Once upon a time most social scientists assumed that the global march of political and economic modernization would relegate religion to a purely spiritual domain. Few, therefore, contemplated religion's ability to influence the ways in which societies evolve. The advent of theocrats in Iran, the mujahideen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, and Islamists in the skies of New York changed everything. Today social scientists, as well as almost everyone else, have opinions about how religion--in the forms of both spiritual faith and organized religion--shapes domestic and international politics.
This surge of interest has focused chiefly on religion's capacity to inspire intolerance, extremism, and political violence--fuel the "clash of cultures" that influential scholars such as Samuel Huntington have been predicting and that the likes of Al Qaeda (and some voices in the West) have been doing their best to turn into reality. Largely neglected in the public debate over religion's newly acquired--or newly appreciated--political position has been its potential to play a constructive, not destructive, role. A number of clerics and scholars have done both theoretical and practical research on religion's ability to bridge social divides and heal political wounds, but very few people have explored in any depth religion's potential to make a positive contribution to such earthly and secular matters as economic development and state building.
However, religion's potential to spur development is enormous, especially in the world's poorest, most fragile states. From the Congo to Pakistan, faith-based organizations (FBOs) are often the only locally organized groups working among the destitute, filling in for governments where governments are too feeble to provide even basic schooling and health care. In recent years, some international development agencies have enlisted FBOs to deliver various services in impoverished communities. Such schemes, however, see FBOs merely as cogs in a distinctly Western, top-down approach to development, and they ignore the potential of religion to play a major role in building stable, prosperous, and well-governed societies.
How Religion Spurred Western Development
In Africa, the Middle East, and many parts of Asia and Latin America, religion and governance were closely intertwined before the European imperialists arrived, and a similar pattern has reemerged since the Europeans departed. Today, religion continues to exert a powerful influence on how individuals and communities in the developing world interact with each other and with their governments.
In the West, by contrast, the separation of church and state is generally considered to have been a milestone along the road to modernization and is still hailed as a cornerstone of the West's prosperity and democracy. But even Westerners acknowledge that religion was instrumental in helping spur the economic and political revolution that enabled first Europe and then North America to enjoy global predominance. As Max Weber famously argued in the early twentieth century, the "Protestant ethic" and "the spirit of capitalism" went hand in hand. Weber and subsequent sociologists identified at least five ways in which faith encouraged development.
First, certain types of Protestantism--notably, Calvinism--promoted capitalist development in Britain, Holland, Germany, and the United States because they indirectly reshaped social ethics and economic activities. The inherent logic of Protestant teachings encouraged, among other things, planning, frugality, diligence, discipline, capital accumulation, risk taking, a commitment to one's secular vocation, and the pursuit of new ideas such as the sciences and technology.
Second, the organizational structure of some denominations instilled attitudes and taught skills that facilitated economic and political modernization. For instance, some congregations, such as the Quakers, encouraged widespread lay participation in the management of their affairs and debate among members, a style sharply at odds with existing norms in the wider society. …