Monday, January 13, 2014

Recovering the Missionary Roots of a Democratic Society

You don't learn this in high school history class, but there is a close causal nexus between the Great Commission and the benefits of a free, liberal democratic society. Apparently freedom in the gospel and freedom in society go together like a hand in a glove. One provides the form for the other.

The reality is that protestant missionaries and their work set the stage for many of the cultural and political reforms that helped shape our nation's founding identity. And when I say protestant missionaries, I mean the reformed-types from the theological traditions of Calvin, Bullinger, Luther, and Knox. They understood that, in order to transform a culture, you must transform peoples' hearts. Repentance breeds reformation. Not the other way around.

Anyways, I have been making my way through this book (which chronicles the influence of reformed covenant theology on the current democratic systems), trying to get a firmer grasp on the historical influence of evangelical Christianity on our culture at large. The more I read, the more I find out that we are riding the coattails of a society created with orthodox Christianity as a main foundation. Of course, we're doing a bang-up job of throwing it all away, but the connection between a society gripped by the gospel and a free society is non-ignorable.

Then, out of the blue today, this guy pointed me to an article that summarized some important research on this very topic. How serendipitous. Or fortuitous. Either one.

The article on Desiring God does a good job of highlighting the research and its results. The original research, a paper entitled "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy" by Robert Woodberry, systematically catalogues the connection between the missionary presence in a society and that society's grasp of democracy and similar principles. But it's the "nuanced" conclusion—which Desiring God calls an "atomic nuance"—that deserves the most attention. It is the distinguishing fact that drives the conclusion. Quoting from the original paper, the article notes, "'[t]here is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked' (40)."

The implication, says John Piper, is that "the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the 'conversion' of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life." How true. And now the data backs it up: if you want to change the culture, you need to change hearts first. Really, you should want to change hearts before you change culture. If pastors and evangelists make cultural transformation their energizing focus, Piper said, they will lose their culturally transforming power. Amen to that.

But let's continue to think about this on the arc of history so that we can see where we are headed, or at least where we should set our sights. What we see is that where the gospel goes forth and takes root in a society, democratic and free principles soon follow. In other words, the transformation of peoples' hearts results in a transformation of that society. And the fruit of that transformation is freedom and liberation—religious liberty, widespread education, economic flourishing, artistic expression, and widespread engagement in non-governmental civic organizations. Again, they go hand in hand.

Now let's look at where we are as a society today. Our cultural milieu does not place a high value on traditional liberal democratic ideals. Religious liberty and economic liberty in particular have seen better days. And we know that, on a pop-culture level, the gospel of Christ is despised to the core. It is anathema to what the prevailing culture considers to be "freedom."

So here's the good news. Just like the "conversionary protestants" that evangelized the nation, producing the societal fruit that we now despise, we are poised for a similar harvest in future generations. Slowly gaining momentum in several parts of the country—and in our city in particular—is a movement of gospel-centered evangelism and church-planting. Don't underestimate the power of the gospel preached to sinners. It is the power of God for salvation. In other words, we have the resources for a cultural renewal at our disposal. We have—and are cultivating—everyday missionaries who are willing to lay down their everyday lives for the spread of the gospel. We are making disciples, multiplying neighborhood parishes, and planting churches. That's how we plant the seeds of the gospel that reap the fruit of cultural change in the future. Because God authored the gospel in such a way that widespread heart change always produces cultural change, we can have faith that our disciple-making will have an earthy, tangible impact on future generations.

There are several things we can learn from Robert Woodberry's paper, and I hope he turns his research into a full-fledged book. The church would be well-served by it. But the thing we can learn—and that we ought to take to heart—is that a robust Christian society isn't some relic of a bygone era or a mere fantasy. It is the result of Christ-driven evangelism. And it is something we can look forward to as we labor in making disciples and watch the Holy Spirit transform hearts. Because after He transforms hearts, those hearts use their hands to transform the culture.


  1. Kyle, I like this article. It is well written and an interesting read. - Chad

    1. Thanks, Chad! Glad you liked it. It's a topic I've been pondering for quite some time.