According to postmodern politically correct wisdom, Christian missionaries to third world countries were [and are] mere instruments of oppressive colonial rule and helping to despoil the native peoples and keep them in poverty and bondage. I vividly recall one politically correct soul who hated Mother Teresa with a passion because of the terrible damage she did to the Indian poor to whom she ministered. Nothing you could say to him would change his mind.
Robert D. Woodberry, a tenure track professor at a western university decided to measure the effects of missionary work on the colonial victims of the third world. He gathered his data, crunched his numbers, and was astounded by his results. He reworked his data, had it vetted by others, and still the results were the same. When he wrote his research paper and submitted it for publication, he did so with a degree of trepidation. In his paper he even apologized at the outset for his results, but he stood by their accuracy. He wrote
[T]hese 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.
What were the results? What horrible effects did Christian missionaries have on the third world? Instead of paraphrasing, I’ll let him describe them:
[C]onversionary 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.
Woodberry goes on in the article to describe additional pernicious effects of Christian missionaries: Better health, longer lifespans, and greater personal freedom. Almost every democracy in the third world had a history of vigorous Conversionary Protestant missions. Almost every totalitarian state had no history of Conversionary Protestant missions.
He also found that Christian missionaries who were not Conversionary Protestant had little or no effect on the well-being of the countries in which they worked. Just what the blazes is a Conversionary Protestant? And how did they contribute to such miraculous changes in the mission fields where they worked? Woodberry doesn’t define the term Conversionary Protestant, he merely describes how Conversionary Protestants behave. According to Woodberry they:
(1) actively attempt to persuade others of their beliefs, (2) emphasize lay vernacular Bible reading, and (3) believe that grace/faith/choice saves people, not group membership or sacraments.
I can understand why Woodberry chose to coin the term Conversionary Protestant. If he had used the name that Conversionary Protestants commonly go by, he would have exposed himself to a firestorm of criticism for saying something nice about those ignorant Bible-thumping troglodytes, evangelical Christians. I immediately recognized who Woodberry was talking about because for most of my life I have been (and continue to be) a member of an evangelical Christian denomination. And for most of my life in my particular denomination I have been urged to contribute to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions. I can remember wondering at times why we didn’t just leave those people alone and let them sort things out for themselves rather than trying to impose our beliefs upon them. I guess you could say I was not a very good Conversionary Protestant.
Now that we’ve figured out what a Conversionary Protestant is, we can address just how it was they helped to establish democracy. In a nutshell, they did it by being busybodies. They tried to educate the masses, to spread Christian standards of behavior, and to make the colonial authorities treat the native populations more humanely. You can read a full description of all the things they did to foster democracy in Woodberry’s article, The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy. It’s somewhat hard to read, but it is worth the effort.
It does seem, however, that Conversionary Protestants are still being busybodies right here in the USA, lobbying for behavior consistent with their understanding of Christian values such as supporting school prayer and opposing abortion. Might it be possible that their domestic activities are actually good for America? Perhaps in another hundred years another academic will do a statistical study and make a definitive determination of whether evangelical Christians, I mean Conversionary Protestants, were good or bad for twenty first century America.
Postscript: The watchword in academia is “publish or perish.” If you don’t get published you don’t get tenure and you have to start looking for another job. Woodberry’s experience was somewhat different. He got published but he did not get tenure. You can find his article online on a number of websites, and you can find him on the faculty of the University of Singapore. Postmodernism loves iconoclasm, but only of a certain type. If you are casting down the icons of traditional values, they applaud. But do not question the sacred cows of political correctness.