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