The missionary roots of liberal democracy

I had not known of this important piece.  From 2012, by Robert D. Woodberry, at the National University of Singapore:

This article demonstrates historically and statistically that conversionary Protestants (CPs) heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world. It argues that CPs were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely. Statistically, the historic prevalence of Protestant missionaries explains about half the variation in democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania and removes the impact of most variables that dominate current statistical research about democracy. The association between Protestant missions and democracy is consistent in different continents and subsamples, and it is robust to more than 50 controls and to instrumental variable analyses.

For the pointer I thank Ann Swidler.

Comments

How do you tease out cause-and-effect? Perhaps Protestant missionaries were drawn to successful countries? The idea that God favors prosperous countries more.

Bonus trivia: rice Christians, in SE Asia, common.

I think that alternative would require prophetic foreknowledge. It would be at least as interesting.

Right, I wonder if the real lesson here is if you're a modern independent country that used to be a colony, you'd rather have been colonized by the British than by the Spanish (or Belgians or Germans or French or Russians). They say that they controlled for 50 variables but their paper seems to spend a lot of time arguing for their thesis while paying much less attention to competing explanations. Plus there's the collinearity of Protestantism and British colonialism. (Maybe they addressed that somewhere in the paper, I merely skimmed it.)

I think there should be a distinction between settler-colonies like the US, Canada, or Australia where the original population was displaced and colonies in the Asian/African sense that are still populated predominantly by the original peoples. Latin American colonies are kind of in between as many of them have largely mixed European/indigenous populations.

British settler colonies have done well, but if we’re only looking at non-settler colonies, it’s not clear that being colonized by the British was better than being colonized by other colonial powers. In terms of which former empire’s non-settler colonies are doing the best today, I would argue it’s actually Japan—two of the three modern countries that are ex-Japanese colonies are fully developed democracies (Taiwan and South Korea) while the third (North Korea)‘s problems stem more from communism and US sanctions more than anything Japan did. Comparing more like-to-like countries, British colonies don’t really stand out as doing better. British Hong Kong is doing worse than Portuguese Macau, British-dominated East Africa does not seem to be doing noticeably better than French-dominated West Africa, and the largest British non-settler colony in India/Pakistan/Bangladesh has not done great. Even in Latin America, it’s hard to say that the few British non-settler colonies (Belize, Jamaica) are doing much better than many of their Spanish-colonized neighbors.

"In terms of which former empire’s non-settler colonies are doing the best today, I would argue it’s actually Japan—two of the three modern countries that are ex-Japanese colonies are fully developed democracies (Taiwan and South Korea) while the third (North Korea)‘s problems stem more from communism and US sanctions more than anything Japan did."

It was Ishirara's thesis.

"I would argue it’s actually Japan—two of the three modern countries that are ex-Japanese colonies are fully developed democracies (Taiwan and South Korea)"

Correlation is not causation.

They were under US protection and patronage for decades which gave them the space to develop. Japan had nothing to do with it.

Untrue

They built the infrastructure, schooling system, bureaucracy, eliminated opium use, and wiped out much of the persistent disease problems (malaria/cholera)

The Philippines were under US protection and patronage for decades longer--in fact, were a US colony for about the same amount of time that Japan held Korea and Taiwan. Yet the Philippines did not develop as well as Korea and Taiwan.

Pre-existing development culture also matters.

Combine that with the "shield of democracy".

I think there would be little residual positive Jap contribution after accounting for both those. Probably no useful "Japanese model" dividend.

Taiwan does fine, but so does HK, etc.

Ultimately the sample sizes, particularly for Japanese ex-colonies, are too small, and there are too many exogenous factors, to actually talk about this in any sensible way that can disentangle factors.

Null hypothesis seems to be that there is nothing clearly too good about being any particular brand of ex-colony that has much weight compared to pre-existing conditions, and how the Cold War shook out, and relative size/distance from dominating neighbours (e.g. not much bad in HK can be attributed to much other than the Chinese Communist Party, etc).

Certainly there is nothing that clearly gives any positive justification to Japan's militaristic rampage of early 20th century "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere".

A lot of the Protestant missions were from the US which was not in the formal colonial game in Africa or mainland Africa. Nor were the Americans alone, the protestant missionary at Rorke's Drift was Swedish for instance.

The other thing to remember is that the British subsumed all the other Protestant colonial empires to a huge degree. The New Sweden and New Netherlands ended up becoming British as did South Africa, Dutch Gold Coast (Ghana), and Sri Lanka.

The Danish West Indies became the US Virgin Islands.

One of your best.

Is there some way I can get email notification of your comments?

I’m not sure that’s very plausible; if anything missionaries seem to target poorer countries.

I think reverse causality is plausible, but I suspect more something like: countries that are more geographically accessible to missionaries, safer, and more ‘civilized’ (e.g. have a written language, have town’s primary even cities, agricultural rather than nomadic) are both more likely to draw a sustained missionary presence and to become wealthier.

This does not match with missionary history. American missionary societies focused primarily on large, often mobile native populations past the frontier and on establishing churches at the frontier. They continued this pattern with one set pushing deep into the interior and another focusing on the civilizing areas. Neither had a monopoly and their ideas about "good" territory were pretty diametrically opposed.

Further, if this reverse causation is indeed the case, why is not evident with the Roman Catholic or Oriental Orthodox missions? After all Portugal sent a lot of missionaries into exactly these sorts of places. Kongo, for instance, had a robust population with iron age agriculture. The place converted quickly and had extensive ties with Europe for centuries. Likewise, Zanzibar and Fernando Po had early Catholic Missions and not so great of outcomes. And, of course, French Africa had substantial Catholic missions yet not so great of outcomes.

Really a geographic reverse causation is pretty suspect. If the best places led the best missions, then the places that Portugal missionized should have done well as they picked the lowest hanging fruit. If it is about places in the 19th century, then we should see different outcomes for the French Catholic missions.

Ultimately the American and other Protestant missions really were different.

The big problem to me seems that seems a red flag is that the author, from a glance, uses "Missionaries per capita" and "% evangelized" as variables.

Well that generally would favour small populations, which would favour European cultural shift being overwhelming through sheer relative size and economic power.

I mean let's be real; this is probably saying that small, isolated cultures in the Pacific and Africa targeted by Europeans retained more democratic "forms".

This, by the way, is consistent with the observation that state history and time since agricultural transition correlates positively among world but negatively *within* regions with log GDP, as cited here by Pseudoerasmus (see- https://evonomics.com/pro-social-institutions-come/).

The more thinly developed regions where Protestant missionaries tended to go probably had less cultural resistance and less competing cultural forms of their own, and less tendency to close up to world trade, and less effect from Western European migration generally. They were the true "low hanging fruit", not the dense and well-populated coastal societies targeted by early Catholic missionaries.

I've read something to that effect before, a study out of Southern Seminary in Louisville I think. Interesting question (perhaps for a Conversation with Tyler): since China absorbed more American Protestant missionaries than anywhere else, does the Chinese state's effectiveness derive in part from its heritage as a missionary destination?

Yes. China's love for a big central government perhaps is a rational response to this evangelical Christian movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiping_Rebellion
(be sure to check out the "Legacy" section)

Good followup reporting on Woodberry's research here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html

Article is gated but nice lead paragraphs.

This is actually old thinking, that the Protestant world view of having an individual and direct relationship to got advanced the development of pluralism. I could dig out some of the research if I get enough votes for it.

*relationship to God*

Like that catchy pop song? Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus (1989)

One vote

What about Catholic missionaries?

I wonder if this will be read in classes on post-colonial studies.

Much of Spanish colonial expansion came during the Spanish Inquisition!

I will guess that most of these CPs who promoted democracy and economic development were Presbyterian. I've always appreciated the the novella A River Runs Through It, in which the narrator, Norman Maclean, attributes to his father, a Presbyterian minister, this wonderful observation: a Methodist is a Baptist who can read. Anyway, Presbyterians are the Enlightened Protestants, for those who don't understand that not all Protestants are the same. [An aside, I'm Episcopalean.]

Well, I was raised Lutheran. And my hobby horse is civic responsibility in a constitutional democracy.

That makes me a supporting anecdote.

You're a supporting anecdote showing why TDS is civic vice, not civic virtue.

“They called me mad. They called me insane. They called me looney. They were right!”

If you think this is okay, you don't understand civic responsibility in a constitutional democracy.

(Imagine, an "investigation" in which you specify your desired outcome, and lay out a big prize for providing it. The truth be damned.)

Or to put it really gently, civic responsibility in a constitutional democracy is low on your system of priorities.

The topic is “The missionary roots of liberal democracy”. Keep your mental illness out of the comment section please.

You’re edging closer and closer to prior_approval level conspiratorial derangement every day.

You guys have what is called a schtick. It has nothing to do with what is on or off topic, you just don't want to hear things embarrassing to your position.

Benny Lava gets it. "An individual and direct relationship to God" is tied to a belief in personal responsibility.

It is anti-shirking.

why do you say that? is Bolzonaro affecting de division of powers ? Everywhere I look is the atheistic left trying to do constitutional reforms in line with eliminating the division of powers (Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile) and justifying criminals as social victims or bringing every posible immigrant into these countries without controls of criminal records, and giving them free medicla attention, etc. All messures that debilitate democracy

What are you talking about? Protestantism is saving Brazil from the commies!

This type of post is not helping Mike. Or, maybe that's your angle?

It’s thiago, the only angle is performance art.

Or mental illness.

It's literally just a paid post. Ignore it. Mike is paying people to write these things on a bunch of platforms. Sincerely, not a conspiracy, that's what he's doing.

Serious question, though: who was paying Thiago to shill for Bolsonaro?

He was so unbelievably, indescribably bad at it. He went as far as to say that Brazilians spoke Spanish, but still the checks kept coming in.

And now Mini-Mike is hiring the same people? Yeesh.

It is not true at all! I was already reading this blog and I remember the incident pretty well. You are lying! He meant to say Brazil was the only Portuguese-speaking in South America and was surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries. He just misplaced the words Spanish and Portuguese. Do you think any person, no matter how uninformed would believe Brazil is not only a Spanish-speaking country, but the only one -- and surrounded by Portuguese-speaking countries? Do gou know any American who thinks America is being invaded by hordes of Portuguese-speaking Bolivians and Ecuadorians? Why are you such a liar? Do you have any sense of decency left? Any sense of decency left at all?!

Exactly! You tell him, “Kevin”!

(That will be $1.50, please, Mini Mike.)

Wrong way around. Mass education, mass printing and the spread of paper made CP possible, it allowed us to escape the literature monopoly. Even further back, Thomas Aquinas was basically the father of modern science. He was the first to predict that god drew little rectangles in the universe allowing Isaac Newton to create his calculus. Thomas philosophy dominated until around 1920 when small, indivisible things were discovered by some german guy.

Not simply Protestantism, John Knox’s Calvinist Scottish Protestantism. See: How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation reared Our World & Everything In It by Arthur Herman

There's a fairly simple test of the proposition that the comparison is essentially British vs the rest. When John Company ran India, Christian missionaries were frowned on and kept out as much as possible. Still, the Republic of India is a democracy. So the British approach probably matters more than bible-bashing.

Direct rule in India began in 1858 which is 30 years before Fashoda. India had substantial protestant missionary activity and in the latter 19th century saw groups come the US, Sweden, and many other countries. Frankly, India has one of the longer exposures to Protestant missions of al the non-settler colonies.

Surely the missions were trivial in number compared to the population?

Moreover the agitation for independence, and therefore the adoption of a democratic ambition, started less than half a century after direct rule started.

The fact is that neither John Company nor the British state had an interest in Christianising India. Very wise, too.

According Ghandhi, missionaries directly facilitated democratic agitation.

As far as the British interest in Christianizing India, you are wrong. The Charter Act 1833, for instance provided directly for provisions of bishops in India. Even back in 1813 Britain recognized a specific duty for missions and provided funding for that purpose.

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3314001

It argues that CPs were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely.

Is that the religious liberty that decapitated Charles 1 and made Irishmen homeless in their own land? Couldn't "mass education" also be called "mass indoctrination"? Mass printing and newspapers were the "smart phones" of that era. And they were meant to inform the colonialists, not their subjects. The voluntary organizations were composed of the colonialists and the colonial reforms meant the practices of millennia were to be abolished.

In North America the Protestant British did as much as they could to exterminate the original inhabitants.

"You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race. I should be very glad your scheme for hunting them down by dogs could take effect, but England is at too great a distance to think of that at present." Letter from Amherst to Swiss mercenary Henry Bouquet, 1763.

While Amherst, the heroic individual for whom Amherst College and the town of Amherst, Massachusetts are named, was unable to procure sufficient dogs to hunt native Americans, he was able to successfully organize the distribution of smallpox infected blankets among them in an early example of germ warfare.

The democracy thing carried over to the colonists themselves when the time arrived for secession. No vote was ever taken of the population and those that expressed misgivings were tarred and feathered and, if lucky, escaped to Canada, where even today their descendants live in abject totalitarian misery.

British Protestants attempted to impose the Line of Settlement to protect the natives (and the lucrative fur trade). American Protestants had been sending out missionaries to the natives since before the revolution, often with success.

American Protestants had been sending out missionaries to the natives since before the revolution, often with success.

The Protestant missionaries may well have been successful in their own terms, and perhaps yours, but the natives were successful only in losing their lives and property.

Christianized Natives, to this day, survived in greater numbers and retained title to more land. If you weight it by the desireability and proximity of their land to major settlement tracks this is an even stronger correlation.

A tautology. Since the natives that survived the colonial era (and later times) rejected their own religion for Christianity then its adoption must have enabled their survival.

"No need to put armour-plating on those engines or cockpits!"

1) The most advanced parts of the north - New England - were historically intensely Protestant, especially when the US was still developing. The south today is largely evangelical specifically, which is arguably a different creature from historical mainline Protestantism.

And 2) religiosity seems to have opposite correlations for rich and poor people. Christian religiosity correlates with success within, for example. poor block communities. I think there’s probably better evidence of causality for the positive association among poor people than the negative one among rich people. Rich people in general are probably less religious because they’re already more educated and what it; I doubt they would be less rich if they were just as well educated but still religious.

It is a Simpson's paradox.

Among those without a high school diploma, the religious are on average wealthier.
Among those with only a high school diploma, the religious are on average wealthier.
Among those without an undergraduate degree, the religious are on average wealthier.
Among those with only an undergraduate degree, the religious are on average wealthier.
Among those with only an undergraduate degree, the religious are on average wealthier.
Among those with a doctoral degree, the religious are on average wealthier.

We must either posit that the religious are inherently less prone to being educated, which runs counter to several thousand years of human history and all of modern history until at least 1950. Or we might posit that education changed somewhere around 1960 to make people exposed to it less religious.

The best model I have see is that irreligion is a vice and only the educated can afford to engage in it without substantial risk to their wellbeing.

I suspect that is an interaction between IQ (and/or perhaps Openess) and Conscientiousness:

a) higher IQ → higher academic qualification
b) higher Conscientiousness → higher academic qualification
c) higher IQ → less religious
d) higher Conscientiousness → more religious
e) higher Conscientiousness → more wealth (even controlling for academic qualifications)
f) higher academic qualification → more wealth (even controlling for Conscientiousness and IQ)

a) + c) is stronger than b) + d) (then, a negative association between religion and academic achievement), but d) + e) creates a positive association (at least controlling for academic achievement) between religion and wealth.

Note that I am NOT assuming a relation "g) higher IQ → more wealth (even controlling for academic qualifications)", but, even if g) exists, it is compatible with the results, if c) + g) is weaker than d) + e).

To resolve Sure's paradox, it be that religion used to help people gain education - church schools and whatnot, religious requirements for universities, etc - and now no longer does, and so the most mechanistic and critical thinkers tend to rise, and they tend not to be religious.

The loss of a religious filter, not an exposure to modern / university education effect.

We do not see c) in the historical data, where the Epicurean texts are not any more indicative of high IQ composition than the Hellenistic religious ones. Certainly going through history, we do not see a strong association with irreligion and IQ.

And, lest we forget, the world over Christians are more educated and intelligent that the irreligious (per global averages).

Irreligion really does look like a vice good. Those who consume it live shorter lives, ceteris paribus. They also are at increased risk of divorce, acquiring chronic disease, and suicide. And of course there is the fact that they are vastly more likely to lack robust social support systems. From a practical standpoint, irreligion is not that different than alcohol or weed.

@Miguel, though commenting on your theory, I wouldn't think of it in terms of personality traits.

Think of it as the information religion actually puts in your head. At the certain point of sophistication, the myths presented by a religious narrative ("The world was created in 7 days", "Man is in the image of god", "There was a vast, unified kingdom of the Hebrews", "Animal and plant life was created, and did not evolve") come to conflict with superior mechanistic and evolutionary models which lead to greater and greater understanding of reality.

At that point, holding the myth as true probably requires forgoing education, or believing that the myth is not literally true, which leads to a kind of odd "orthopraxy without orthodoxy" which is unsustainable.

Before that point, probably no conflict between religious belief and knowledge, but there certainly is, eventually, likely to be a "conflict thesis", and then religion and education begin to become disassociated.

Your theory makes no sense of the data. If holding the narrative of a holy book as literally true is maladaptive, then we should not see educated believers outperforming educated irreligious. Yet that is precisely what shows up in the data.

The people with inferior "understanding of reality" are outperforming those with a better one. Seems like an odd set of circumstances.

Generally, the people less in touch with "reality" tend to have worse outcomes, certainly psychotic patients have worse outcomes than other severe psychiatric illness patients. Why, exactly, would we expect that the group suffering from a reality distorting handicap would outperform?

You are conflating many things which make no sense to conflate.

E.g. "we can tell the religious had equal or higher IQ than the irreligious in ancient Greece from analysing texts", "psychiatric illness tracks understanding of reality", "income means religious people do better all things being equal" - all very tenuous if not absolutely bonkers.

The data is reasonably consistent. Religion is correlated with better health on most metrics as strongly as not smoking. In fact we have better data showing correlation with irreligion and poor health outcomes than we did with smoking and lung cancer back when the surgeon general first started warning folks.

So we come back to the problem. Ceteris paribus, religious folks earn more money and have better measured outcomes in life. Ceteris paribus, educated folks are less religious. A proposed explanation is that being educated now requires giving up religious beliefs that do not accurately represent reality.

Okay. Why, exactly, would we expect a two groups of people differing only in their ability to accurately understand the world to have different outcomes in things like life expectancy, closer matching of desired and achieved frequency of sexual intercourse, or income? Why would the less accurate group have better outcomes? What other types of less accurate beliefs correlate with superior outcomes (e.g. increased income)?

I can completely understand a correlation between education and a lack of literal religious beliefs; it just seems awfully odd that when holding level of education constant, even at the highest levels of education, the less accurate beliefs correlate more strongly with better outcomes.

You wanna cry?

"The most advanced parts of the north - New England - were historically intensely Protestant, especially when the US was still developing. The south today is largely evangelical specifically, which is arguably a different creature from historical mainline Protestantism."

But that distinction is anachronistic the further back in time you go. Today's "mainline Protestant" denominations were yesterday's evangelicals. New England protestants had their roots in non-conformist Calvinism, varieties of which continue to fuel evangelical movements today. The first Great Awakening also deeply influenced New England Protestantism.

+1 to what Ricardo says

It could be that French colonialists brought presidential systems and the British brought parliamentary systems. Parliamentary systems are generally better run than presidential.

Perhaps the correlation is more that protestant missionaries were also proselytizing their home system of Government as well as their religion? Most people still believe representative democracy is a just form of Government and even in older times people no one was out there pushing absolute monarchy as a good system. I.e Catholic missionaries were about saving your soul, protestations were about social reform as well. Case in point, abolishment of slavery was driven by protestations, same as anti suttee laws.

Maybe they just didn't bring Marxist and fascist ideas very much at all...

Which is to say the the legacy of European 19th century continental history (the experience of the French Revolution, and philosophical ideas of "dialectic" in which theses and countertheses are in combat and face a revolutionary denouement followed by complete change to a new paradigm) seems to be more disposed to Marxist and fascist revolution than the British experience, and I expect that at least some of this influenced Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, etc. colonies.

Former British colony Malaysia had to face a communist insurgency. Former British colony India had and still has communist insurgencies and even communist parties that sometimes hold power at the state level. And on the fascism side, former British colony Iraq's Ba'ath Party was arguably neo-fascist. I don't think there is anything special about continental European colonialism that made its subject people more attuned to Hegelian ideas.

I'm thinking a bit of "more vs less" rather than "Can be contradicted by a single example". It may still be wrong but you may need a big dataset of sort of independent events to try and move against it.

This was basic/common knowledge, at least until the education sector was "reformed" and democratized to become more "progressive" and less "western-centric".

What a tragedy someone has to write a paper to argue what was self evident to most. What's next? biological sex ain't real? Oh wait...

Exactly. The schools are too busy revising history to care about real events.

The separation of church and state is a key element, if not a necessary one, to facilitate liberal democracy.

Ever hear of Roger Williams?

The Libertarians have been and remain the main factor through the centuries, starting in historical times with their Lemos-Gil Libertario knights push-back against Arab Invaders in Covadonga. The towns of Lemos and Gilson gave women and all religions the vote in the 700's.

It's true Protestant and other religious moderates a have been associated with them, but they also took different tacks, like focusing on keeping Indian reservations in Latin America and given the very small number of actual Spanish colonizers. They birthed the US spreading the model of Rhode Island worldwide.

Their Operation Democracy created the UN and is presently developing libertarian rights and science constituencies in every country. Their aim is to spread the Bill of Rights to all nations anchored by local Libertarian -liberal parties.

Scholars ignore them--even purported 'libertarian scholars'-- because they then wouldn't have a lot to write about, would they?

IMHO as a libertarian since the '50's...

The Libertarians have been and remain the main factor through the centuries, starting in historical times with their Lemos-Gil Libertario knights push-back against Arab Invaders in Covadonga. The towns of Lemos and Gilson gave women and all religions the vote in the 700's.

It's true Protestant and other religious moderates a have been associated with them, but they also took different tacks, like focusing on keeping Indian reservations in Latin America and given the very small number of actual Spanish colonizers. They birthed the US spreading the model of Rhode Island worldwide.

Their Operation Democracy created the UN and is presently developing libertarian rights and science constituencies in every country. Their aim is to spread the Bill of Rights to all nations anchored by local Libertarian -liberal parties.

Scholars ignore them--even purported 'libertarian scholars'-- because they then wouldn't have a lot to write about, would they?

IMHO as a libertarian since the '50's...

Comments for this post are closed