Christianity is the greatest engine of moral reform and cultural riches the world has known

Often media outlets, it seems, are uninterested in religion — especially Christianity — except when it is connected to scandals or electoral controversies. Thus, we get a steady diet of news about sex abuse cover-ups, politicized preachers and more. Unfortunately, a great deal of this negative coverage is entirely deserved by Christians and their churches.

But as Christians reflect on the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, it is a good time to remember that Christianity has massively contributed to good in world history as well. Other religions have done so, too, and Christianity’s effects are impossible to disconnect from the Jewish tradition from which it sprang. Christianity, however, is arguably the greatest engine of moral reform and cultural riches that the world has known.

That’s a big claim, but many studies and books back it up. To cite just one, sociologist Robert Woodberry showed in a landmark 2012 article that Christian missionaries were responsible for much of the global spread of cultural values such as “religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms” from Latin America to East Asia. For a century, skeptical scholars have lambasted missionaries as tools of the British and American empires. Sometimes those charges were warranted, as significant numbers of mission stations became sites of economic exploitation, or worse.

But Woodberry demonstrated that the enduring effects of Christian missions were overwhelmingly positive for the countries receiving them. Even when many indigenous people did not convert to Christianity, they still enjoyed benefits of Christianity’s influence. Where Christian (especially Protestant) missionaries went, Woodberry found higher levels of education, literacy, economic flourishing, the rule of law, and effective government than elsewhere. In other words, Christianity has inculcated healthy patterns of democracy.

Similarly, who could imagine Western civilization’s art and literature without Christianity? The Christian influence on Western societies, especially the United States, is so pervasive that it is easy not to notice it, especially as our biblical literacy has declined over the past half century. From Leonardo da Vinci to Caravaggio, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major European artist before the modern period who didn’t paint the Nativity of Christ, or the shepherds, or wise men. The Kimbell Art Museum’s The Adoration of the Magi by Renaissance artist Jacopo Bassano is just one of hundreds of evocative depictions of the Christ child between the 1400s and 1800s. Through the early 20th century, scenes from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were the most common sources of inspiration for great artists.

In spite of our increasingly secular culture, we still see Christianity’s impact in countless instances today in art, literature, music and movies, such as those of Austin-based filmmaker Terrence Malick. But perhaps the most important way America depends on its lingering Christian heritage is in works of charity. For example, a Baylor-sponsored 2017 study demonstrated that faith-based groups such as the Salvation Army supply almost 60 percent of all emergency shelter beds for America’s homeless. The Salvation Army and the Southern Baptist Convention also manage two of the three biggest disaster-relief agencies in America (the other is the Red Cross). And these represent just a sliver of the vast spectrum of benevolent works provided by denominations and other faith-inspired organizations.

So despite the unrelenting bad news about Christians, I shudder to think of a world to which Christ never came. His arrival brought hope of human flourishing and redemption, in this life and the next.

Thomas S. Kidd is a history professor at Baylor University and the author of books including Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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