Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Missionaries, Democracy, and Political Culture

David Koyzis


By David Koyzis

February 21, 2014

Missionaries are out of fashion these days, especially in the more secular Western societies. The negative stereotypes often find their way into film. The 1991 drama At Play in the Fields of the Lord tells the story of naïve young American missionaries sent to evangelize an aboriginal community in the Amazon jungle of Brazil, with tragic consequences for everyone. As one of the characters in the film puts it, “The Lord made Indians the way they are. Who are you people to make them different?”

Perhaps missionaries are cultural imperialists, imposing the culturally specific ways of the sending country on others to their detriment. Yet what if it turns out that, in bringing the life-giving message of salvation in Jesus Christ to unbelievers, missionaries were inadvertent catalysts of progressive change in those very countries where they ministered? This is precisely the conclusion of sociologist Robert D. Woodberry's research in his 2012 article in the American Political Science Review, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.” Christianity Today reported on Woodberry's research in a major story in January of this year.

It is common knowledge that constitutional democracy thrives in some countries and not in others. Explanations vary for this difference, but Woodberry was astonished to discover that those countries receiving “conversionary Protestant” missionaries (as opposed to those sent by state-established churches) were more likely to have functioning political, economic, and educational institutions than their neighbors lacking such missionaries. And the effect was not insignificant; the evidence showed that the missionary impact was hugely positive.

For example, Ghana was one of the first African countries to gain independence in 1957. Although the country underwent periods of military government in the ensuing decades, it is now a relatively stable democracy. British missionaries to what was then called the Gold Coast established a network of schools that would become the backbone of the country’s educational system. By contrast, the adjacent Togolese Republic to the east, administered by France between the First World War and 1960, is more disadvantaged. During those four decades, French colonial authorities prohibited protestant missionary activity.

Missionaries were also active in agitating for protections for native populations from the colonial governments. Protestant missionaries in the spectacularly misnamed Congo Free State called the world’s attention to the atrocities occurring there under Belgian King Leopold II, compelling the government in Brussels to intervene in 1908. By contrast, the adjacent French Congo experienced similar abuses, but there were no missionaries there to alert the world and push for reform.

Woodberry’s research adds to the growing literature on political culture, including that of Robert Putnam, whose fascinating research on the Italian regions illuminates the political and economic differences between north and south. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba’s pioneering work half a century ago demonstrated the connection between political culture and the functionality of political institutions in five countries.

What is this connection? Basically, what people believe makes a difference in their shared life together. Political culture encompasses intangible attitudes towards a variety of phenomena, including the nature of authority, political participation, desirable leadership traits, freedom, justice, fairness in market exchanges, and the rule of law. Where people are part of a culture characterized by low levels of interpersonal trust, cooperative enterprises of all kinds become impossible, poverty persists, and the legal system tends to be skewed in favor of the rich and powerful.

Most significantly, if people believe they are answerable to a God who has acted in history to save them, this will condition their common lives in fundamental ways. Hunger to know the Word of God will lead to an emphasis on mass literacy and education, as it did in sixteenth-century Europe and, more recently, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. A belief that human beings are created in God’s image, along with the associated Reformation belief in the priesthood of all believers, will tend to produce participatory polities in which active citizenship counts for a great deal.

In At Play in the Fields of the Lord, the missionaries inadvertently bring untimely death to the Amazonian Indians. In the real world, missionaries seeking to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission brought tangible benefits to many people throughout the world. We can thank God that their positive legacy continues to bear fruit today.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada and is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions.

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