Protestant work ethic that took root in faith is now ingrained in our culture (2023)

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CHARLES WARD,Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

Protestant work ethic that took root in faith is now ingrained in our culture (13)

Many Houstonians will celebrate this three-day Labor Day weekend by racing to Galveston beaches, hitting the malls for sales or making a fast getaway by plane.

But for every stop for beer or gas, every purchase at the department store or every roar of a jet engine, other people will be working to make that time off a success.

Welcome to our modern version of the Protestant work ethic, the celebrated concept behind one of the most fundamental values of American society: our love of work.

Max Weber's revolutionary thesis about the relationship between religion and economic progress has so permeated our society that we're not conscious of the roots of our industriousness. Sure, university professors teach the idea in detail, and some Christians encounter a simplified version in the "prosperity gospel," but we're just too busy to contemplate what makes us so productive.

On average, Americans work 25 percent more per year than Norwegians or the Dutch, Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks noted in June in the Wall Street Journal.

Moreover, surveys show that the vast majority of Americans seem to enjoy working, Brooks added.

"There is no difference at all between those with above- and below-average incomes: Nine in 10 are satisfied (with their jobs), as are people without college degrees. Eighty-seven percent of people who call themselves 'working class' are satisfied."

Call it the Protestant work ethic, the Puritan work ethic, or just a work ethic, Americans are driven. But why?

Weber, an acclaimed German sociologist, didn't have contemporary Americans in mind, or Protestants exclusively, when he issued his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in German in 1904.

But once the American sociologist Talcott Parsons published an English translation in 1930, the idea swept like wildfire through American culture. Intellectual light bulbs went on, and they still burn brightly.

"It is the single most revealing book one can read about the early origins of American culture," said Rice University historian Thomas Haskell, who annually teaches a course on Weber's text. "We are a classic case of Weber's thesis."

For that we can thank the Puritans and other noncon-
formists who established the American colonies.

One of the founders of modern sociology, with Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, Weber (1864-1920) set out to explore why there was such a radical change and improve-
ment in the economies of Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"Weber's Spirit of Capitalism was an attempt to demonstrate that the mindset promoted by the Protestant religion was responsible for the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe in the 16th century," Frank Elwell of Rogers State University said via e-mail

He focused on Protestant theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. "Their teachings inadvertently created a new way of life," Haskell said.

They shifted focus from the otherworldliness then found in Catholicism to the here and now — from attending church or fleeing the world into a monastery to focusing on everyday life and work.

From feudalism to capitalism, from traditional to rational action. They taught that "you can serve God simply by fulfilling the obligations of your calling," Haskell said. Calling was the crucial word, he said, representing a person's work and everyday tasks.

"To achieve success in your calling was the highest thing you could do to glorify God in your lifetime."

Calvin was especially influential because of his doctrine of predestination: Some people were chosen to be God's servants and go to heaven, others were not. Those chosen thus had a "calling" to show their special status through their life and work. They labored to give thanks to God.

Coincidentally, they started earning lots of money.

"Wealth was taken as a sign (by you and your neighbors) that you were one of the God's elect, thereby providing encouragement for people to acquire wealth," Elwell wrote.

"So you have a population that is being taught by their ministers to throw themselves into their calling and thereby serve God in the highest conceivable way. This, Weber would want to say, paves the way for capitalism and a thriving market economy in a way that nothing else could have," Haskell said.

Elwell is skeptical of such a sweeping claim.

"As one who admires Weber above all other founding sociologists, the most I can say (about the Protestant ethic hypothesis) is that it is but a small contributing factor in explaining the rise of capitalism in the West.

"While beliefs and values often reinforce or strengthen behavior, the evidence for the Protestant ethic as a great stimulus to capital accumulation appears to be pretty weak."

The Protestant work ethic still lives on in our society, said sociologist Paul Froese of Baylor University.

"People don't have to be Protestants to work hard," he said. "It's become so ingrained in our culture that it influences everybody."

Moreover, the decoupling of work from religious justification also has meant people of any faith can display a strong work ethic. Even Weber denied that one must be Protestant to have a work ethic, Haskell said.

"Today, the Japanese are better exemplars of the work ethic than we are."

Still, researchers have found that people who belong to churches and attend services regularly tend to be more productive, Froese said. They haven't yet figured out why.

Still, many evangelicals are resurrecting the notion of calling. "I talk to people and they will say, 'I was called to be a secretary in that office,' " Froese said. Perhaps that makes them a better worker, he speculated.

More generally, in many conservative churches in the U.S., worshippers encounter a simplified, even corrupted version of Weber's ideas called the "prosperity gospel," Froese notes.

Essentially, ministers proclaim that if a person commits to Christ and changes his or her life, good things will follow.

"That kind of prosperity gospel is gaining in popularity, but that's not the kind of teaching Weber was talking about," Froese said. "Weber focused on hard work as a gesture to God."

The "amazing" benefits that followed were an "ironic" consequence, Froese said. Thus, Weber's thesis — and Calvin's theology — has been turned upside down.

"John Calvin would have rolled in his grave to hear anyone talking like that," Haskell said, "especially a minister."

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