The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy

The May 2012 issue of the American Political Science Review includes a fascinating article by Robert D. Woodberry entitled, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.” The full article is behind a subscription wall, but here’s the abstract:

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


Over at The Anxious Bench, Phillip Jenkins comments:

Woodberry shows a strong correlation between Protestant missionary efforts and present-day democracy, and he successfully tackles any counter-claims suggesting that other features might be at work. Democracy did not just result from (for instance) successful economic development, rich natural resources, favorable climate conditions, or the successful planting of Western legal models: missions mattered crucially. He makes a bold case, and he fully justifies it, combining historical and sociological evidence in a sophisticated way. In fact, this article is a great example for anyone wanting to see how social science can and should be integrated into conventional historical approaches.

The conclusion demands attention: “A century ago Max Weber argued that Protestantism helped spur the rise of capitalism. Some of his causal mechanisms may be wrong, but his main intuition seems right: Religious beliefs and institutions matter. What we consider modernity was not the inevitable result of economic development, urbanization, industrialization, secularization, or the Enlightenment, but a far more contingent process profoundly shaped by activist religion.”

Conversely, we can make a negative argument, namely that the absence of “CP’s” and their missions contributed to the absence of democracy, or the failure of democratic models that originally seemed to be on the road to success


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