Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Missions Maligned

Western culture often associates missionaries with the imperialists who wanted to stamp out native cultures and the colonialists who economically exploited them. However, new research has exposed the fallacies of these stereotypes. 

Robert Woodberry, professor of sociology, University of Texas, has devoted the last 14 years to investigate why certain countries develop thriving democracies, while neighboring countries are failed states. Andrea Palpant Dilley writes that:
  • Woodberry already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, let nationalistic movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy. Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren’t just part of the picture. They were central to it. (Christianity Today, Jan/Feb 2014, 38)
To his amazement, Woodberry was discovering that a long denigrated ingredient was actually central to the creation of successful states – the missionary. He writes:
  • “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in non-governmental associations.” (39)
  • Pull out a map, says Woodberry, point to any lace where “conversionary Protestants” were active in the past, and you’ll typically find more printed books and more schools per capita. You’ll find too, that in Africa, the Middle East, and in parts of Asia, most of the early nationalists who led their countries to independence graduated from Protestant mission schools. (41)
Woodberry’s thesis has been gaining support. Philip Jenkins, professor of history, Baylor University, claims
  • “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up.”
Daniel Philpot, professor of political science and peace studies, Notre Dame, goes further:
  • “Why did some countries go democratic, while others went the route of theocracy or dictatorship… Conversionary Protestants are crucial to what makes the country democratic today… Not only is it another factor – it turns out to be the most important factor. It can’t be anything but startling for scholars of democracy.” (40)

Robin Grier, professor of economics, University of Oklahoma, confesses that although he is “not religious,” “Bob’s work…changed my views and caused me to rethink”:
  • “I think it’s the best work out there on religion and economic development… It’s incredibly sophisticated and well-grounded. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.” (40)
Well, how about those missionaries that had collaborated with the imperialists? Woodberry claims that these were the exceptions:
  • “We don’t have to deny that there were and are racist missionaries… But if that were the average effect, we would expect the places where missionaries had influence to be worse than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes. Even in places where few people converted, [missionaries] had a profound economic and political impact… One of the main stereotypes about missions is that they were closely connected to colonialism, but Protestant missionaries not funded by the state were regularly very critical of colonialism.” (40) 
It is noteworthy that it was only the Protestant missionaries who sought conversions that are associated with the growth of thriving democracies. Dilley writes: 
  • 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. (40)
Woodberry’s conclusions have received support from other studies. Dilley writes:
  • Over a dozen studies have confirmed Woodberry’s findings. The growing body of research is beginning to change the way scholars, aid works, and economists think about democracy and development. (41)
In view of the above, the long disparaged missionary deserves the recognition due him, even within the church.

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