Christianity and the civic culture

In 1963 political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba published a groundbreaking study titled The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Based on their research, they came up with three categories of political cultures ranging from parochial to subject to participatory. In a parochial culture people have little interest in public affairs and focus their attention on particular concerns, especially those connected with family networks. In a participatory culture, people see themselves as citizens and take an active role in civic life, with the subject culture falling in between the other two.

Obviously the authors believed that a functioning democracy requires a civic culture characterized by a high level of participation in public life. But how does religious faith, especially Christianity, fit into all this? Does it or does it not support the civic culture? Two studies appear to offer contradictory answers.

An Italian study
Robert Putnam undertook a two-decade study of Italy’s quasi-federal regions after they were established in 1970, focusing in particular on the functioning of their governing institutions. He reported his findings in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993). He discovered that northern regions, home of the civic republics of the late middle ages, were far more effective than those in the south, long governed under a series of foreign autocratic rulers.

However, one element of Putnam’s findings is puzzling. The south of Italy was more religiously observant than the north during the time of Putnam’s study. Clan networks were all-important, and levels of trust between people outside of these networks were low. Few people read newspapers, and regional political institutions were dysfunctional and inefficient. Poverty was widespread because the low levels of trust impeded economic co-operation. But people attended church.

Northerners, by contrast, were more public-spirited, investing their energies in a wide range of co-operative ventures. This part of Italy is one of the principal engines of the global economy, and residents tend to be prosperous. The institutions of regional government are effective and well-run. However, here church attendance is lower.

Might Christianity actually weaken the civic culture rather than strengthening it? Some have come to this conclusion.

However, in 2012 Robert Woodberry published the findings of an important study that surprisingly demonstrated the positive connection between functioning democratic institutions and the influence of “conversionary” protestant missionaries sent to those countries. The impact of the missionaries was almost wholly positive, suggesting that Christian faith of a certain kind is conducive to the success of democracy.

Old patterns
Putnam’s and Woodberry’s conclusions seem to be at odds, and there is no easy way to resolve the apparent paradox. However on this 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s initial efforts to reform the church, I suspect that differences between Rome and the Reformation may still have salience beyond confessional distinctives.

The “conversionary” element may be significant for countries such as Ghana, while the principal form of Christianity in Sicily, Calabria and Apulia is a type of Roman Catholicism in which members see themselves primarily as passive recipients of sacramental grace dispensed by a priest. Thus in southern Italy the church is part of a centuries-old patron-client relationship between clergy and lay people, while in other countries missionaries encouraged horizontal ties of solidarity within the congregations based on the priesthood of all believers.

Lest we conclude, however, that Catholicism is a monolithic force for political autocracy, we need to recall that, under recent popes, especially John Paul II, Rome has thrown its institutional and cultural-formative weight behind democratic movements around the world, contributing to the end of communism in eastern Europe and bringing about a resurgence of democracy in Latin America and elsewhere during the 1980s.

This shift may narrow at least the cultural, economic and political, if not the confessional, gap between Rome and the Reformation. Moreover, it could herald among a variety of Christians around the globe a fresh awareness of the profound implications of the gospel for the health of civic life.  

  • David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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