Maybe Modern Liberal Democracy Is a Side Effect of Protestantism

Maybe Modern Liberal Democracy Is a Side Effect of Protestantism April 15, 2020

democracy and ProtestantismThe Trump-era slogan of the Washington Post is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” But this cryptic maxim (is the Post issuing a prophetic warning or merely uttering an incantatory declaration?) raises its own questions. For example, if darkness kills democracy, what makes democracy live? And since democracies have historically been rare, how did we get to our current era, when democratic rule is so common (if threatened)? A research paper from 2012 makes the fascinating case that the seeds for modern democracy were laid, not by Athenian philosophers in the 4th century BCE, but by Protestant missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a controversial argument, sure. But an arsenal of data bolsters the case, suggesting that ideas – including beliefs and commitments – really can affect the concrete world of economics and politics.

The paper, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” appeared in the American Political Science Review and was, by academic standards, a smash hit. It won a number of major awards in the fields of sociology and political science, and has garnered a healthy number of citations (for a non-biology paper, anyway). The author, Robert D. Woodberry, assembled data from a wide variety of sources to test the statistical relationship between democratization and the historical presence of missionary Protestants – specifically, missionaries from non-established (non-state church) denominations, usually with an evangelical bent. (We’ll get back to why this matters shortly.) 

The idea that modern democracy and Protestantism are deeply connected isn’t new. The combination of individualism, self-discipline, and egalitarianism that characterized the Protestant Reformation had profound political consequences in Europe, both for good and ill. Calvinist traditions, in particular, were deeply skeptical of human rulers who claimed divine sponsorship. Reformed leaders (including John Calvin himself) tried to set up political institutions that, in theory, traded dangerous top-down models of rulership for more self-corrective, egalitarian models. Accordingly, as Woodberry points out, a disproportionate number of Enlightenment-era democratic theorists sprang up from Calvinist backgrounds, from John Locke to Ben Franklin. 

But even in Protestant countries with nominally non-Calvinist state churches – such as the Church of England – democracy seemed to somehow come fairly naturally. In fact, it was in the Anglophone world that modern democracy first sprang into full flower. Woodberry writes that 

stable democracy first emerged in Protestant Europe and British-settler colonies, and by World War I every independent, predominately Protestant country was a stable democracy – with the possible exception of Germany.…[By contrast,] democracy lagged in Catholic and Orthodox parts of Southern and Eastern Europe where Protestants had little influence. (Italics in the original.)

So Protestantism causes democracy, right? Well, maybe. European democracy developed amid a background of preexisting political, economic, and social conditions. Conceivably, the conditions that sparked democracy in some areas – but not others – also, for whatever reason, made the inhabitants of those areas more susceptible to Protestantism. For example, Germany wasn’t democratic at the outset of World War I, but it had (and still has) a very large Catholic population, particularly in the south – whereas Protestantism dominated in the north. The pre-Reformation growth of the Hanseatic League cities of Northern Europe – trading port cities that jealously defended their relative political independence and mercantile culture – may have disseminated commercialist, egalitarian values, both laying the groundwork for democratic transitions in northern regions and making the local people more receptive to the Protestant message. 

Casting a Wide Net

So Woodberry had to wrangle with a couple of questions: was the relationship between Protestantism and democracy really robust, or just an artifact of biased perceptions? If it was robust, did it merely reflect some common third variable (such as the growth of market societies) or could Protestantism actually cause democratization? To shed empirical light on these questions, Woodberry decided to expand the scope of his inquiry far beyond Europe, gathering historical data on regions across the world. These regions included both former colonies of European powers as well as places that had never been colonized, but may have received either Catholic or Protestant missionaries. 

Woodberry hypothesized that the historical presence of Protestant – but not Catholic – missionaries would be associated with the later development and stability of democracy in the non-European world, both in former colonies and in independent regions. One key reason was that  Protestants have historically strongly – and I mean strongly – emphasized and promoted literacy, education, and mass printing, for the simple reason that they wanted to encourage laypeople to read the Bible for themselves. Increased literacy and education in heavily Protestantized areas may, in turn, have subsequently encouraged democratic politics. 

In addition, historical records show that evangelical Protestants often also agitated for religious liberty in the regions where they set up missions. This activism wasn’t selfless, but sprang from practical reasons: evangelical missionaries themselves were, by definition, usually outside the officially sanctioned state churches of the colonizer nations. If they wanted to operate freely in foreign lands, they needed the freedom for non-established churches to act without fear of suppression. One unintended consequence may have been greater receptivity to democracy in the regions where they operated, because the inhabitants of such places had become accustomed to the cultural pluralism in which liberal democracy thrives.

Lest we paint Protestantism in too positive a light, Woodberry also points out that lots of Protestants have often also behaved in decidedly non-democratic or even anti-democratic ways. Countries heavily colonized by Dutch Calvinists have a spottier democratic record than other Protestant nations. Dutch Calvinists in South Africa were enthusiastic supporters of apartheid, while white Protestant settlers worldwide were often, er, less than magnanimous about the democratic rights of indigenous people. So maybe the supposed love affair between democracy and Protestantism isn’t so strong after all. It could all just be spurious. One good way to find out is to crunch some numbers.

The Study

In a sample of 142 countries around the world, Woodberry measured democracy using two well-known instruments. The first combines worldwide data on variables such as adult suffrage, existence of open and fair elections, support for civil liberties, and freedom of political opposition to generate a summed national democracy score ranging from 0 to 100. Woodberry used the mean score for each country from 1950 through 1994. The other combines different measures of autocracy and democracy to arrive at a score ranging from -10 (full hereditary monarchy) to +10 (full consolidated democracy) for each country between 1955 and 2007. Having two different scores for democracy enabled cross-checking to see whether any relationship between Protestantism and democracy was merely the result of a biased measure of democracy. 

Importantly, the 142-country sample excluded Europe and the big Anglophone countries (the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), because we already know that Protestantism and democracy go hand-in-hand in those areas. Eliminating these regions from the sample ensured that any correlation between Protestantism and democracy would be more likely to be genuine, since the analyses would be conservatively biased against Woodberry’s hypothesis. 

Using a wide variety of other historical and demographic sources, Woodberry then gathered data on a truly staggering variety of other, potentially relevant variables. These included the number of Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries per 10,000 local population in each area in the early 20th century, years of total exposure to Catholic and Protestant missionaries (how long each country had had missionaries living in it), the nationality of the colonizing nation, local GDP, precontact literacy rates, and high school enrollment rate in the late 20th century.

Because local climate might influence political outcomes (more temperate, hospitable places might be more amenable to democracy), he also took account of variables such as latitude, mean summer temperature, and annual precipitation, as well as whether countries were island or landlocked nations. Since urbanization is often conducive to democracy, he got measures of local urbanization and population density in the year 1500 – long before missionaries would have arrived, thus parsing out any effects of missionaries from the natural progression of urbanization and market-oriented values.

Crunching the numbers, Woodberry found that, as expected, countries previously colonized by Protestant powers (other than the Dutch) were more democratic in the late 20th century than those colonized by Catholic powers. Also in line with his predictions, countries that were islands, lay at higher latitudes, were proportionately less Muslim, and had no written language prior to colonization were also more democratic. But when variables related to Protestant missions were added to the model, the relationship between all of these variables and democracy completely evaporated. Modern levels of democracy were entirely a function of how long a region had been exposed to Protestant missions, how many missionaries lived there in the early 20th century, and what percent of the local population had been evangelized. This finding stayed the same when Woodberry added more climate- and environment-related variables to the model, too.

By contrast, the number of years any given region had been exposed to Catholic missionaries bore no relationship to 20th-century democratic success, nor did the number of foreign Catholic priests per capita in the 1920s. Even whether a country had been colonized by the British – a major predictor of democracy in the first model – was unimportant. This means that, while former British colonies strongly tended overall to be more democratic than other countries, those regions that were colonized by the British but not heavily evangelized by (usually nonconformist) Protestant missionaries were no more likely to become democratic than other societies. British colonization was simply a good proxy for Protestant missions, but it was the missions that had the real effect.

Letting Down the Time-Traveling Evangelists

If a DeLorean zipped these erstwhile colonial missionaries forward in time to the present, they might be flattered to learn about the profound impact their efforts had on their host societies. But they probably wouldn’t be as thrilled to learn that their democratizing influence was pretty much totally unrelated to whether they actually, you know, converted anybody to Protestantism. Countries where Protestant missionaries had a strong presence were more likely to subsequently become democratic even if the Christian message itself completely fizzled. So it wasn’t necessarily Christianity or Christian doctrine per se that had the democratic effect.

Rather, Woodberry points out, the influence came through often unintuitive secondary channels. In general, evangelistic Protestantism was simply a powerful force for the redistribution of power and the undermining of elite monopolies in the societies where it operated. In their enthusiasm for making Christian scriptures universally accessible, Protestant missionaries set up schools and printing presses and, where necessary, even invented written forms of local dialects so that their flocks could read the Bible in their own tongue. 

It’s hard to exaggerate the intensity of Protestant missionaries’ efforts to spread the written Gospel. In only three years between 1829 and 1831, the American Bible Society disseminated a million Bibles in a young United States that had only three million households. The first-ever newspapers in China, Korea, and Japan appeared thanks to Protestant missionaries or local converts, despite the fact that printing presses had been available in these countries (where the press was invented, after all) for centuries. In general, both in Europe and around the world, mass literacy grew up where the seeds of missionary Protestantism fell.

These mass-education and literacy efforts had the unavoidable side effect of making it more difficult for elites – both local and colonial – to control the dissemination of knowledge and narratives, so that the power to horde privileged information slipped out of elites’ hands. This democratization of learning was reinforced by Protestant missionaries’ odd habit of teaching women to read, too. A populace in which both men and women – including peasants and other non-elites – could read and exchange ideas was a populace in which the balance of power often shifted toward democratic rule. By contrast, Roman Catholic missionaries only invested heavily in education and literacy in areas where they were forced to compete with Protestant missionaries.

The Beginnings of Civil Society

And while European colonialism – including Christianization – is widely regarded today as unjust and oppressive, Protestant evangelists were also often at odds with their own nations when it came to colonial policies. They documented and agitated against colonial abuses of local peoples and demanded equal treatment under the law for natives, forcing colonial powers to cede rights for nonwhite natives – often against the wishes of European settlers. Of course, missionaries tended to only object to abuses that interfered with their proselytization efforts, while ignoring others. But the net effect was that, despite the Protestant missionaries’ ulterior motives, colonialism was often less destructive in areas where they operated.

If this sounds implausible, remember that the missionaries Woodberry was particularly interested in weren’t the state-sanctioned ones. Anglicans from England, Catholics from Portugal, Italy, or Spain, and Lutherans from northern Europe generally went along with the wishes of their colonial masters, who held the pursestrings for those churches. Instead, the missionaries with the most democratizing influence were religious nonconformists with no obligation to uphold the interests of the established state churches of Europe or the governments they were entwined with. 

Finally, Protestant missionaries also stimulated the growth of civil society: the non-governmental organizations, clubs, and advocacy groups that constitute the mediating institutions of a Tocquevillian democracy. Nonconformist and evangelical Protestants pioneered protest tools such as petitions and boycotts, allowing local inhabitants to develop political traditions of self-advocacy that dovetailed well with, and helped pave the way for, democratic ideals. In fact, according to Woodberry,

Nonconformist and Evangelical Protestants (i.e., CPs)* pioneered most of the nonviolent tactics and organizations – … boycotts, mass petitions, and signed pledges…Similarly, in India these new organizations and tactics crystallized in the 1920s and ‘30s. They were initiated by Protestant missionaries and copied by those reacting to them.

In other words, the robust tradition of nonviolent protest that has helped spread democracy in many places around the world – including India – owes a hefty debt to the organizational emphasis of independent Protestantism. But remember that this emphasis on local organizations wasn’t just a reflection of the goodness of the Protestant missionaries’ hearts. It was, in part, a natural outgrowth of a strategy for evangelism that emphasized competition for converts and lack of direct state support. This competitive religious economy built up tools and skills that turned out to be useful for democratic self-governance. Woodberry writes further:

Because they do not have the ability to tax their members, nonstate religious groups had to instill voluntarism and charity in their congregations to survive. In the process of running religious organizations, ordinary people (and especially women) gained habits, skills, and networks that they could use for other times of social movements. …Nonconformist religious groups also for the rights of organizations to function outside state control, partly as a way to defend themselves from discrimination and government interference.

Democracy Was’t Created Ex Nihilo

The point of Woodberry’s work isn’t to crow about the virtues of Protestantism. (Or at least it’s not the point of my writing about it.) It’s to point out that modern liberal democracy came from somewhere. It wasn’t inevitable. Its dissemination around the world resulted from historical contingencies. The story of liberal modernity, then, isn’t necessarily about the decline of religiosity and increasing secularism, but instead is about the export of a particular kind of religion from one region to the rest of the world.

In turn, the profound historical impact that Protestantism has exerted on nations dampens the credibility of historical materialism, or the claim that cultural change is always driven by brute economic factors. Marx famously claimed that all culture and values are downstream of economics and production. But Marxian historical materialism doesn’t come out looking good in Woodberry’s study. Instead, cultural factors – beliefs, worldviews, and religious commitments – turn out to be major engines, in and of themselves, for political and economic transformation. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Iron Curtain came down, it seemed that liberal democracy had triumphed decisively. Country after country transitioned away from autocracy and toward free elections and open societies. But in the past decade, the supremacy of the liberal democratic experiment has come under question. The specter of “democratic deconsolidation” has arisen as citizens of developed countries increasingly question the value of democracy. In the midst of this ferment, the origin story of the modern version of democracy is both bracing and informative. Democracy hasn’t thrived equally in all soils. It’s been especially resilient in former British colonies and in northwestern European countries with Protestant cultures. 

It’s not that other types of religions or countries can’t be democratic. Historically Catholic France often has a robust democracy, and so does Buddhist-Confucian South Korea, while largely Hindu India boasts the world’s largest democratic state. It’s just that democracy seems to have a leg up in areas where Protestantism – especially nonconformist missionary Protestantism – has had the greatest historical impact. 

The fact that this influence often worked through channels that had little to do with the religious goals of Protestant missionaries might be disappointing to evangelicals. But it does reinforce the fact that ideas – values, beliefs, passionate religious commitments – really can change history. Just not always in the ways that their advocates expect.


* CPs means “conversionary Protestants.” Sociologists are not known for what Hemingway called the “lyric facility of boyhood.”


Image by Robert Cheaib from Pixabay.


Edit (April 15, 2020): I found Woodberry’s work from someone who posted about it on Twitter, but I can’t remember who. If it was you, thanks.

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