Robert Woodberry on Missionaries and Democracy
Date: June 18th, 2012

Did Protestant missionaries help plant the seeds of democracy throughout the world?  We take up that question with Prof. Robert Woodberry, associate professor of political science at the National Univesity of Singapore, whose recent article “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” in the American Political Science Review is reinvigorating interest in the link between religion and political outcomes around the world and throughout history.  Our conversation begins with an examination of the standard theories for why democracy has emerged in some places but not in others.  Prof. Woodberry carefully indicates that democracy is more than just elections, but includes respect for civil liberties and the rule of law.  Our conversation tuns to the role religion plays in the promotion of liberal democracy and how Bob became interested in this topic.  He mentions that one of his dissertation advisors, Ken Bollen, had noticed an interesting historical correlation between Protestantism and democracy back in the 1970s, but most other scholars simply ignored that observation.  It was left to Bob to pick up the torch and run with it, a task he was well-suited for given his family’s history in missionizing.   Tony then asks Bob why he thinks scholars have so frequently overlooked the “religious factor” in the study of democratization, and Prof. Woodberry then provides some interesting speculations that click well with previous discussions we have had with other guests on our podcast.  Prof. Woodberry then spells out his thesis, arguing that “conversionary Protestants” — Protestants interested in fulfilling the task of The Great Commission (Matthew 28: 16-20) be it in post-Reformation Europe or elsewhere — have a strong interest in convincing individuals to make a free choice to accept Jesus as their savior.  In doing so, these Protestants encourage literacy, which in turn incentivizes the creation of mass printing.  The voluntarism inherent in these Protestant churches also foments the development of skills associated with civic organization, which become the basis for the vibrant civil society needed to challenge autocratic rulers.  Tony notes that this finding is consistent with other sociological research finding that church attenders are more likely to be involved in non-church civic organizations than their secular counterparts.  Tony also encourages scholars studying “new social movements” to look at “old social movements” (i.e., churches) because they have been collectively organizing for centuries, if not millenia.  Finally, Bob also notes that conversionary Protestants were strong advocates for religious liberty, which often corresponded with respect for other civil liberties such as the right to assemble and speak one’s mind.  This led many of these Protestants to also speak out against the more severe abuses of colonialism such as slavery.  All of this then prompts non-religious organizations to follow the lead of these Protestant groups so as to not be outdone in the competition for the hearts and minds of the general population.  It is at this point where Tony gets a chance to plug his first book which connects well with Prof. Woodberry’s findings.  We look at why the Catholic Church did not proceed along a similar path until very recently, and why civilizations such as Imperial China did not allow for the expansion of printing and literacy despite having invented movable typeset printing long before Europe.  We conclude our discussion with Bob’s thought on the Arab Spring.  Recorded: June 12, 2012.



Robert Woodberry’s bio at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” by Robert Woodberry in The American Political Science Review (requires purchase or subscription).

The Pioneering Protestants” by Robert Woodberry and Timothy Shah in The Journal of Democracy (requires purchase or subscription).

Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America, by Anthony Gill (host of Research on Religion)


Timothy Shah on the Case for Religious Liberty

Timur Kuran on Islamic Law and Economic Development.

Jared Rubin on Christian and Islamic Economic History.

Matthew Sutton on Aimee Semple McPherson.

5 Responses to “Robert Woodberry on Missionaries and Democracy”

  1. […] Research On Religion | Robert Woodberry on Missionaries and Democracy […]

  2. […] Professor Robert Woodberry was recently interviewed on the Research on Religion podcast regarding his major article and study published in the prestigious American Political Science Review.  His study found that there are missionary roots to liberal democracy.  Here’s a synopsis as well as a link to the audio: […]

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