Some Things Very Few People Know

A quiz.

What do the following people have in common?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sun Yat-Sen, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, W.E.B. DuBois , Jomo Kenyatta, Rosa Parks.

You could say they are all important people of color.  You could say that they all played an important role in forging nations in the 20th century.

And if you have been following my blog lately and are good at guessing at quizzes, you are also calculating that I have some sort of missionary angle here.

Yep.  But what is it?

The answer:  each one of these individuals received at least some of their education from an institution founded by missionaries.  And those missionaries would have been the evangelistic types who wanted to convert people to Christianity.

This is not widely known.

In fact, the missionary education connection to all of these people may not be known by anybody but you and me.  (Hey, that’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?).  Two weeks ago I did not put all these people together.  I knew that King, Kenyatta and Mandela had gone to schools founded by missionaries.  But Bob Woodberry’s article got me thinking.  (Come to think of it, Bob probably knows these things, so it’s probably not just you and me.  Sorry.)  I started digging a little into the academic history of notable people of color from the 20th century.  The Nobel Peace Prize list was a good place to start — I found quite a few there and I haven’t even listed here all the Nobel Peace prize winners who attended a school founded by missionaries.  In fact, the list of nine people above is a pretty impressive group of people.  I’d put it up against any list of twentieth-century people of color who were not educated at schools founded by missionaries.

So, it turns out that this guy has more in common with.....

So, it turns out that this guy has more in common with…..

Yet you will find very few scholars who make any missionary connection to any of the people above.  In fact, as I was wondering about these questions the past week, I had to dig quite a bit to find the information about these people.  Go ahead and research Gandhi’s life on the internet like I did (this is not the best way to do solid research, but my budget for this blog is rather limited) and see if anybody mentions that Gandhi went to a university founded by missionaries.  Google “The University of Mumbai” and see how many of the links mentions this.  (The University of Mumbai does not describe itself this way).  A few sites will say that the institution was founded by a guy named John Wilson, but will not mention that Wilson was a missionary.  It will be quite likely, though, that the reference will say the University of Mumbai was founded by the British.  You’ll find the same kind of descriptions if you try to research the educational background of the others on my list.

A few years the conservative pundit and habitual gadfly Dinesh D’Souza wrote a flawed article entitled “Two Cheers for Colonialism.”  D’Souza, who was born in India himself, made the argument that there was a good side to colonialism because the British brought western education to India.

Now, strictly speaking, it is true to say that the British brought western education to India.  But this is sort of like saying the town of Wapakoneta, Ohio brought the American flag to the moon.  Wapakoneta is a very nice little town with some fine people in it, I am sure, but when we explain how we landed on the moon, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong seems somewhat incidental as a causal explanation.

While it is true that the British and French governments established schools in their colonies, they invariably did this fifty to one hundred years after missionaries had already built schools and colleges in these areas.  In fact, the British East India Company opposed missionaries and missionary schools for many years.  Company officials battled missionary supporters in Parliament in 1813 over whether missionaries should be allowed to operate freely in India.  So if we want to be even more precise about D’Souza’s claim, we would have to say that the British both opposed and supported bringing western education to India.  So how much credit should we give them?

....this guy, than just a commitment to nonviolent protest.

….this guy, besides a commitment to nonviolent protest.

In essence, the British government began setting up schools many decades after the missionaries did when they began to see that locals who had been educated by missionaries were useful to their colonial system.

And there is more.  Once the British Parliament implemented the policy pushed by the evangelical lobby in the early 19th century to allow missionaries the freedom to establish schools, print newspapers and exchange ideas freely, they were forced to allow Muslims, Hindus and other non-Christians in their colonies to do the same.  So Gandhi, who never converted to Christianity, of course, had the freedom to campaign for democracy and against British colonialism in large part because missionaries had helped create the conditions to make this possible.

Oh, and Dinesh D’Souza, who has argued that we need to thank the British colonizers for providing India with a western education?  He attended a school in Mumbai that was founded by Catholic missionaries.

Now, Neil Armstrong, on the other hand, attended a public high school in Wapakoneta, Ohio before going on to the University of Southern California.  USC, which is known for its Trojan football team, was not founded by missionaries.  It was founded by evangelical Methodists.

And that is different.





Those Missionaries. There They Go Again, Building Democracies Around the World. Wait a Minute…What?

I think I’m done with my ranting.  I may not be done being snarky.

One of the points I made in my previous post was that Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, social scientists from the 1970s, and Barbara Kingsolver did not really know a lot about missionaries.

But maybe that doesn’t matter.  Maybe they were still correct.  Maybe they picked up their information from others who knew the situation well.  Maybe missionaries really were cultural imperialists who set back causes for freedom and human flourishing.  After all, a lot of really intelligent people of goodwill in the American establishment viewed missionaries as cultural imperialists.  And we certainly can find examples of missionaries behaving badly.

On the other hand, maybe Bob Woodberry is right.

Bob Woodberry says that “areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on the average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  And, oh yeah, they “heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracies around the world.”


That runs smack in the face of 100 years American establishment thinking about missionaries.

But who is this Bob Woodberry guy, anyway?  And what does he know?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Bob Woodberry is a sociologist who recently published an article in the American Political Science Review (APSR), which is the top academic journal in political science.  Some things to consider here:  you can’t get published in this journal unless you can convince others that your work is top-notch.  The APSR is also a journal that is not inclined to believe Woodberry’s argument.  The editors of the APSR, in fact, were skeptical enough to ask him for more data and studies when he first submitted his study.  He responded with 192 pages of supporting material.  Woodberry has been at this research for fifteen years now and he uses historical analysis and very sophisticated quantitative methodology of social science, including “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis.”

There you are.  The “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis” technique.

I have no idea what that is.

If you are one of those people who are deeply fascinated in both missionaries and sophisticated sociological methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR....

If you are one of the millions of people who are deeply fascinated by both missionaries and sophisticated social science methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR….

But I know this:  his article in the APSR has won four academic awards.

In other words, he has convinced a lot of skeptics with his research.  There is a fine article about him and his work in the Jan/Feb, 2014 issue of Christianity TodayIt goes into more detail about how he reached his conclusions and some of the things he was up against as he tried to convince others of the validity of his research.  I happen to know Bob and I’ve heard a story or two about scholars who got quite irate when they were confronted with his research.  Other scholars, though, are sitting up and taking his work seriously.

Now, I should point out that these global developments did not happen simply by missionaries going out and preaching democracy.  It is more complicated than that. Usually, missionaries were just trying to figure out how to spread the Gospel.  Sometimes, in their falleness, they acted in undemocratic ways.  Furthermore, many people who did not convert to Christianity still ended up embracing democracy and education and better health practices and more honest government and more robust economic practices.  But according to Woodberry’s findings, the influence of missionaries played a key role in that whole process.

This is very important research.  And it matters, because if Woodberry is correct, there are a lot of scholars (in the United States and around the world) who will need to reconsider the relationship between religion and the formation of democracy.

....or you might just want to read the CT article....

….or you might just want to read the CT article.

Woodberry is not alone in his scholarship on missionaries.  A number of very good scholars in the last couple of decades have started to show that the 20th century establishment view of missionaries is flawed.

Of course, maybe Woodberry is wrong.  After all, you can always believe H.L. Mencken, who did his research on missionaries by reading a few newspapers at his desk in Baltimore in the 1920s.   Or Barbara Kingsolver, who not only read a book by Chinua Achebe but also one by David Livingstone.



Those Missionaries. I’m Sure Glad We Don’t Stereotype People Like They All Do.

Remember back when the American establishment admired missionaries?  No you do not, because that was 1901 and you were not born yet.

I say this because I’ve been re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible for a faculty/student book club I am in.  It’s a clever novel, but I am finding it more annoying than the first time I read it about fifteen years ago.

I’m afraid, then, that a tone of annoyance will probably run through this post.  I apologize to all of you for this, except to those former students (this for you, Brian Faehnrich, if you are reading this) who said they enjoyed times when I ranted in class.

(Sigh.  I really shouldn’t do that.  Rants often reinforce stereotypes, which is the main problem addressed in this post.  We humans are a messy lot, aren’t we?)

imgresKingsolver’s novel tells the story of a missionary family (parents and four daughters) in the Congo in 1960.  The missionary father is strict, stubborn, uncaring, narrow-minded, obtuse, controlling and tragic.  The first time I read it, I was willing to let this go as a story about an outlier — every group has their disturbed individuals, after all.

I was too charitable.  This time through, I see the novel as a critique of a patriarchal system that encompasses families, religion and politics.  Men dominate these systems in the novel and that creates all sorts of problems for everyone they interact with.

And it is all too simplistic.  Patriarchy is a complicated and problematic feature of many societies, but I’d like to leave that aside for now to draw attention to Kingsolver’s understanding of missionaries.  She seems to have picked up these perceptions from the American establishment.  None of the twenty-eight books that she lists as sources effectively address missionaries or evangelicals, with the exception of a book written by David Livingstone in 1872 and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  So it seems Kingsolver is basing her understanding of missionaries on the assumptions of her culture.  Granted, I am sure she ran into missionaries and a few evangelicals when she lived in the Congo, but of course, real-life missionaries apparently ran into a few Africans when they lived in the Congo, and that didn’t always guarantee that they understood them well.

As I mentioned, the American establishment admired missionaries in 1901.  You could see changes coming in 1901.  That was the year that Mark Twain published a number of pieces that accused missionaries of behaving badly.  Actually, he depicted them of being hypocritical, narrow-minded imperialists.

Mark Twain:  expert on Chinese culture, anthropology, and theology.   Or wait a minute...maybe he was the guy who wrote *The Adventures of Tom Sawyer*

Mark Twain: expert on Chinese culture, anthropology, and theology. Or, wait a minute…maybe he was the guy who wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”

Twain’s writings were controversial at the time, but these kinds of ideas gradually caught on in the American establishment.  In 1927, the nationally known pundit, H.L. Mencken, wrote that the Chinese “see that the missionary is not only a most unpleasant theological propagandist, but also that he is the advance agent of all sorts of commercial exploiters, and even of military assassins…..If the missionaries will retire gracefully, shouting polite hosannas, well and good; if they linger, they will be heaved out.  Who will blame the Chinese?”  By the 1970s, social scientists were using the term “missionary position” to explain how missionaries tried to convince South Pacific Islanders the “proper” position for sexual intercourse.  This was, of course, an illustration of how missionaries thoroughly impose their cultural values on others.

Imagine, then, the situation faced by a student that I had taught in the early 1990s when my wife and I served at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya.  This student, whose parents were missionaries, had gone off to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  During arrival weekend she was involved in one of those mixers that help students get to know one another.  A fellow freshman asked her where she went to high school and she told him Kenya.  When she explained that her parents were missionaries, he replied, “Oh. Your parents are cultural imperialists.”

Now, this guy was quite bright, if not especially blessed with tactfulness.  Northwestern is a prestigious university and it does not accept dull-witted types.  But I should point out that this guy was 18 years old and had not yet had a single college class.  (Not that his college classes would have changed his thinking on this issue).  He hadn’t been to Africa and he did not even know any missionaries.  In other words, he didn’t know a hill of beans about missionaries except for a stereotype he had picked up somewhere in American culture.

The same goes for Mark Twain.  And H.L. Mencken.  And those social scientists in the 1970s.   And Barbara Kingsolver.

Let’s start with Twain.   Some missionaries in 1901 — the ones Twain was writing about — were behaving badly in China in their reaction to the Boxer Rebellion.  They were demanding that the Chinese government pay reparations to missionary agencies in response to rioters who had killed a number of missionaries and destroyed property.  And they wanted the militaries of the western imperialist powers to back them up.  That is not good.  But most missionaries did not respond this way.  Hudson Taylor, who led the China Inland Mission, for instance, which suffered more missionaries killed than any other agency, stated that CIM missionaries would not demand anything, but proceed with gentleness and meekness.

H.L. Mencken, champion of the "smart set" in the 1920s. Like Mencken, the "smart set" understood what was going on with missionaries in places like Africa and China because they were, you know, "smart."

H.L. Mencken, champion of the “smart set” in the 1920s. Like Mencken, the “smart set” understood what was going on with missionaries in places like Africa and China because they were, you know, “smart.”

H.L. Mencken?  He regularly wrote things like, “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.”  Hey, that’s clever, H.L.  It’s also a fine example of a statement that does not give careful consideration to clear thinking, honesty, fairness and the love of truth.  Mencken regularly reached for ammunition rather than illumination when it came to areas of religious faith.

Those social scientists in the 1970s?  Recent research has shown that the “missionary position” story is an academic myth.  There is not a shred of evidence that any missionary anywhere ever said or did anything like this.  We can, however, trace the story to speculation by social scientists in the 1940s.

Twain, Mencken, the social scientists and Kingsolver are not the causes of missionary stereotypes.  Due to twentieth-century cultural, theological, and social forces (hey, that all sounds exciting and clear, doesn’t it?) the stereotypes would have emerged from others anyway.   And they did, in fact.  The point is that missionary stereotypes permeated the twentieth-century American establishment.  As I hope to show in the next post, there are important reasons why these stereotypes need to go.

Oh, and my former student at that freshmen mixer at Northwestern?  She asked the guy what he knew about the world and he explained that he had a good awareness of the world.  His parents actively supported international organizations that promoted family planning around the world.

“Why then,” she said, “are my parents considered cultural imperialists and yours are not?”  He did not have a good answer.


Lutherans, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.

A rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister walk into a bar.  The bartender looks up and says, “Hey is this some kind of joke?”

This is funny (to some people, at least) because American culture has a long tradition of rabbi/priest/minister jokes.  This tradition seems to stem from the American experience with religious diversity.  The United States has always been religiously diverse compared to other western nations, and it is getting more so all the time.

But how well do we understand our religious diversity?  Some time this week, when the spring semester begins, I’m going to give the students in my Religion in America class a little unofficial quiz.   Here are some of the questions I will ask:  (answers are at the end of the post)

1)    What percentage of Americans are Jewish?

  • a) 16%
  • b) 8%
  • c) 2%
  • d) 1%

2)    What percentage of Americans are Baptists?

  • a) 16%
  • b) 8%
  • c) 2%
  • d) 1%

3)    What percentage of Americans are Muslims?

  • a) 16%
  • b) 8%
  • c) 2%
  • d) 1%

4)    What percentage of Americans are atheists?

  • a) 16%
  • b) 8%
  • c) 2%
  • d) 1%

5)    Which of the following has the most adherents in the United States?

  • a)  Jehovah Witnesses
  • b) Mormons
  • c)  Lutherans
  • d)  Wicca

6)    Which of the following has the fewest adherents in the United States?

  • a) mainline Protestantism
  • b) unaffiliated
  • c) evangelical Protestantism
  • d) Catholicism

I don’t know exactly how the results will come out, but my guess is that my students, like average Americans, will actually overestimate how religiously diverse the United States.  They will probably underestimate how big Protestantism is.   I say this because a study by Gray Matter Research  shows that the typical American is pretty good at estimating the percentage of Americans that are Catholic (24%), but misses pretty much everything else.  Most Americans peg the US to be 9% Jewish; the real number is 1.7%.  The typical American thinks Muslims make up 7% of the population:  the U.S. is less than 1% Muslim.  We think the US is 7% Mormon but the real percentage is 1.7%. Americans peg atheists and agnostics at 9%, but their real numbers are at 4%.

And Protestants?  That boring, old, run-of-the-mill, white-bread religious group is estimated by most Americans to make up 20% of the population.  The reality is that more than half (51%) of Americans identify themselves as Protestants.

Here is the breakdown:  75% of Americans are Protestant or Catholic.  Another 12% are the vague “nothing in particular” category (but are not atheists or agnostics), while another 4% are atheistic/agnostic. Jews and Mormons are 1.7% each.  Every other group (including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wicca, Unitarians, Jehovah Witnesses, Spirtualists, New Agers, Native American faiths, and anything else you can think of) make up less than 1% each, for a grand total of about 5%.

So Americans tend to greatly underestimate the number of Protestants in American society and overestimate the size of many non-Christian groups.

I find this rather interesting and a bit curious.  I think it is a probably healthier to be aware that there is religious diversity in society than to be oblivious to any diversity at all.  But why do American overestimate the size of the smaller groups and underestimate the size of Protestantism?  Some possibilities:

– Has the emphasis on “celebrating diversity” in the past few decades made us pretty effective at saying that diversity is important, but does not do much to teach us about what that diversity really looks like?

– Do many Americans overestimate the number of Muslims in the US because the events of the past decade make them feel threatened by Islam?

– Does the same go for Mormons?  (My guess is that conservatives feel more bothered by Muslims and liberals feel more bothered by Mormons).

– Do many American Christians (particularly evangelicals) believe they are embattled and marginalized, leading them to underestimate the number of Protestants in the US?  Or perhaps they underestimate Protestants because Protestantism does not get mentioned in the news or other media very much?

- Why did Americans manage to peg Catholics accurately?  Lucky guess?

- Or do we overestimate the smaller groups simply because the exceptions stand out to us more?  Perhaps Protestants, like dogs, blend into our every day scenery, while any time a Mormon or Muslim appears in public, it is noteworthy, like a coyote wandering into suburbia.  (I hope it is not insulting to use the metaphor of a coyote to refer to Mormons and Muslims.  Does it help that I referred to Protestants as dogs?)

– How much does all this matter?  I am a bit concerned because there have been a few times in the past few years that I have heard people say that Muslims and Sharia law are a threat to the US.  That makes me wonder whether some Americans overestimate groups that they perceive to be threatening or “un-American” in some way.  If that is so, then we could stand to think more clearly about these things (we could always stand to think more clearly, actually).

I think I’ll pose these questions to my class (after they take the unofficial quiz) and see what they say.

Here are the answers to my unofficial quiz:

1 –c

2 – a

3 – d

4 – d

5 – c

6 – b


Is Protestantism or Secularism (or something else) the Best Path to Equal Pay for Equal Work for Women around the World?

You should care about this question if you are a Protestant.  Or if you are in human resources in a business.  Or if you teach 10th graders.  Or if you are from the Honduras.  Or if you are a woman.  Or if you are a man.

You can stop reading if you don’t fall into any of those categories.

WEFEvery year the World Economic Forum, a non-profit and non-partisan foundation based in Switzerland. issues what it calls the Global Gender Gap Report.   The study ranks 136 nations by the disparities between women and men in economics, politics, education and health.

Some nations don’t make it because there is not enough data for them.  My guess is that the nations that don’t make the list, like North Korea, would probably be towards the bottom.  (Of course, maybe North Korea is secretly promoting women throughout its society to ranks of equality.  Maybe Kim Jong-un executed his uncle this week in order to put his aunt into a top position of power……Hmm. Yeah, we should go with the first hypothesis).

The World Economic Forum mainly reports the data. It doesn’t attempt to explain the deep-seated forces that explain why some nations are ranked high and others are low.  It does not even mention religion anywhere in the report, as far as I can see.  But that doesn’t prevent me from bringing religion in to attempt to explain matters.  My thought:  Protestantism matters.

Curious?  Here are nations that have done the best at closing the gender gap, (though no nation has achieved full gender equality):

  1. Iceland
  2. Finland
  3. Norway
  4. Sweden     (ah, those Scandinavians)
  5. Philippines  (what?)
  6. Ireland
  7. New Zealand
  8. Denmark
  9. Switzerland
  10. Nicaragua  (what?)

And the bottom ten:

  • 127.  Saudi Arabia    (you are not surprised)
  • 128.  Mali
  • 129.  Morocco
  • 130.  Iran
  • 131.  Ivory Coast
  • 132.  Mauritania
  • 133.  Syria
  • 134.  Chad
  • 135.  Pakistan
  • 136.  Yemen

In case you are curious, the United States come in at # 23, just behind Burundi.  (What?)

An obvious observation:  Islam is not good for gender equality.

A somewhat surprising observation:  economic prosperity does not seem to be a deciding factor.  One finds the Philippines, Nicaragua, Cuba, Lesotho (!), Burundi, and Ecuador all in the top 25.   Meanwhile, South Korea, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, all in the top third globally in terms of per capita income, are all in the bottom 25 in terms of the gender gap.   Wealthy Japan comes in at #105, right behind Cambodia and Burkina Faso.

So what is the biggest predictor of gender equality?

One could make a decent case for secularism.  The Scandinavian nations (which always seem to lead lists like this) are quite secular.  And you have that obvious Islamic problem at the bottom of the list.  Analysis that stopped here would support a claim that has been made quite regularly within western culture during the last two centuries:  public religion is a barrier to liberty.  The sooner we break free from religion, the way this thinking goes, the more free, equal and happy we will be.

But if you dig further, that argument does not work so well.  Based on this data, I would argue something quite different:  the long-term presence of Christianity, particularly Protestantism, is the biggest factor in promoting equality between men and women.  I’m thinking like a historian here, which means you have to take into account at least two centuries of development.  Profound cultural shifts, such as changes in attitudes, practices and structures related to gender, do not change with a decade or two of new political policies.  Over long periods of time, however, nothing closes the gender gap as well as Protestantism.  I don’t see a factor that is a better predictor.

Here is what the data says to me:  the equity between women and men in the Scandinavian nations is better explained by several centuries of Protestantism than by a few decades of secularism.

Why?  No Protestant nation ranked lower than #47 (Jamaica).  13 of the 15 nations that have been influenced by more than a century of Protestantism are in the top 23.

I was actually surprised to see the very modern nation of France ranked as low as it is (45), since France has led the way since 1789 in promoting liberty and equality.  It has also been an historic leader in secularism, attempting to break free from public religious influences.  However, it only ranks two places ahead of the lowest ranking nation deeply influenced by Protestantism, Jamaica (47).

Meanwhile, we have the following rather secular nations in the bottom half of the list:  China (69), Vietnam (73), Slovak Republic (74), Uruguay (77), Czech Republic (83), Japan (105), Albania (108), and South Korea (111).

Filipino Businesswomen:  We're #5

Filipino Businesswomen: We’re #5

We can also argue for the importance of Christianity, in general, upon gender equality if we compare nations by regions.  Christianity has been at work in the Philippines for several centuries.  It not only cracks the top 10, but far outpaces more modern and secular nations in East Asia, like China (69), Japan (105), and South Korea (111).  At #5, the Philippines also obliterates similar island nations of southeast Asia like Indonesia (95) and Malaysia (102).

In Latin America, the secular nation of Cuba ranks quite high at #15, (a good argument for secularism) behind only Nicaragua.  However, the very secular nation of Uruguay ranks at 77.

In post-communist eastern Europe, the quite religious nation of Poland (54) ranks well ahead of its secular cousins, the Slovak Republic (74), Czech Republic (83).   I was a bit surprised by this, since both the Czech and Slovak republics had liberal democratic traditions before they, like Poland, were taken over by communism after World War II.

Finally, 49 of top 68 nations were influenced by more than two centuries of Christianity.  Only 16 of the bottom 68 were deeply influenced by Christianity – and none of these were Protestant.

Because substantial growth of Christianity if Africa is quite recent, I do not include the sub-Saharan nations of Africa in my categories of Christian or secular nations – except for South Africa, which has had a significant Christian presence for two centuries.  But Africa seems to be the wild card in all of this.  It will be interesting to see what happens to both Christianity and gender equity in sub-Saharan Africa in the decades to come.

It is important to note that there are all sorts of factors that play into these rankings.  I’ve been generalizing quite a bit — cutting with a chain saw, if you will.  And one can raise some questions about the methodology of the World Economic Forum, though you’d have to propose an alternative.

At this point, though, if you were a woman who is interested in equal pay for equal work, or equal opportunities for education, or a shot at parliament, or equal health care, I think you would do best to be born in a nation deeply influenced by Protestantism.


Something You Were Forced to Do, For Which You Should Be Thankful

If you are reading this post, somebody probably made you to go to school somewhere along the line.

Most likely, you found yourself in school before it occurred to you that you might have a choice in the matter.  All the kids you knew went to school.  You did not ask where school came from.  You did not hire the teachers, you did not assemble the curriculum, and you did not pass the laws that compelled kids like you to go to school.  You just went.

Maybe in third grade you protested and asked your mom or our dad why you had to go to school.  Your protests did not matter.  School was inevitable.

It has not always been this way.  For most of human history, formal education was a privilege for the elites.  In fact, there are still places in the world today where children do not have the opportunity or the economic resources to go to school.

In some ways, it is odd that the United States requires all children to attend school.  Americans believe in liberty, rights, limited government, the freedom of individuals to make choices, and the chance for people to live their lives the way they want.  And yet, parents can be punished for not sending their children to school.  Isn’t this a violation liberty, limited

Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) would not have been happy with the Puritans.  John Calvin, however, would have approved.

Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) would not have been happy with the Puritans. John Calvin, however, would have approved.

government, freedom of individuals to make choices, rights, and the chance for people to live their lives the way they want?  Disgruntled third graders (if they stayed in school long enough to learn about such things) might make this argument.  But there it is:  in the land of the free, everyone is compelled to go to school.

There are, of course, good reasons for mandatory education.  Imagine how different society would be if only a handful of people could read.  Imagine how you would be different as a person if you could not read.

You should be thankful, then, for mandatory primary school education.  And you should be thankful for those persons in history who built this system.

Disgruntled third graders (if they stayed in school long enough to learn about such things), would be correct to lay much of the blame for this system at the feet of the Puritans.  American Puritans, who even required people to engage in leisure activities, had a knack for passing laws that kept individuals from straying from the Puritan way.  Believing that a conversion experience was necessary for the elect, the Puritans practiced spiritual disciplines like Bible reading in order to pave the way for conversion and holy living.  They also believed that they held a covenant with God that would bring judgment on the whole community if they strayed from the path.  By golly, then, Puritan children better learn how to read the Bible.  So they passed laws requiring each town to provide a schoolteacher who knew Greek and Hebrew.  (I have a Ph.D., but I would not be qualified to teach first grade in colonial Massachusetts).  As a result, Puritan New England ended up with some of the highest literacy rates in the world – literacy rates that included females, I should add.

Nor would Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) have been happy with Horace Mann.

Nor would Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) have been happy with Horace Mann.

In the early 1830s, the common school movement sought to make education mandatory for children across the United States.  Who spearheaded the movement?  Yankees from Massachusetts, who were building upon two centuries of educational practice.  Their purposes had shifted somewhat from their Puritan ancestors.  Horace Mann, who led the charge, believed that mandatory education was necessary for good citizenship, democracy and the health of society.  Today, purposes have shifted somewhat again, as Americans tend to think of mandatory education as necessary for a strong economy.  We differ on the ends of mandatory education, but a theme of the common good runs through it all.

This is no small development.  With the assistance of plenty of non-Yankees, the idea of mandatory education has spread throughout the world.  It is hard to imagine how a modern economy could function without widespread education.  It is still seen as necessary for democracy.  It is difficult to see how reform movements, like abolition, women’s rights, or civil rights, just to name a few, could have gained traction without widespread literacy.  In the modern world, Christian ministries could not function without widespread education; churches simply assume that their congregations are literate.  Biblical translation has proven to be a critical component of the spread of Christianity beyond North America and Europe.

In fact, so much of what we consider to be good in the historical developments in the world from the past two centuries have been built upon education, that a person of faith would have to say that God must be behind it all in some way.

And so, give thanks that somebody forced you – and others — to go to school.



The 80% Rule

I spent the previous post critiquing the idea of the “self-made man/woman,” but I should put in a word for the idea.  After all, our decisions, work ethic and efforts count for something.

But how much?

Economists, actually, can figure this out.

An economics book that is interesting and understandable:  I am not making this up.

An economics book that is interesting and understandable: I am not making this up.

According to Branko Milanovic, in a rather interesting (and readable!) little book entitled The Haves and the Have-Nots:  A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, this is how it works:  take the actual incomes of everyone in the world and compare it to the mean incomes of their countries.  The result of the global analysis that the nation where we were born determines 60% of what we have.  Not only that, but the family one is born into within a given nation counts for an additional 20% of one’s wealth.  (One might be born in Brazil, for instance, but there is a great difference between being born to the household of a professional businessman in Rio de Janeiro verses being born in a two-room shack in a favela – the slums — in Rio).  Furthermore, an undetermined amount of the remaining 20% is due to factors over which one does not have any control (gender, race, chance, etc.).  But somewhere in this remaining 20% of our wealth we find the factors like effort, decisions, and hard work.

The 80% Rule (my term, not Milanovic’s) means that the most of our economic destiny was determined at birth.  (Who knew that economists could be 4-point Calvinists?)

80%.  Really?   Less than 20% of our income is due to what we actually do?  Is that true?

You’d need to read the book to get a full picture (though you probably have to be an economist to figure out if this analysis is flawed), but I find it compelling.  Having lived six years in Kenya and spent time in Jamaica and Brazil (as well as having read a fair amount about the economic history of different societies) it is obvious to me that millions of people (billions, actually) do not have the resources and opportunities that I was born with in the United States.  The gap in income between a middle-class American and the vast majority of people in the world is really a stunning one. The world is not a level playing field.

At first glance, the 80% Rule looks rather discouraging.  Shouldn’t effort count for more than that?  The American Dream – the belief that one can be substantially better off than one’s parents if one just works hard enough – has motivated a lot of people.  It has produced a great deal of inventiveness and encouraged a great deal of hard work.  With that in mind, one might be hesitant to give up on the “Self-Made Man/Woman” myth.   It would be hard to inspire 7th grade boys by telling them that 80% of what they will earn in life is already determined for them (much less try to get them to understand exactly what is meant by that).  What would you say if you were to write inspirational posters for middle school classrooms?   “Something less than 20% of what a person achieves and something less than 20% of what they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts!”   Or how about, “If you dream it, the law of averages shows you can achieve up to 20% more than your family has now!”   Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

On the other hand, the 80% rule has the potential to help us get a clearer sense God’s purpose for our lives.  Think of the 80% Rule as helping us to shift our perspective from the American Dream to the Parable of the Talents.  (See Matthew 25:14-30).  The master gives out talents in unequal portions to different people in the world.  The point here is not that the amounts are unequal.  Instead, we are to ask what we, as the servants, are to do with the talents we are given.

The talents God gives us refer to a lot more than money.  But let me just stick with the money point a bit longer.  40% of regular church goers in America give nothing to churches, charities or ministries.  The vast majority of the funds that support our churches, non-profits, and ministries come from 10% of regular church-goers.  (Non-church attenders give even less, on average – but that is a different discussion).  Most Americans are stingy, folks.  Tithing 10% of our income should be the bare minimum for American Christians, particularly when we realize that 80% of what we have is really none of our doing.

We also need to work on cultivating a deep sense of stewardship.  I know I need to get a better sense of this.  The 80% rule is merely empirical economic evidence that what we have comes from God and is not “owned” for eternity by us.  We should be ready and willing to listen to God’s call on our lives and put what we have been given to use for God’s purposes.

By the way, donating to the relief efforts for the victims of the Philippines typhoon right now would be a good way to put to use a very small part of what God has given us.  I recommend the Mennonite Central Committee, though there are plenty of other organizations that are active there as well.

Are You a Self-Made Man or Woman? I Know the Answer.


New Picture (1)If you can trust historians, however, my great-great grandfather was a self-made man.  Zopher Case (yes, that was his real name — the nearly-biblical spelling was real, too) received the following treatment in the 1882 History of LaGrange County, Indiana:  “Mr. Case is representative of the self-made man. He began with nothing, at the age of twelve, working for $3.00 per month. By labor and economy, he has acquired one of the largest and finest stock farms in the county, and at present owns 800 acres, having given the remainder to his children.”

But I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t trust historians.

Wait a minute. Don’t trust me when I say you shouldn’t trust historians.

Anyway, my point is that the LaGrange County historian may have gotten the facts right, but the idea of the “self-made man” is a flawed concept.  Zopher Case was not a self-made man.

We Americans sure like the idea.  We have embraced it ever since Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography that explained how he accomplished everything through his own wits, hard work and moral character.   And the idea is still alive and well today.  A few years ago I noticed the following inspirational poster on the wall of a middle school:   “Everything a person achieves and everything they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts.”  There it is.

This idea is flawed because it is based on bad theology and bad theology does not reflect how the world really works.   It is flawed because the “self-made man” completely discounts the idea that God might be at work amidst human activity.

How was God at work in the life of Zopher Case?  What does God have to do with his economic status?   Most American evangelicals would probably try to answer that by looking for characteristics of his spiritual life.  Was Zopher Case inspired by God to work hard?  Did God help him through the tough times?  Did Zopher flourish because he grew in Christian discipleship?

Those are good questions, but I would like to draw our attention to something else.  Consider the birth of Zopher Case, an event that stems from God’s creational activity.

What did Zopher Case do to get himself born in 1816 in Ashtabula County, Ohio, twenty years before he moved to Indiana?  He did not earn that birth through hard work, wits, high moral character, intelligence or “labor and economy.”  Furthermore, had he been born as a black man or an Indian or a woman, his opportunities would have been very different.  While I am sure that ol’ Zopher worked hard, he did not begin with nothing.  He was born with economic, familial and cultural resources that many others did not have.

Who made this man?

Who made this man?

For instance, what if Zopher Case had been born in Suipacha, Argentina in 1816?  (Disclaimer:  I actually do not know a thing about Suipacha except that it is a town outside of Buenos Aires.)  From the colonial era through independence and up to the present, small classes of wealthy elites have owned most of the land in just about every country of Latin America.  One family in Argentina in the 19th century owned 1.6 million acres of prime land – that’s bigger than the state of Delaware.  Another family in Mexico in 1848 owned 16 million acres, a piece of land about the size of South Carolina.  Right after independence, a group of 500 individuals in Argentina owned 21 million acres, which is about the size of Indiana.  If Zopher Case were born in 1816 in Suipacha to a family of modest means, it is very likely that he would have ended his life as a hired hand on a ranch, without any land to his name.  Furthermore, it is likely the same fate would have been true for his son, Riley C. Case, and his son, Riley L. Case, and his son, Riley B. Case and his son, Jay Riley Case.  (Apparently, my family found “Riley” to be a comfortable and reliable name. They must have been spooked by “Zopher.”)

But Zopher Case was born in Ohio and moved to LaGrange County, Indiana when he was twenty.  He was able to buy land there.

I have benefited economically from Zopher’s efforts.  My grandfather grew up on that farm.  The prosperity of the farm and the educational opportunities of LaGrange County (we also often forget that none of us earned or paid for our primary school education) enabled my grandfather to get a college education at Purdue University in 1914.  He used that degree to become a high school principal and then a county extension agent.  When the Depression hit, he not only had a steady job, but extra capital, which he invested – and he continued investing through the 1980s.  When my grandfather passed away in 1988, his estate passed down to my father and aunts.  My parents did not enjoy an especially high income on my father’s salary as a Methodist minister, but they then found themselves with a fair amount of capital.  So when I entered graduate school in 1993, my parents became our banker:  they purchased a house in South Bend that our family moved into.  We were able to make payments to my parents (enjoying generous terms in the deal) even though my graduate school income technically put my family of five below the poverty line.  When we left South Bend six years later, we owned half of the house.  We used the capital from that house to buy the house where we now live in North Canton, Ohio.

Meanwhile, about 174 million people in Latin America make less than $2.50/day.

I have worked hard in my life (well, maybe not so much during those junior high years), but I am still not a self-made man.  Nor was Benjamin Franklin.  Nor are you.  For some mysterious reason, God decided where and when you would be born.

What do we do with that reality?  More on that in a later post.