The World-Wide Problem of Corruption – and its Biblical Remedy

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In this blog posting on corruption and bad governance I begin by highlighting the exciting and encouraging work of the sociologist Robert Woodberry. Dr. Woodberry has demonstrated, with rigorous and award winning statistical analysis, that economic progress, democracy and civil society in the Third World countries are positively correlated to the past presence and activities of Protestant missionaries. Woodberry is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change (PREC) at the National University of Singapore (a high prestige and very good university in that part of the world).

His work was recently featured in a lengthy article in Christianity Today. The link is HERE

Dr. Woodberry’s work may be seen as the latest addition to the “Weber thesis.” To summarize: back in 1905, Dr. Max Weber, published a lengthy article called, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” one of the most famous pieces of sociological analysis ever produced. He saw that there was a strong correlation between Protestantism, especially Calvinism and Puritanism, and the rise of modern capitalism (free markets), and in turn, the large scale prosperity that came to Northern Europe. Southern, “Catholic” Europe developed its free market economies much slower and less efficiently. Weber believed the difference was due to the fact that Reformed theology freed the individual from many of the anti-economic attitudes that had accumulated in Catholicism. These included such attitudes as guilt about wealth, or the tendency to give accumulated wealth to the Church (and thus reducing capital accumulation), or to see the monastic life as “holy” and the merchant life as “greedy.” Recall that even St. Augustine, the fount of so much of Western theology, accepted without biblical reflection, the Greco-Roman view that the merchant’s vocation was unethical and spiritually dangerous:

Let traders hear and change their life; and if they have been such, be not such; … let them not approve, not praise [trading]; let them disapprove, condemn, be changed, if trading is a sin. For on this account, O thou trader, because of a certain eagerness for getting, whenever you shall have suffered loss, you will blaspheme; … But whenever for the price of the goods which you are selling, thou not only liest, but even falsely swearest; how in your mouth all the day long is there the praise of God?[1]   

Further research corroborated Weber’s initial findings. A recent study has focused on the fact that Calvinism and Puritan theology freed the middle class to be entrepreneurs with high social status. Being a good businessman in Geneva, Amsterdam, London or Boston meant, for the first time in history, respectability.[2] This attitude did not develop in civilizations such as China which had higher technology than Western Europe, but were bound by anti-merchant cultural and religious assumptions. Thus, in China the free-market and its poverty destroying characteristics was delayed until recent decades when the pretend Communist government finally saw the light.

But back to Dr. Woodberry’s discoveries, he shows us the other facet of the great 19th Protestant missionary effort. It is the long range political benefits of Protestantism and Protestant missionary activity. His seminal article, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” appeared in the flagship journal of American political science, the American Political Science Review, in May 2012. It was a work of masterful data collection and analysis. The article won the American Political Science Association’s 2013 Luebbert Best Article Award given for the best article in the field of comparative politics.

It briefly concludes:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.[3]

(The link to his seminal article is here, and can be downloaded easily HERE

To elaborate just a bit. Dr. Woodbury demonstrated a strong positive relationship between the presence of 19th Century non-government sponsored Protestant missionaries, which he calls “conversionary Protestants,” and the presence of relatively prosperous countries which have much better chances of having functional democracies and civil societies, with non-authoritarian governments.

The chain of causality is this: the missionaries came to colonial Africa and Asia and were shocked by the poverty and dysfunctional nature of the local societies. Soon, besides preaching the Gospel, which was their main task, they set about making life better. They did this by setting up schools, including schools for girls, and many of these schools later became universities. Missionaries often vigorously fought for the rights of the natives from European exploitation and encroachments. For instant, the present state of Botswana was created by the energies, protests and social activism of Protestant missionaries who stopped White European land seizures.

The contrast with the Roman Catholic missionary effort is important. Until the 1960s, Catholic missionaries were most often sponsored and paid for by the colonial governments. Their main concern was for the spiritual care, i.e. catechism and baptism. A case in point is the history of the two Congos, French and Belgium. Both colonies terribly abused the natives in slave like conditions in rubber plantations and gold mines. The French permitted only Catholic missionaries into the country. The Belgium government permitted some Protestant missionaries also. It was a Protestant missionary couple which photographed the horrid conditions of the natives in the Belgium Congo, sneaked the pictures out, and lobbied the European and American public to stop the abuses. The Belgium government was forced to reform it practices.

This is the very opposite of the current popular view, that missionaries “ruined” native cultures, as in Hawaii the novel by James Michener. Woodberry readily admits that there is some truth to this popular stereotype. For instance, the first Puritan missionaries to the Native Americans tried to make them into Englishmen as well as Christian, with English dress, farming, etc. But the opposite is more common in missionary work, as in the early Moravian missions in India, or more famously, Hudson Taylor and his China Inland Mission.

The best thing of Woodberry’s work is that his statistical analysis brings the “good missionary” “bad missionary” narrative out of mere anecdotal incidents and shows with numbers that where “conversionary Protestant” missionaries worked there was a flow of long term good fruit in education, formation of civil society and democracy.

This link includes a complete bibliography of Woodberry’s published works

The “De Arteaga Extension”

I would like to affirm and extend the general thrust of the Weber/Woodberry analysis of the “good fruit” of Protestantism in economic prosperity and civil society by focusing on the problem of corruption. My methodology is anecdotal and theological, I leave it to Woodberry or other trained in statistics to carry out a more detailed examination. I have but one piece of statistical information to share: it is the listing of countries by corruption index, from the best to the worst (below).

The well respected organization, Transparency International ranks the Mexican and Argentinian governments as a tie for “most corrupt” in Latin America, but since I have had family and pastoral contacts only with Mexico this posting will concentrate on Mexico.

But merely scanning the daily news one can see that something especially diabolical has happened to Mexico, as corruption has seeped into, and transformed, practically all of its government institutions, especially the police and judicial system. Trust in the established police and judiciary is so lacking that recently Mexican citizens have begun armed vigilante groups in order to protect themselves from the murderous cartels. American may not understand that in the last several years the cartels have expanded their activities from merely drug and sex trafficking to systematic extortion of businesses and hostage taking. The police do nothing to stop this, as they are paid off.

In fact, the Mexican City police are as likely to kidnap, torture and extort ransom from innocent Mexicans as any cartel group. Police corruption became so bad in Mexico City that the city government called in the retired major of New York Rudy Giuliani, to try to clean up the situation. He did not have much success.

Some in this country and in Mexico like to blame the US for Mexico’s horrendous situation. But that is both unfair and counter-productive, since such an attitude does not face the historical and spiritual roots of the problem.   The historical roots of Mexico’s government sector corruption problem are as old as its foundations. When the Spanish Crown set up the administrative structures of the Latin American colonies (“provinces”) it had no money to pay the administrators. The administrators in turn began to charge for their services in lieu of salary, and of course that system quickly become capricious, and destructive. Further, since “service to the King” was seen as a morally acceptable profession (together with law, medicine and the army) many posts and legal procedures were created to give work to middle class persons and to save them from the “indignity” of work in commerce.

None of that changed when Mexico became independent, nor was the situation remedied with the populist and leftist revolution of 1917, which Mexicans often romanticize. In fact, when the PRI party evolved out of the chaos of the 1917 Revolution, it installed corruption as a well understood pattern of co-existence with its citizenry.

I was raised in New York City, but my family had many business and personal connections with Latin America and especially Mexico. About 1956 my aunt took an executive post in Mexico City for an American drug company which was partnering with a growing Mexican drug and cosmetics company. She later related that she had to go to the Presidential Palace and bribe someone “at the top” to allow the importation of chalk (for toothpaste manufacturing) which was against the law.

In 1958, the son of one of my aunt’s Mexican business friends came to say with us to further his education. Among our conversations he mentioned in joking manner, corruption of the Mexican penal system. Mexican gangsters could pay off guards for luxurious private cells with TVs, etc. The point is, well before the BIG money of drug trafficking, the Mexican judiciary and penal system was corrupted.

I stayed with my aunt for two summers, 1963 and 1964, in Mexico City in very beautiful and pleasant circumstances. Police corruption was by then endemic, but the drug cartels had not arisen yet, so life in Mexico seemed good. Middle class Mexicans “worked around” police and court corruption by such things as having an extra 100 peso note in the car in case of a traffic stop. I remember watching a famous Mexican TV comedian impersonating a new policeman. When asked if he liked his job he said “Sure, I built my house in just one year.” That is, he took enough bribes to build a nice house in just a year.

In 1985, when my aunt retired and moved to Miami, she was divested of her most valuable household possessions at the border crossing by the Mexican police. Even with her excellent social and government connections she could do nothing about it.

At that time few imagined that that habit of corruption would lead to the present murderous, “failed state” situation of the Mexican border states. Notice that the present President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, was elected on the (unspoken) promise of going easy on the cartels. The previous president, Felipe Calderon, had fought the cartels, but achieved only a blody stand-off.

My last visit to Mexico was in 1971, but I pastored a predominantly Mexican congregation in Smyrna, Georgia, where I was kept abreast of the deteriorating situation. One of my most faithful parishioners, a businessman who had come with his family legally, returned to Mexico every year to visit relatives (something my other “undocumented” folks could not do). He made a habit of taking in a U-Haul full of used appliances to his home town which he would re-sell at a good profit. He paid a “transit tax” to the cartel guards at the border, not to the Mexican government. He told me that once he paid that “tax” he was confident no one would attempt to rob him, as any such thief would face torture and execution by the cartel enforcers. In a certain sense, the cartel goons could provide a better standard of justice and safety than the Mexican government – at least in this instance.

Tracing the Spiritual Root:

Many of the parishioners at “San Lazaro” were middle class and relatively well educated, and almost all brought up as Catholics. They had been baptized, catechized, did their first holy communions (a big thing in Mexican Catholic culture) etc. They generally had a fine moral sense, but were appreciative of the biblically based teaching I offered, and the sacramental ministry of Anglicanism that so closely resembled what they were used to. One Sunday I laid out the biblical case from Old Testament scriptures against corruption as abhorrence to the Lord. Among the scriptures I quoted was:

Deut. 16:18-19

Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent.

I also cited several of the prophets, who were equally fierce against the sin of bribery.

My congregation was astounded at this. They had never heard these scripture, or noticed them. They believed that corruption was part of the sin of stealing, but never saw it specifically mention in the Bible. I asked them if any of the catechism questions they memorized for holy communion and confirmation had ever dealt with corruption. Not one, they said. And there is the crux of the issue. Before modern times the Catholic Church discouraged the individual reading of the scriptures, lest one fall into heresy. What was read at mass in the course of the lectionary year was sufficient.[4]

Most importantly, traditional Catholic theology and instruction downplayed the significance of the Old Testament. This was due to specific historical circumstances and was not a conscious theological teaching. It came from the battle with the heretic Marcion (c. 85-160). He had a valid insight that there was a New Testament for Christians, (the Gospel of Luke and Paul’s Epistles) but also affirmed that the Old Testament was inspired by a “lesser God,” not the Father of Jesus. He reasoned that only a lesser god could demand the genocide of the Canaanite people, and other Old Testament atrocities. The Church accepted his valid insight about a New Testament and eventually formed the New Testament canon, but also affirmed the inspiration of the Old Testament. However, in the debate the Church largely adopted an “allegorical” interpretation of the Old Testament which literal meanings meant something “more spiritual” and thus could skirt the issue of the wrath of God and other unpleasantries. It came to generally ignoring the Old Testament as a guide to daily life under the rubric that the New Covenant trumped the Old. When I entered the Catholic charismatic renewal back in the 1970s, my spiritual director was surprised that I had spent a lot of money on a cassette version of the Old Testament. Why not concentrate on the New?

What I am suggesting is that the catechism focused Christianity of traditional Roman Catholicism, and its poor understanding of the Old Testament, not specific Catholic doctrines, were the factors what made the differences between Catholic economic and political culture (and lack of the same) and the Protestant improvements. What Max Weber called the “Protestant Ethic” is really a “closer-to-the-Bible ethic” that is the natural product of Christians directly reading the Bible instead of deriving their faith from only the catechism.

Now for a hint of statistical evidence to my assertions. The following is the ranking from Transparency International of the top twelve least corrupt “government sector” counties in the world. The numerical value after the country indicated numerical values for lack of corruption with 100 being the ideal, absolutely no corruption state that does not exist.[5]

1 Denmark 91 7
1 New Zealand 91 7
3 Finland 89 7
3 Sweden 89 7
5 Norway 86 7
5 Singapore 86 9
7 Switzerland 85 6
8 Netherlands 83 7
9 Australia 81 8
9 Canada 81 7
1 Luxembourg 80 6
1 Germany 78 8


The countries on the top twelve list were deeply impacted by the Reformation and the Protestant view of life (and Bible reading). The exception is Singapore. When it was founded as a commercial colony of Brittan the founders realized they had few natural resources, and needed to attract business people from all over the globe. Part of that strategy was to create an absolutely fair court and police system so that a foreign person could come, and if he had a law suit, would feel his case was being judged on the merits, and not on the local whims or bribes of the political elites.

The rest of the nations were predominantly Protestant, at least until the great Post War decline in European Christianity. In the Early Modern period (1600 on), as the Northern European (Protestant) states were being formed, the people in this region read and took the Bible (Old and New Testament) with upmost seriousness. The Prussian state, which in many ways was the model bureaucracy for all of Northern Europe, was solidly Protestant. Thus the civil service formed, established its traditions and procedures, which included no bribery, in a Protestant spiritual environment. This them became a set of expectations and institutional traditions that fed personal self-esteem, so that by the 20th Century a self-perpetuating, bribery free, civil service was a given – even as the Biblical roots were being eroded and disdained.

In an interview section in Christianity Today cited above, Dr. Woodbury jokes that the best way to make an impoverished and corrupt Third World country more prosperous, less corrupt, and more democratic would be to invent a time machine, go back to the Nineteenth Century and send a boatload of Protestant missionaries to that country. I would amend that to say, that to get out of corruption, it is not necessary to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism as such. Rather, it is necessary to convert to a Bible reading Christianity, a charismatic Catholicism would do OK.




[1] St. Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 71, v14-15, available online at multiple sites.

[2] Lauren F. Winner, “The Most Satisfying Trade,” Books and Culture, posted 10/28/10.

[3] Andrea Palpant Dilley, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” Christianity Today, posted 1/8/2014 12:07PM

[4] This seems unduly harsh, especially in view of modern Catholic spiritually and especially the Catholic charismatic movement that grew from the 1970s, but for those of us raised in pre-Vatican II Catholicism, we remember that the normal Catholic household had no Bible.

[5] The whole table can be viewed HERE

5 thoughts on “The World-Wide Problem of Corruption – and its Biblical Remedy

  1. Thanks William DeArteaga IF you keep on rolling them like that we may restore your WHOLE BLOG by Christmas 🙂 In this blog posting on corruption and bad governance I begin by highlighting the exciting and encouraging work of the sociologist Robert Woodberry. Dr. Woodberry has demonstrated, with rigorous and award winning statistical analysis, that economic progress, democracy and civil society in the Third World countries are positively correlated to the past presence and activities of Protestant missionaries. Woodberry is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change (PREC) at the National University of Singapore (a high prestige and very good university in that part of the world).

    His work was recently featured in a lengthy article in Christianity Today. The link is HERE

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