Our Protestant Modernity?

I was intrigued by a link on Twitter concerning a paper that was “sweeping” awards at the American Political Science Association conference this week, with the title The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy. Being quite the fan of sweeping counter-intuitive historical narratives, I read it and came away impressed. A summary quote reads:

Western modernity, in its current form, is profoundly shaped by religious factors, and although many aspects of this ‘modernity’ have been replicated in countries around the world, religion shaped what spread, where it spread, how it spread, and how it adapted to new contexts.

If I could sum up Woodberry’s thesis, his argument is that conversionary Protestants (CPs) were the unintentional agents of change in bringing about liberal democratic governance the world over. Just as a parasite can transform its host to be a better vector, CP missionaries changed the societies they entered and made it more “developed,” “modern,” and conducive to spreading their beliefs.

They were able to do this because protestant theology demands that the laity have direct access to the word of God. CPs went about changing the nature of literacy away from something that was the exclusive domain of the elite towards a skill for the masses. This was deeply political, as “religious beliefs that required everyone to have access to God’s word undermined the ability of elites to maintain large educational barriers between themselves and others.” CPs moved beyond basic literacy and into the massification of schooling, convincing colonial governments to cover expenses and expand as well. Their legacy today is such that, “societies that started the process of mass education earlier have more educational resources to facilitate future educational expansion.”

The bulk of the argument centers around politics, though. CPs were mostly outsiders and for their own survival and expansion, they demanded politically pluralistic policies:

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.

 CPs eventually became agents of change against colonial abuses, because abuses “made mission work more difficult because they angered indigenous people, turning them against Christianity, which many indigenous people associated with the colonizers.” Missionaries “regularly wrote to supporters in colonizing states,” eventually becoming the primary source of news from colonies, which in turn, “encouraged people to care about distant people they otherwise could have ignored.” 

What’s most interesting to me is how Woodberry describes this as interaction inside a complex system: Catholics and other religious organizations began doing the same thing to compete for, and prevent, conversion to Protestantism. In other words, it would be wrong to read his argument as saying that CPs carried certain traits into the world that then spread. Rather, liberal democracy and literacy was an emergent property 

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 the process, they also learned the art of political organization, which Woodberry contends other social movements like the Indian Congress Party directly learned from. The net effect is that today, “protestant missions explain about half the variation in democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania and make most of the variables that dominate current research statistically insignificant.”

For now, I find his math and reasoning solid. It will take some time to think through what the implications of this might mean. I’m not sure whether, and by how much, it compliments or complicates conventional and critical theories of development. I’m inclined to view his thesis through a critical, post-colonial lens:  Woodberry’s entire argument is that liberal democracies emerged from the self-interested calculations of exogenous actors intent on the transformation of – and disproportionate power over – local people, systems, and beliefs.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is that Woodberry was recently denied tenure in the University of Texas and has made an academic home at the National University of Singapore. Let that sink in for a moment… one of most intriguing ideas in social science this year came from an American who apparently found more academic freedom for his research in Singapore than the United States.

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