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Protestants, Missionaries and the Diffusion of Liberal Democracy

A new APSR article [ungated] argues for the crucial role of Protestant missionaries in the global spread of liberal democracy. The statistical analyses tease out the effect of missionaries from the influence of the characteristics of colonizers (Britain, the Netherlands, France, etc.) and pre-existing geographic, economic and cultural characteristics of the states. Interestingly, Protestant missionary influence not only remains a significant predictor of democracy outside the Western world once these factors are controlled for, but it renders them obsolete (which is a big deal because the same institutional, geographic, economic and cultural characteristics have been the usual explanations of democracy diffusion). On the other hand, the patterns in the data are consistent with the plausible mechanisms through which the effect of Protestant missionaries is exercised – the spread of newspapers, education, and civil society.

I am sure this article is not going to be the last word on democracy diffusion, but it certainly puts the influence of Protestantism center stage. The major issue, I suspect, is not going to be methodological (since the article already considers a plethora of potential methodological complications in the appendix), but conceptual – to what extent the effect of Protestant missionaries can be conceptually separated from the improvements in education and the growth of the public sphere. In other words, do (did) you need the religious component at all, or education, newspapers and civil society would have worked on their own to make liberal democracy more likely (even if fostered by other channels than Protestant missionaries) .

In terms of methodology, it might be interesting to analyze the same data using necessary and sufficient conditions: I would find it even more informative to see whether the presence of Protestant missionaries is necessary and/or sufficient for the emergence of stable liberal democracy, in addition to the evidence for a robust (linear?) association between the two, as reported in the current article.

Here is 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 andOceaniaand 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.

Published inDevelopmentHistoryObservational studies

One Comment

  1. RDW

    I do not think non-state-supported Protestant missions are currently either necessary or sufficient for liberal democracy or for any of the intervening mechanisms (e.g., religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, vibrant civil society, colonial reform movements). I think historically they may have been necessary, and were sufficient, for the spread of most of these intervening mechanisms. For example, I do not see any evidence of mass education or mass vernacular printing developing prior to contact with Protestantism up until at least the late 19th century. However, over time these ideas and techniques became detached from their religious roots and, for example, non-Protestants actively spread mass education now.
    Necessary and sufficient thinking only works when causes are simple and when there is only one path (or a small number of paths) to an outcome. For example, formal education may not be necessary for a person to become wealthy, and it is clearly not sufficient for a person to become wealthy, but on average people who have extensive formal education have an easier time becoming wealthy. I would say the same thing about the association between conversionary Protestantism and democracy. It may not be necessary or sufficient for liberal democracy, but places that had greater influence of conversionary Protestants in the past are currently far more democratic (on average).

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