Religious Liberties

How Christian Missionaries Changed the World

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Teach public school students how the world benefits from Christianity

Too many public school students only learn about Christianity by studying the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the Salem Witch Trials. It is important that they learn the rest of the story. Students of all faiths, and no faith, should understand the impact of Jesus on the world.

Robert Woodberry, a political science professor at National University of Singapore, conducted extensive research on missionaries’ impact around the world. His findings were published in the highly respected American Political Science Review with the title, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”

Woodberry and his research team found that:

“Conversionary Protestants [missionaries] were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely— regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism.”


In a later lecture, Woodberry explained, “missionaries wanted people to read the Bible in their own language, which meant poor people and women needed to be able to read — which now we think is normal but at the time was a revolutionary thing.”

He gave specific examples of his findings. For instance:

“The people of Nagaland and Mizoram (North-East India) did not have a written language before the 1890s; they were hunter-gatherer people. And now they are almost all Baptists. Kerala and Goa have large Catholic populations and a significant number of Protestants by Indian standards. These areas have the highest literacy rates in India, particularly women’s literacy.”


Woodberry found similar patterns regarding mass printing. He points out that “for hundreds of years, people knew how to print and didn’t do it….nobody copied printing until you get Protestant missionaries coming along and printing tens of thousands of texts trying to convert people.”

Economic Prosperity

Woodberry also spoke about the missionaries impact on economic prosperity. For example:

“Missionaries also taught other things in addition to reading; they taught concepts of private property, they spread new skills, they spread new crops. In Ghana they introduced cocoa and cotton, various things like that where they were trying to help indigenous people make money and have self-supporting churches.”

Social Movements

The history of nonviolent social movements is also linked to missionaries. Woodberry points out that, today, people think the activities in social movements (organizing, printing pamphlets, public speaking, petitions, etc.) arise naturally. “However,” Woodberry found, “those techniques were pioneered, for the most part, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they were pioneered mostly by nonconformist Protestants and evangelical Protestants in England and the United States. And they are the people who spread them around the world.”

Reflecting on the impact of Christian missionaries, he tried to find other explanations for the civilizing effects. He admitted, “It startled me certainly when I first found those results, and I spent a lot of time trying to make them go away…and they didn’t go away.”

He acknowledges the complexity of both good and bad actions of missionaries. “You can find examples of almost anything if you look hard enough.” However, he concludes his research with this:

“What we consider modernity was not the inevitable result of economic development, urbanization, industrialization, secularization, or the Enlightenment, but a far more contingent process profoundly shaped by activist religion.”

Woodberry’s research adds to what Historian Rodney Stark, in his book The Triumph of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success :

“Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and rest of you would be reading hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800.”

* * * * * * 

Curriculum Connections

Teachers can introduce students to Woodberry’s findings in academic topics such as:

  1. European colonial activity in Africa and East Asia

  2. How democracy spread around the world

  3. Economic development in the world

  4. The history of social movements in underdeveloped countries

  5. How scientific knowledge spread globally

  6. The role of literacy in modern development

SHARE YOUR IDEAS for how to use Woodberry’s research in your classroom. CLICK HERE

Additional Resources

How Christianity Changed the World, by Alvin Schmidt

The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy, American Political Science Review

Religion and the Roots of Liberal Democracy, The Centre for Independent Studies

Woodberry Lecture: The World the Missionaries Made

"In God We Trust" Promoted in Schools?

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Six states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and Arizona — have recently approved legislation requiring or allowing public schools to display the words “In God We Trust” in prominent locations. South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Kentucky may soon pass similar laws.

“In God We Trust” was adopted as the official motto of the United States in 1956. The fourth stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written during the War of 1812, includes, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our Trust.’” The motto first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864 and on paper currency in 1957.

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However, if the phrase is not understood and appreciated, educators, like those at one Tennessee school (see photo), might conform to the letter of the law by simply posting a copy of a dollar bill. Students will never notice it.

Teaching Your Children and Students a Civics Lesson

It is important that educators teach their students the meaning of the motto. From an educational standpoint, every time students see the national motto they should think of its special meaning for the country.

When used as a national motto, the phrase “In God We Trust” is not a personal declaration. Every person in America does not trust in the same God and some do not believe there is a god at all. How can a nation as diverse as ours make such a specific declaration? 

The phrase reflects the civil foundation upon which America was founded in the same way that “one nation under God” does in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all Men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

America is unique in that it sees rights coming from God, not from the government. Instead of the divine right of kings, our Founders asserted the divine rights of the common man. That was truly revolutionary.

Following the lead of the Declaration, nearly every state constitution begins with thankfulness to the “Sovereign Ruler of the Universe” or “Grateful to Almighty God.” When learning civics, students should understand that the laws of their state flowed from the principle that there is a God who gave Mankind certain unalienable rights and that the state legislators were crafting laws to protect (not grant) those rights.

Giving our national motto more visibility is important. However, without parents and educators promoting its importance, schools can conform to the letter of the law and not inspire students about its value for their lives.

Discussion Questions for Students

1. Since all Americans don’t trust in God, why have a national motto stating, “In God We Trust”?

2. What does the preamble to our state’s constitution say about God (click here) and how does that relate to our national motto?

RESOURCE: For lesson plan ideas on a variety of topics, CLICK HERE.


New Jersey School Board Stands by "Under God" Flag

The East Hanover (New Jersey) Board of Education decided against removing the “One Nation Under God” flags from East Hanover Middle School and the Frank J. Smith Elementary School. This came in response to a letter from the atheist group, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), asking for the removal of the two flags that fly below the American flags. It is worth noting that FFRF isn't just against the display of "One Nation Under God" on a flag. It also opposes the phrase being in the Pledge of Allegiance, as well.

This isn't the first time "under God" has come under attack in New Jersey. In 2015, the Superior Court of New Jersey found in favor of keeping "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance after being challenged by atheists. In American Humanist Association v. Matawan–Aberdeen Regional School District the Court gave this inspiring statement:

"Over and over, from the writings of the founders of the Constitutions of both the United States and the State of New Jersey, emerges a faith in, and a reliance and even dependency upon God to help secure the blessings of liberties and freedom attendant upon good governance....

"[T]he founders of our present 1947 New Jersey Constitution saw fit to preface that document by expressing the gratitude of the people of this state 'to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy,' and the hope that God would 'bless[ ]...our endeavors to secure and transmit the same unimpaired to succeeding generations.' The preamble to the 1947 Constitution is identical to the preamble to the Constitution of 1844.

"Indeed, the New Jersey Constitution, in various permutations since 1776, has made explicit references to 'Almighty God.' Under plaintiffs' reasoning, the very Constitution under which plaintiffs seek redress for perceived atheistic marginalization could itself be deemed unconstitutional, an absurd proposition which plaintiffs do not and cannot advance here. (Emphasis added)

"...Moreover, the words 'under God' are now as interwoven through the fabric of the Pledge of Allegiance as the threads of red, white, and blue into the fabric of the flag to which the pledge is recited. As a matter of historical tradition, the words “under God” can no more be expunged from the national consciousness than the words “In God We Trust” from every coin in the land, than the words “so help me God” from every presidential oath since 1789, or than the prayer that has opened every congressional session of legislative business since 1787." (For more information, visit The Becket Fund.)

Maybe the East Hanover schools should begin posting -- in every classroom -- the preamble to the New Jersey Constitution as a civics lesson:

"We, the people of the State of New Jersey, grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and transmit the same unimpaired to succeeding generations, do ordain and establish this Constitution."

Or, they could just summarize it with the words "one nation under God." Either way, teachers need to instruct their students on why "under God" is so important to our nation, their state, and their own lives. (Read my blog on this.)

As students grow into adulthood they will not defend what they do not cherish, and they will not cherish what they do not understand.

Students defy the ACLU and say "God bless America"

Glenview ElementaryThe ACLU has called for an end to a New Jersey elementary school's tradition, since 9/11, of having students say "God bless America" after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, claiming it is unconstitutional. School district officials were intimidated by the threat of legal action and have decided to no longer initiate the tradition. However, to their credit students at the school continue to say it.

Having students say the words "God bless America" as a patriotic expression is rooted in America's heritage and civic culture. Imagine if the students were taught to recite the preamble to the New Jersey Constitution:

"We, the people of the State of New Jersey, [are] grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy..."

Glenview Elementary School principal, Sam Sassano, stood up for students' right to say "God bless America." He explained, "I recognize everyone's Freedom of Speech right. Many parents have expressed that they want their child to continue to state 'God bless America.' I do not feel I have the authority to forbid this and have assured parents that is their right."

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would be proud of the students. In a recent speech he gave in Louisiana, Associated Press reported:

He told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School that there is "no place" in the country's constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.

"To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?" he said. "To be sure, you can't favor one denomination over another but can't favor religion over non-religion?"

The news of students exercising their right of free speech -- especially regarding what some consider too religious -- is timely. The President will soon be proclaiming January 16 as Religious Freedom Day (as every President has since 1993). I recommend school leaders and educators use the occasion to teach students a civics lesson about their religious freedom at school.

You can help your local schools do that by simply recommending they show students a 3-minute video produced by the Buncombe County (North Carolina) School District. With the help of students, teachers, and the Campbell-Shatley Law Firm, Buncombe County Schools produced The Three R's of Religion in Schools. It explains the U.S. Department of Education's guidelines on students' and teachers' religious freedom.

The Three Rs Video Image


Public School Educators Go to Mosque

Mohamed Omar, former Lebanon Valley Mosque president and former teacher's aid in the Lebanon School District, speaks to Lebanon School District staff at the Lebanon Valley Mosque on Monday, June 8, 2015. Staff members of the Lebanon School District visited the mosque to learn more about Islam. Jeremy Long -- Lebanon Daily News The Lebanon School District in Pennsylvania made news this month because during a work day fifty of its staff attended a local mosque to learn about Islam, eat Middle Eastern food, and watch local Muslims pray. (As far as I could tell, none of the educators joined in the prayer.) I understand the outrage over the double standard—as in, “Being in a religious service doesn’t violate church-state boundaries if it is a religion other than Christianity; it just promotes cultural understanding.”

I realize that it is unlikely that school officials will now designate work days for school staff to spend time at worship services in a Catholic church, a Lutheran church, a Baptist church, and the other 53 Christian denominations in Pennsylvania to promote cultural understanding.

However, rather than pile with on more of the how-dare-schools-reach-out-to-Muslims theme, I suggest we give the school district some credit for at least engaging a portion (albeit a minor, minor, minor portion) of the faith community. (In the Lebanon School District, Muslims make up 1.8% of the student population, and statewide, Muslims are 0.6% of the population.)

We can look at it as the starting point for a larger and, frankly, more important conversation. We need to help school officials around the country understand that religion can be a very positive force in students’ lives. And while they might feel more comfortable and multicultural in starting with minority religious faiths, they need to see that local churches can be tremendous allies in helping produce what school officials are measured by most: academic success.

We all want our students to be successful academically and behaviorally. Research has shown that religion has a positive effect on these goals. Religion is not some arbitrary addition to academics; it is an important part of academic growth.

Studies indicate the positive influence of religion in students’ lives. For instance, Dr. Willem Jeynes of California State University, Long Beach, in his research (involving 4,458 students) on “The Effects of Religious Commitment on the Academic Achievement of Urban and Other Children” found:

“The results indicate that religiously committed urban children performed better on most academic measures than their less religious counterparts, even with controlling for socioeconomic status, race, and gender.”

The journal, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, in 2007 published a study involving over 7,500 children. The study, entitled the “Relationship Between Family Religious Behaviors and Child Well-being Among Third-grade Children,” concluded:

“…family attendance at religious [or] spiritual programs was significantly correlated with improved child health, vocabulary, reading, math, and social skills.”

The religious orientation of students is beneficial to schools in their quest for academic success and they should not merely tolerate it; they should engage it. Unfortunately, because of educators’ misunderstanding of the “separation of church and state,” they do the exact opposite. Thinking they must make their classrooms religion-free zones, they ignore and even ban from the classroom what research shows us is an important learning asset for students – their religious faith.

In Lebanon, PA, just like almost every other school district in America, the majority of religious students in public schools are Christians. Since there is a connection between a students’ religious involvement and academic success, educators need to get much better at publicly welcoming and affirming Christian students’ religious thinking in class.  

When Johnny expresses a religious perspective about a topic in class, rather than shut him up and bark the mantra “separation of church and state,” his teacher needs to realize Johnny is, to use education jargon, connecting life to learning. When Sally says that her opinion about an issue in the news is based on her religious convictions, the teacher should welcome the fact that she is linking her culture to real-world application. And when Miguel writes about his dependence on God for facing trials, the teacher should affirm his social-emotional development. 

I don’t think the educators in Lebanon, PA, were motivated by the idea of promoting Islam, but were simply motivated by a desire to create a more welcoming, understanding, and responsive learning environment for their Muslim students. Now we just need to help them, and many of their colleagues across the country, do the same for the Christian students in their schools.