Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Protestant Work Ethic in the U.S. & the West

In 1513 Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Door (1513). In Luther's day they fought wars for religious principles. In fact they wore each other out, economically and in most other ways and gave up fighting each other (Catholic against Protestant) and subscribing to the "Peace of Westphalia" in 1648.

In a way, the Peace of Westphalia was a victory for the Protestants because it in effect established that religion was not something that we in the West are willing to die for anymore. Every man after that could indeed be "his own priest" without having to worry about some Church authority taking his head. The Founding Fathers were probably all alive in 1648 and while they didn't invoke the Peace of Westphalia they adhered to its principles. They would not fight over religious principles. The principles they were willing to fight for were "Enlightenment Principles."

However, as sociologists such as Max Weber, Karl Durkheim and Karl Marx argue, in effect, "enlightenment principles" are Christian principles cleansed of God. Thus, we Christians and non-Christians alike agree that we should take care of the poor; provide for the elderly, care for widows and orphans; forgive those who sin against us (at least in terms of our laws), etc. Karl Marx and Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin after him made a good living promising to provide the material blessings promised by Christianity more efficiently than they had been by the Church (whether Catholic or Protestant). An excellent modern statement of that concept is provided by Marcel Gauchet's The Disenchantment of the World, A Political History of Religion.

Thus, we can see that the war to establish Liberal (more or less) Democracy in America (1776) occurred not so long (in historical terms) after the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and not so much prior to the war over "Economic Management of the people") (1917).

Most Sociologists today would probably agree that the U.S. is the most Christian of all Western nations and would probably attribute that fact to our Founding generations (not necessarily "fathers") being more intensely religious than those remaining behind in Europe. It is a truism that the West became an economic powerhouse because of its "Protestant Work Ethic." (a term first coined by by Max Weber.) Puritan Protestants especially believed that God would economically bless those who did their duty, and for farmers and others that meant working as hard as they were able to.

Obviously the Protestant Work Ethic isn't as popular as it once was. In France for example workers aren't willing to give up entitlements or tax themselves to pay for them. We see some of that in the U.S. as well but the "Protestant Work Ethic" is perhaps more alive in the U.S. than it is in Europe, (probably) accounting for America's slightly better economy.

But back in the years leading up to 1776 no one was worrying about Social Security, public supported hospitals and other such entitlements. They worried about such enlightenment principles as "freedom," "democracy," and "equality." It needs to be understood, as Marcel Gauchet tells us, that "Enlightenment Principles" are not antithetical to Christian Principles, they are merely principles that have been excised from Christian dogma.

Take "equality" for example. You won't find the words "all men are created equal" in the Bible, but the New Testament is shot through with that principle, e.g., in the heaven the first shall become last and the last first. Powerful religious leaders such as the Pharisees were despised by Jesus and his disciples not because of their political positions but because they thought themselves better than "lesser" people. Thank God, a Pharisee prayed, that I am not like that beggar over there. And perhaps most tellingly, is the beatitude "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

In the twentieth century, the Fascists denounced Enlightenment Principles by declaring that they were better than others. The Communists gave lip-service to them by declaring themselves the "meek," i.e., "workers," but they never gave up the idea that the "workers" needed a "vanguard," i.e., a group of superior people to rule over the workers.

In the West, on the other hand, Enlightenment principles are still held sacred. No Western politician would dream of standing up before the people he wanted to vote for him (or her) and saying, "you should vote for me because I am more competent than you are" even though he might think that. Instead he will present any modest & meek attributes he can dig up from his past and present them for public approval.

So is the matter of which of our Forefathers was Christian a non-issue? In the Max Weber and Marcel Gauchet sense it is. Even if we ask whether the Forefathers were members of the mainline churches extant in the days before 1776 we are on shaky ground. Were these Forefathers members of those churches, such as Presbyterian and Episcopalian sincere believers or were they members in order to show that they were no better than those they wanted to vote for them?

In days prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) there were a lot of mixed marriages. Catholics and Protestants married amicably in the West at least, but there wasn't much softening of sincere Christian belief. The father of Christian Liberalism (Liberal here meaning "less than orthodox") in Europe is generally considered to be Frederick Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) brought the ideas "higher Criticism" to England; so who would have brought them to America prior to the Revolution?

Various Americans such as Thomas Jefferson were very well read for the time; so there may have been a "climate of opinion" in Europe that was giving rise to "higher criticism" that Jefferson was aware of and even influenced by, but it doesn't seem reasonable to assume that those ideas were widespread in America prior to the Revolution. Could there have been something equivalent taking place in America: our own "higher criticism"? I doubt it.

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