Will 10% more Protestants lead to less corruption?


Protestants are less inclined to commit a sin because they do not have the same faculty of achieving pardon as Catholics do

‘WE SHALL studiously avoid offending the religious susceptibilities of any portion of the community,” stated the inaugural editorial of The Irish Times in 1859. My apologies in advance then to Lawrence Edward Knox, the 22-year-old Protestant Englishman, who founded this newspaper.

A positive correlation exists between Catholicism and corruption. Political science literature and academic research suggests that the more Protestant the population, the less corrupt the country. Divergent views on sin and loyalty account for this corpulent assertion.

So, with a deep sacred breath, here we go.

Catholicism is a hierarchical religion. The Catholic Church places emphasis on the inherent weakness and shortcomings of human beings, their inability to escape sin and the consequent need for the church to be forgiving and protecting.

The clergy, as mediators between mankind and God, facilitate, via confession, the possibility to be absolved of guilt. As laid down by the Council of Trent, priests have this authority “because that our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to heaven, left priests his own vicars, as presidents and judges . . . in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins”.

On the other hand, the egalitarian organisation typical of Protestantism believes that individuals are personally responsible for avoiding sin rather than relying upon the institutional forgiveness of the church. Protestant culture is less understanding when lapses from grace occur.

The institutionalisation of virtue and the compulsion to cast out the wicked is underlined more explicitly.

The implication therefore is that Protestants are less inclined to commit a sin because they do not have the same faculty of achieving pardon as Catholics do.

Diverging attitudes towards loyalty to the state were born when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door in Germany. The Reformation was initiated in response to growing concerns of corruption regarding the sale of indulgences and church positions by the church hierarchy.

The separation between church and state tends to be further pronounced in Protestant societies which instead promote an autonomous and vivacious civil society.

Research by Robert Putnam, acclaimed author of Bowling Alone and key speaker for the 2005 Fianna Fáil annual think-in, has shown that the more civic a society, the greater the degree of trust by citizens in their political institutions. Putnam regards Protestant churches as particularly important for American civic society and characterised a healthy civic community by its strong sense of civic engagement, political equality, solidarity and social capital.

Detailed academic papers and datasets on the different aspects of this subject are freely available to download from internet search engine results or the personal websites of political theorists – Daniel Treisman, Martin Paldam, Rafael La Porta, AJ Heidenheimer, Donatella della Porta, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gabriel Lenz.

In Treisman’s 2000 cross national study, for example, the University of California professor contends that countries with a Protestant tradition, a history of British rule and a developed economy are less corrupt.

In his comparison between Ireland and Denmark, he suggests that if Ireland had an additional 5-10 per cent Protestant population, our corruption rating would be that of Denmark’s, which has consistently been in the top five least corrupt countries in the world since polling began.

Although methodological issues arise regarding the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, it serves to illustrate this broad point. Take Europe as an example. Over the past 13 years, the least corrupt countries have been our northern European Protestant neighbours, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The Catholic countries of southern Europe have wavered in the ranks of the most corrupt in Europe.

Although geographically in the North, Ireland shares many characteristics with the South. Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain have traditionally been distinguished by clannish catch-all parties and entrenched centre- periphery politics.

Religion and society share comparable hierarchical predilections. These personages of authority, moulded by absolute deference stretched across a generation, are now crashing down around us – the Michael Fingletons, the Seánie FitzPatricks, the béal bocht property developers and the national politicians in their constituency castles.

When I presented these facts at a Belfast University conference a few years ago, I was intercepted by an indignant student immediately afterwards.

I had let down my faith, the men of 1916 and all those going back to 1798 and an act of contrition was at once demanded. I reassured the devotee that the family undertaking background made us quite aware of religious difference and that we were always the very, very, last to let anybody down, Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter alike.

Maybe we should cash in on the religious chip on the shoulder and target Treisman’s suggestion of 10 per cent extra Protestants?

The Prods aren’t always saints all the same, however. Ten year after founding this paper, Lawrence E Knox, lost his seat as Sligo MP when unseated by petition for bribery!