Evangelical Missions and Democratic Values


Theoretical background and objectives

The project consists of three in-depth quantitative case studies on the relation between Evangelical missions and democracy. I argue that the relationship between Evangelism and democratic values (Dahl 1989) need not be positive. Two positive mechanisms—the introduction of egalitarian beliefs and the focus on peaceful conflict mediation—are counterbalanced by three negative mechanisms, namely, the creation of individualist preferences, the propagation of uncritical obedience, and the weakening of social ties. Paying close attention to a causally identified design, I propose to test the salience of the mechanisms in three places: Peru, South Sudan, and Togo. The three cases allow me to (observationally) vary the degree of development each site has been exposed to, which I argue can be interpreted as a key predictor of each mechanism’s explanatory efficacy under a set of strong assumptions. I thus provide evidence that missions are conducive to democracy in weakly-democratized polities (e.g., Sudan), while the effect is negative in democratized polities (e.g., Peru).

The literature on religion and politics has reached a questionable consensus that Protestantism causes democracy (Tusalem 2009). The statistical correlation between the two variables is remarkably robust, relying on fine-grained data over an extended period of time (Woodberry 2012). Several mechanisms have been put forth to mediate this relationship, including missionaries’ provision of education (Barro 1999), public goods (Woodberry and Shah 2004), and a public sphere (Graff 1987). From a statistical standpoint, however, cross-country regressions, even when controlling for observable differences, are problematic. For one, historic Evangelical proselytism was conducted mostly by Western missionaries who selected communities following established colonial clusters rather than converting people at random (Nunn 2010). Second, the data on missions is known to be incomplete and subject to differential reporting biases across countries. Third, the existing data sets focus exclusively on Western missionary activity and, thus, omit the effect of indigenous missionaries.

To bridge the aforementioned shortcomings, the present research project pays particular attention to a research design that affords a causal interpretation of empirical results. I focus on cases where villages and individuals exposed to Evangelical missions can be compared to a meaningful control group by using a geographic discontinuity design (Togo), by exploiting a natural experiment (Peru) and by actually randomizing the assignment of mission posts (South Sudan).

The outcome the project analyzes is not whether a local community will democratize. In conjunction with most theorists of democratization, I conceptualize democratization as a latent variable that relies crucially on democratic values (Treier and Jackman 2008; Inglehart 1991; Di Palma 1990). I hence take the view that the “development of a stable and effective democratic government depends upon the orientations that people have to the political process—upon the political culture” (Almond and Verba 1963: 498). Adapting Dahl (1989), I focus on five pivotal democratic values—equality, freedom, peace, criticality, and public spirit.

Evangelical missions affect these five values via five mechanisms, which I plan to observationally scrutinize. Two mechanism—namely, the introduction of egalitarian beliefs and the focus on peaceful conflict mediation—foster democratic values, particularly, the belief in equality and peace. Two mechanisms—the propagation of uncritical obedience and the weakening of social ties—undermine democratic values, particularly, the belief in a critical relation to authority and public spiritedness. One mechanisms—the fostering of individualist preferences—has an ambivalent effect; it fosters the value of freedom and undermines the value of public spiritedness.

Importantly, I argue that the extent to which these democratic values are affected by the five mechanisms spelled out above depends on a given society’s level of development—by which I refer to the prior existence of democratic values and organized religion. In undeveloped societies where democratic values are weakly established and Christianity is largely absent, Evangelical missionaries foster democratic values by introducing egalitarian beliefs that supplant existing hierarchical structures and by spreading a belief system that focuses on peaceful conflict mediation. The three remaining mechanisms carry less weight: obedience is often considered a byproduct of traditionally hierarchical societies and individualist values and a weakening of networks is difficult to achieve in dense social settings. In semi-developed societies with weakly established democratic practices and exposure to Christianity, Evangelical missionaries’ effect on democratic values is ambivalent. While the belief system continues to foster equality and peace, it also introduces individualist preferences, non-critical obedience to authority and the weakening of societal networks—two of which undermine two pivotal democratic values. In near-developed societies with significant democratic practices and prior exposure to organized religion, Evangelical proselytism has a detrimental effect on democratic values. Since equality and peace are already firmly established values, Evangelism weakens democracy by fostering the individualization of preferences, by demanding uncritical obedience to God and by weakening social bonds.

Research design, data and methodology

In order to address the change missionaries bring, three key pieces of evidence are to be collected.

2.1 Treatment measurement: To gain an understanding of the treatment comparability across all sites and villages, I will collect the following information: 1) I will geo-code all mission posts to facilitate propensity score matching; 2) I will record at least two sermons in each village and use text analysis to describe the theological content of the services; 3) I will record when each mission was built and count the average attendance at each post; 4) I will obtain lists of frequent attenders to cross-check compliance rates provided by individuals.

2.2 Individual-level outcomes: In addition to using standard attitudinal measures, I will apply the following behavioral games to assess each hypothesis. H1: Clark’s (1998) equality experiment. H2: Vignette experiment with different conflict scenarios. H3: Dictator game and public goods provision game (VCM). H4: Obedience and conformity experiment. H5: Trust game (Berg et al. 1995) and compliance experiment. The alternative explanations are difficult to test experimentally. Nonetheless, I will test H6 by having subjects fill out a knowledge test and H7 by testing literacy rates.

2.3 Community-level outcomes: Community-level outcomes will be collected largely by conducting in- depth interviews with key decision-makers, including chiefs/presidents, police officers, and church leaders. Where available, I will obtain administrative data, including incidences of ousting traditional leaders (H1); incidences and reports of violence (H2); turnout rates (H3); compliance with police activity (H4); frequency of community gatherings (H5); applications to build schools or provide education campaigns (H6); the circulation of books or pamphlets (H7).