also arguably less of a hierarchical emphasis to Protestantism, such that it's probably no surprise that liberal democracy originates more in the Protestant world than the Catholic.


Mark Adams said...

I've felt for a while now that Catholicism does not seem to correlate very well with healthy polities and the rule of law -- at least as compared to Protestant nations. I bring this up in conservative/orthodox Catholic circles and it seems to be a rather unpopular position.

Jenny said...

This issue of functioning politics is one that has niggled me for years. If Catholicism is true (and I believe it is), why are countries with the most developed Catholic cultures disaster areas?

Cminor said...

Then again, Catholic missionaries like Las Casas in South America and Franciscans in California did much to prevent some of the abuses against the indigenous populations that were commonplace elsewhere. Not as impressive as creating a stable democracy, perhaps, but they weren't sitting around.

Cminor said...

Jenny, I wonder if the focus on eternal vs earthly life is a factor? That Calvinist tendency to view earthly success as a mark of elect status has often been credited for our American work and success ethics. It may have inspired these missionaries as well while others merely accepted evils as signs that the world was a vale of tears.

Banshee said...

There are plenty of stories of Catholic missionary friars, monks, priests, nuns, and laypeople who aren't religious who spread democratic ideas as well as Catholicism.

However, the vast majority of these Catholic folks ended up dead martyrs, and so did their converts. Presumably the good Lord has His reasons for this, and it's not as true in Korea (South Korea) as other places. But still -- dead martyr is the usual thing with democratic Catholic missions.

Banshee said...

The other reason, of course, is that your vast majority of Catholic missionaries used to hail from non-democratic countries, or from countries where democracy was only one among many noble political ideals.

Most of your Protestant faiths that this guy is counting are ones that were popular only in democratic countries, and often were relatively young versions of Christianity and/or were new movements from within older groups.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm friends with a Protestant who doesn't think that the poverty of Catholic countries is a mark against the religion because he also happens to think that certain races are naturally superior to others. I bring this up not to agree with him (because I don't), but to wonder why every time the issue comes up, people are happy to bash another religion but think it taboo to talk about race. Never mind that Catholic countries are significantly browner than Protestant ones. One conclusion seems as obvious as the other--or as offensive as the other, depending on how you look at it.

That aside, the whole issue reminds me of a great Nick Joaquin essay on Philippine history. He said that the reason any culture (whether it is a Catholic culture or a democratic culture) is able to take root in a new country is that those who bring it over also bring over media which the new country didn't have before. So when Filipinos learned new methods of agriculture, new techniques for cooking, new technology for traveling, and even a more efficient alphabet for writing from Spain, we couldn't help also becoming Catholic. (Compare that to Vietnam, which wasn't as thoroughly transformed by French missionaries because France gave it little that it didn't already have.) The two media which the Philippines didn't get from Spain were the radio and the public school. It was the Americans who brought those over, and when we adopted them, we couldn't help adopting the American democratic model as well.

I recently read about a Protestant minister's wife who spent a year in a remote village Afghanistan with her husband and helped start its first dental hygiene programme. The best medium is still the sanguis martyrorum, but if it's not readily available, I guess toothpaste will do the trick. And you can be sure that it's transmitting more than the Gospel. Missionaries should not underestimate the power of stuff.

Jenny said...

I do think Calvinism has something to do with it. After all, if you look good, you are good. Right?

What bothers me is a seeming blatant lack of personal ethics in government in Catholic countries. I would never dream of bribing an official. If a government official expected a bribe, it would be grounds to fire him and would perhaps start a corruption scandal and maybe he would end up in jail. It seems in other more Catholic countries, the bribe is an expected part of the exchange. Maybe this lack of bribery is a cultural trait of the English that I take for granted as a universal good. I don't know.

But where politician have to be bribed to follow the law, disasters normally ensue.

Darwin said...

One of the things I end up wondering about with these questions, too, is: To what extent to the political cultures and systems we see in Catholic countries reflect a Catholic approach to politics, and to what extent are they simply a result of which countries ended up, by the 19th century, still majority Catholic.