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Why the myth of the Protestant work ethic won't die

POSTED: August 30, 2017 9:21 p.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

A photo of a busy sidewalk where people head to work. The Protestant work ethic and the theory behind it remains so compelling today

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The idea that Protestants work harder and build stronger economies than Catholics is more than 100 years old. First proposed by German sociologist Max Weber, the "Protestant work ethic" has been disproved by economic studies, criticized by theologians and undercut by historical documents.

But it just won't die.

The problem, according to experts on the concept, is that people love it. It's nice to feel superior to others or to put a spiritual spin on Labor Day by saying your Protestant work ethic justifies sending late-night emails and going in to the office on the weekend.

"I can see why it still holds purchase in people's minds. I just think that as you dig a little deeper into the reasons why it holds purchase, they don't actually prove anything," said Jonathan Master, a professor of theology and dean of the school of divinity at Cairn University in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

Weber argued that Protestants were taught to take pride in their work and view wealth as a sign of God's favor. He described the Reformation as the starting point of capitalism, highlighting the economic success of Protestant regions and the relative flaws of Catholic areas.

"Weber noticed a correlation that was largely correct. Protestant areas (near where he lived) tended to do much better than Catholic areas," said Jared Rubin, an associate professor at Chapman University who specializes in economic history. "But causation is different, and there are now many studies saying work ethic is not the reason."

Why Protestants get credit

The Reformation is famous for altering how people worshipped, but it also changed how they worked. Martin Luther believed any job could be dignified if it was done well, rejecting the notion that members of the clergy were special because of their sacred work.

Luther "was adamant about the goodness of what we might think of as secular work," Master said.

His arguments caught on among other Reformation leaders, who spread Luther's ideas across Europe. John Calvin, who was active in Switzerland in the mid-16th century and is the most famous reformer after Luther, argued that what people did to make a living said little about their blessedness, proposing that some Christians were predestined for heaven before their birth.

Weber was particularly interested in Calvin's theological claims. In his essay "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," he wrote that the theory of predestination pushed people to chase workplace successes because they saw wealth as a proxy for God's favor. He credited Calvin and the other reformers with inspiring the mindset needed to help capitalism take off.

"The idea behind it is that Protestantism uniquely motivated people to act in ways that led to all kinds of material benefits for them and their societies," Master said.

From the beginning, Weber's theory was imperfect. It was based on observations rather than a deep understanding of Protestant beliefs.

"There were all kinds of things going on in the Middle Ages that led to the development of what we think of as capitalist economies. Those things happened long before the Reformation did," Master said.

But the concept of a Protestant work ethic caught on quickly, likely because so much of what Weber was saying made sense.

"There are certainly things in Reformation teachings that lend some credibility to the idea," Master said.

Luther and other reformers boosted economic outcomes indirectly in a variety of ways. For example, they were champions of literacy, urging common people to learn to read so they could study the Bible, Rubin said.

Additionally, the rise of Protestantism pushed Catholic leaders out of politics. For centuries, priests and monarchs had worked in tandem, furthering their own interests rather than paying attention to what businesses need to thrive. Economic growth generally followed after removing faith from state affairs, Rubin added.

Following Weber's lead, those who believed in a Protestant work ethic could point to uneven economic advancement after the Reformation to try to prove their theory. For example, Protestant England and the Netherlands flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Catholic Italy and Spain declined.

All these arguments add up to something, but they don't tell the whole story of the spread of capitalism, Rubin said. Weber's theory doesn't hold up against a detailed analysis of how Catholic and Protestant cities fared from century to century or accounts of capitalist economies that predate the Reformation.

"The capitalistic ethic predates Protestantism by a long time in northern Italy. That's damning evidence against there being anything unique about Protestants," Rubin said.

Enduring idea

Although the theory of a Protestant work ethic has lost support in academic circles, the concept isn't going away anytime soon, researchers said. It's compelling because it provides an ego boost for Protestant churches and justification for workaholics across the globe.

"If you want there to be something special about your religion, it's nice to be able to point to one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century (Max Weber) saying there's something special about your religion," Rubin said.

Citing a Protestant work ethic is also a handy way to excuse poor work-life balance, Master said, noting that he's heard people with type-A personalities describe themselves as "regular Protestants."

"I think people use it as a convenient label for their own particular temperament and struggles," he said.

Additionally, as work-related demands pile up and people find themselves answering emails late into the evening, the concept of a Protestant work ethic can bring people comfort, said Ken Estey, associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York.

"People embrace 'work ethic' to deflect from the feelings of powerlessness they'd otherwise feel on the job," he said.

Rather than cling to old ideas about Protestants and work, churches should build a new legacy, Estey said, helping workers find joy in their work instead of just a paycheck.

"It's clear that our (current) work ethic, whether it has secular or theological roots, is not doing workers any good," he said.
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