That Protestant Work Ethic


Money.  God.  Max Weber.  Money and social policy.  Politics.  Religion.  Social justice. 


Sociology:  the study of social policy as it relates to guidelines for  creating, maintaining, or changing the living conditions which are conducive to human welfare in the areas of education, labor,  human services,  inequality, criminal justice, and health care.


For the modern-day American,” to hustle and scuffle for a deal is something he cannot even imagine,” wrote Ben Stein about his son. “I wish I could teach that work ethic to those close to me.  I very much fear that my son, more up-to-date than I am in almost every way, ….”   


Ben Stein wrote in the New York Times,  “I wish I could teach that money is a scarce good, worth fighting for and protecting.”  Nations go to war over money?  Money and the work ethic?  Apples and oranges?  What about all those nuns who worked hard teaching me.  When tuition was $35 a year.  Now it was over $1,000 in a parochial grad school.  Or $2,000.  Had those nuns been missing a work ethic? 


The concepts of money and worth ethic were not tied together in every nation on earth.  In a few places, there is a need for an understanding about money.  Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  The historical materialism written about by Karl Marx held that all human institutions –including religion – were based on economic foundations.  Turning Marx’s theory on its head, The Protestant Ethic implied that a religious movement fostered capitalism, not the other way around.  Attempting to deepen the understanding of the cultural origins of capitalism,  Weber thesis was based on the idea the Protestant ethic was a force behind an unplanned and uncoordinated mass action which influenced the development of capitalism.  Religious devotion usually accompanied a rejection of worldly affairs, including the pursuit of wealth and possessions.  Why was that not the case with Protestantism?  To answer the question, wanting to explain the characteristics of Western civilization, Max Weber became the first sociologist.  He wrote:


“Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.”


Called a major scholar of religion, I wonder what his position was on birth control?  But money seemed to be a sign of holiness, in Weber’s view.


“It is particularly advantageous in technical occupations for workers to be extremely devoted to their craft. To view the craft as an end in itself, or as a ‘calling’ would serve this need well.  This attitude is well-noted in certain classes which have endured religious education,” Weber wrote.


Weber recognized the diverse aspects of social authority, including charismatic authority, traditional authority and legitimate authority.  His three main themes were the effect of religious ideas on economic activities, the relation between social stratification and religious ideals, and the characteristics which distinguished Western civilization.  The fact that he had lived through World War I, the German Revolution from November 1918 through August 1919, with the end of a monarchy followed by the institution of the Weimar Republic, might have affected his thinking.  His work on bureaucracies noted that institutions were based on legal (legitimate) authority, and he saw bureaucracies as mitigating the effects of “personalism” in organizations.


So if religious movement fostered capitalism, what happened in a secular society, Max?  And what happened in the world to religion when money becomes a scarce good?  When traditional Protestant churches were suffering a drought.  What would the affect be on American society?  That was the social question.  What would the affect be on, what the United States Jaycees called, “economic justice,” but really meant economic freedom? And what would the affect be on social justice?


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