The im­pact of Chris­tian­ity to­day

The Church of England - - COMMENT - Paul Richard­son

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.

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