Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Ungodliness of the Protestant Ethic

The concept of a “calling” has played a role in many cultures across time and space. Christianity paid no special mind to the term until Martin Luther began shaping Protestantism in the sixteenth century. We now understand that Protestants (historically and presently) incorporate the idea of a vocational calling endowed by God into their broader philosophy and daily lives. This philosophy has driven modern capitalism among Protestant nations in the West in an incredible way. Weber dubbed it “the Protestant Ethic” (p. 99).
The combination of this Protestant Ethic and modern capitalism resulted in the ideal system for high productivity, long work days and weeks, and justification of excessive profits. This combination is coined by Weber as “The Spirit of Capitalism”.
“Continuous activity--not leisure and enjoyment--increased the majesty of God. And an unwillingness to work, or a lapse into begging, assumed now a providential meaning, as did the believer’s use of time--for ‘every hour not spent at work is an hour lost in service to God’s greater glory.’ ‘Time is money’ and it must not be ‘wasted’. The ‘responsible’ person of ‘good moral character’ now appeared.”

Although a relatively modern invention, this sentiment is also reminiscent of the Medieval Feudal System which predates Protestantism. However, Puritans regard the Feudal interpretation as lacking a focus on God and therefore decadent and immoral (p. 38). It is my interpretation that the notorious religious fanaticism that characterized the Medieval Feudal System was entirely ample for the idea of vocational callings to flourish--then is it the combining of the philosophy with modern capitalism that allowed the system to grow so strongly?
Growing up in the rural Midwestern United States plays a significant role for me concerning this topic. My hometown is overwhelmingly white, conservative and Protestant. I bore witness to my peers (and myself) struggling to identify their personal “vocational callings” that they were apparently destined to discover. The stress began by age fourteen in our required “Career Paths” high school course and is guaranteed to continue to haunt a significant amount of my peers for the rest of their lives (so long as they continue to subscribe to the idea). The average middle-aged Americans who hate their job may think that they just haven’t yet discovered their “true purpose”. If the discovery of their true purpose is never to come, they may believe that they are serving God by acting as cogs that move along the capitalist machine. Many regard the capitalist democratic system as God’s will.
The Protestant Ethic firmly took root in the English colonies of North America. As the Protestant colonists became decreasingly mindful of their foreign governing body, they began instilling their own unique ideas into their households.
“Parents taught children to set goals and organize their lives methodically, to be self-reliant and shape their own destinies as individuals, to behave in accord with ethical standards, and to work diligently. They encouraged children to pursue careers in business and see virtue in capitalism’s open markets, to seek material success, to become upwardly mobile, to live modestly and frugally, to reinvest their wealth, to look toward the future and the ‘opportunities’ it offers, and to budget their time wisely.” (p. 40)

I notice that the typical American would interpret this list as inherently virtuous, without question. However, a Marxist would likely take issue with “virtue in capitalism’s open markets”, “reinvest their wealth”, and virtually everything in between. This speaks to the power of the Protestant/capitalist consolidation. This specific teaching is a significant phenomenon as it came to drive the motif of the young United States. If the colonists had been a majority of Catholics or Jews, might the trajectory of the United States played out differently? Perhaps it would’ve followed a path comparable to France or Spain or Italy?
The idea of the vocational calling restricts, rather than liberates, the working class. Because of the Protestant Ethic, an Appalachian man views his work in the coal mines as his duty or a woman believes that her duties are strictly limited to the household. People with few employment opportunities (via socioeconomic status, regional location, sex or ethnicity, etc.) can use the vocational calling to cope with their low standard of living. It is psychologically easier to accept an unquestioned task sent from above than it is to resent and reject how the system has failed you, your family, and your community. Capitalism inherently creates “losers” by design. The Protestant Ethic encourages both the rich and the poor to think that their assigned duties are justified, as they were predetermined by God. And a devout Christian is not to question God.
Weber perceived the Protestant Ethic to be a product of motivated reasoning for the upper class.
“It is clear that this style of life is very closely related to the self-justification that is customary for bourgeois acquisition: profit and property appear not as ends in themselves but as indications of personal ability. Here has been attained the union of religious postulate and bourgeois style of life that promotes capitalism.” (p. 41).

Anyone who is vaguely familiar with Christianity knows that its teachings deeply condemn a lifestyle of excess and materialism. Mark 10:25 clearly states: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Not only does this not leave room for alternate interpretation, but it is repeated again in Matthew 19:24. Jesus of Nazareth was, for all intents and purposes, a hippie. Surprisingly, Protestantism is the sect that actively engages in reading the Bible (compared to Catholicism), so how can such literature leave their Protestant Ethic unscathed? My finding is that, it is because vocational callings are candy to the upper class and poison to everyone else.

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