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CPsThis is based on a paper by Robert D. Woodberry of the National University of Singapore. It is available here. What I say here will seem quite abrupt to some. That is a function of reducing about thirty pages to a few blog posts. I have also removed all notes, footnotes, and references, and while I have quoted the author extensively, mostly I have restated his conclusions in my words.

He writes about five contexts: Context 1: Western Europe; Context 2: European Settler-based colonies; Context 3 and 4: Eastern Europe; and Context 5: Everywhere else. I have chosen to write about mainly Contexts 1, 2, and some on 5. All are interesting, but I think these more so.

He also has divided his theory into historical and statistical parts. While I’ve read through the statistical part of the study several times and closely, and it makes sense to me. I am not all that good with statistics, if anyone else is, I’d be interested in your conclusions. I’ve pretty much limited myself to the historical section of his study, which is more in my field of competence. All quotes are from the paper. You will, of course, find the link to the full paper, including references, footnotes, and far from least, the statistical work that supports this historical narrative.

Also, Greg Scandlen at ‘The Federalist’ wrote on this as well, his very superficial (although accurate) overview is here.


Religious actors played a huge role in post-Enlightenment modernization–although secular social scientists almost unanimously deny it. How do we know this? Partly because history tells us so, and partly because the historical study of statistical variables tell us so, and partly because we have eyes to see, and some measure of common sense. The author says this:

I argue that Western modernity, in its current form, is profoundly shaped by religious factors, and although many aspects of this “modernity” have been replicated in countries around the world, religion shaped what spread, where it spread, how it spread, and how it adapted to new contexts

In particular, conversionary Protestants (CPs) were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely—regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism. Moreover, religious beliefs motivated most of these transformations. In this blunt form, without evidence or nuance, these claims may sound overstated and offensive. Yet the historical and statistical evidence of CPs’ influence is strong, and the cost of ignoring CPs in our models is demonstrably high. […]

For example, stable democracy first emerged in Protestant Europe and British-settler colonies, and by World War I every independent, predominantly Protestant country was a stable democracy—with the possible exception of Germany. Less stable versions of democracy developed in Catholic areas with large Protestant and Jansenist minorities, such as France. However, democracy lagged in Catholic and Orthodox parts of Southern and Eastern Europe where Protestants had little influence. A similar pattern existed outside Europe.

In European settler based colonies, Protestant based ones (United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) are far more democratic than the otherwise similar, but Catholic based ones such as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica. You will note that this also weakens the theory that secularization tends to promote democracy, as the author says, the United States is far more religious than Uruguay. It is also worth noting that one set are all former British colonies and the other all-former Spanish colonies. What that seems to tell us is that, whichever colonial regime we choose (and these were the main two on offer) they seemed to export quite well.

I start with Western Europe and North America because that is where representative democracy was first developed. In this, I follow the author, and for the same reason. This is the baseline, if we can’t find links here, they are unlikely. If we can, and then we also find them in the other contexts we make our case stronger, possibly much stronger.

I too think the classical origin of democracy may well be overemphasized. Sure, Athenian, Enlightenment, and Deist roots exist, and were known, and important, but much of this is also paralleled by earlier specifically religious terms, especially arguments for political pluralism, electoral reform, and limitations of state power.

For example, Calvinists tried to reconstruct states along “godly” lines and limit sinful human institutions. Perhaps as a result, most Enlightenment democratic theorists came from Calvinist families or had a Calvinist education, even if they were either not theologically orthodox or personally religious (e.g., John Locke, Rousseau, Hugo Grotius, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton), and they secularized ideas previously articulated by Calvinist theologians and jurists. For example, Hobbes’ and Locke’s social contracts are secular versions of Puritan and Nonconformist covenants, and Locke’s ideas about the equality of all people are explicitly religious.

I would add that the perhaps most famous definition of representational democracy, Abraham Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people” was not original but an almost direct quote of John Wycliffe. Whose influence echoes down to us through not only his Bible, which strongly influenced Tyndale’s, but he also influenced Martin Luther, Jan Huss, and I think, John Calvin as well. Here is perhaps the first expression of what would be the major strains of the Reformation.

Moreover, the religious context influenced whether Enlightenment-linked revolutions gave birth to stable democracy. The Protestant English and Scottish Enlightenments were not anti-Christian, and where they spread, democracy flourished. The “Catholic” French Enlightenment was virulently anti-Christian (particularly anti-Catholic), and where it spread, stable democracy did not. The French Revolution devolved into violence and inspired both totalitarianism and democracy. Similarly, anticlerical Enlightenment governments formed in virtually every independent Catholic country in Europe and Latin America, but did not lead to stable democracy. […]

For example, even in nineteenth-century Great Britain, expansions of suffrage and reforms of the electoral system were directly tied to pressure by Evangelical Anglicans and Nonconformists—in this case, including nonstate Catholics.

Ideas are powerful things, but if those who hold them are crushed and killed, they don’t become the conventional wisdom. So, if power wasn’t dispersed enough, or secular and religious forces came to blows too much, democracy often did not last. In the next sections, we’ll look at how CPs fostered greater separation of church and state, helped to disperse power and, create the conditions which helped form stable democracies.

Next: PRINTING, NEWSPAPERS, AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE

Source: The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy

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