The impact of Christianity today
Assessing the impact of Christianity on 2,000 years of history is not an easy task. In the present climate it is a brave scholar who tries to highlight the positives. Received wisdom treats religious belief as a source of bigotry, intolerance and conflict.
But this negative picture is a recent phenomenon. Harold Wilson was fond of saying that Methodism was more important than Marxism in the history of the Labour party and in both the US and South Africa the churches have been seen as champions of human rights.
Two scholars have now tried to correct recent critical assessments of the influence of Christianity by arguing that it has been an important force for spreading democracy.
Larry Siedentop in his new book Inventing the Individual claims that we should look to Christianity for the stress on the individual, human rights and equality that undergird Western democracy and Robert Woodberry, a sociologist teaching in the National University of Singapore, has argued in an important article in the American Political Science Review that people he labels ‘conversionary Protestant missionaries’ played a key role in spreading democracy in the former colonies of the developing world.
Siedentop, who taught political thought for many years at Oxford, argues that it was Christianity which broke with the emphasis on the family and stress on the authority of the male head of the family and which made it possible to think of people as individuals who were all equally loved by God. Siedentop even suggests that St Paul may have been the greatest revolutionary in human history.
It took more than a millennium for the implications of the New Testament’s thinking to be fully understood and Siedentop follows those scholars of medieval histo- ry who have ascribed a key role to the canonists writing in the 12th Century whom Brian Tierney credited with the discovery of the concept of human rights. The concept of natural law was revived and revised by lawyers at the universities of Bologna, Padua, Paris and Oxford. Rights were seen as belonging to the individual as such and able to serve as criteria of legitimate social organisations.
At first glance Woodberry’s argument is different from that advanced by Siedentop. He provides statistical evidence to show that conversionary Protestant missionaries (CPs) were the most effective agents for spreading democracy. State-supported Protestants and Catholics before 1960 were not important.
According to Woodberry, CPs were ‘a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, printing, newspapers, voluntary organisations, most major colonial reforms and the codification of legal protection for non-whites in the 19th Century and early 20th Century’.
There may seem a contradiction between what Siedentop is saying and the argument that Woodberry makes. Why was the Catholic Church an important influence for spreading respect for equality and human rights in medieval Europe but not in the empires the colonial powers established?
Many factors may have been at work. The fact that CPs looked for individual conversions may have strengthened the sense of self-worth of converts and convinced them they had the power to take control of their lives but it should not be forgotten that many CPs actually worked through what were known as ‘people movements’ and aimed to convert clans and tribes.
An important factor may be that while in medieval Europe the church saw itself as a separate authority from the state with its own power of the keys, in the colonial empires of Spain, France and Portugal the church was too ready to ally itself with state. It was commonly said that the French secularist policy of ‘laicite’ stopped at the borders of France. In French colonies church and state worked together.
It would be interesting to see if Catholic missionaries from an Irish background operating in British colonies had a more positive impact in encouraging democracy than Catholic missionaries in general.
Woodberry’s article, which appeared in 2012, has already sparked debate. It was the subject of a long article in the Jan/Feb issue of Christianity Today. One question that should concern both believers and nonbelievers alike is whether our commitment to human rights and human equality will survive the decline of faith if it really is the case that their emergence was linked to Christianity.
Rowan Williams is among those to argue Christianity has produced liberalism and that it is difficult to understand human rights apart from religion. He has also suggested that once values are widely accepted in a culture it is difficult to undermine them. It is on this basis that he has advocated what he calls ‘interactive pluralism’ in Western societies.
I am less convinced. When the religious beliefs of a culture change, that is bound to have an impact on other, widely held attitudes and values. Can belief in human equality survive loss of the belief that we are all made in God’s image and equally loved by him? Recent comments by NHS officials that elderly people who are not economically productive members of society should have less claim on expensive drugs that more useful, younger members of society is a sign that a major shift is underway. Gospel values are ceasing to check and modify the values of the market.