From Hard Work to Hoarding: How the Protestant Ethic Is No Longer Protestant or Ethical

February 9, 2011 — 7 Comments
Consumerism-cartoon

The second half of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism attempts to weave together Calvinist, Pietist, Baptist, and Quaker contributions to Christian asceticism into the development the spirit of capitalism I wrote about in my last post and which Weber utilized Franklin to typify. With growing emphasis on works as a "proof" of salvation (though not connected to the effectiveness of salvation) Christian asceticism moved out of the exclusive domain of monks and nuns and "strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world" (Kindle location 2,064).

This transition was largely due to the development of an everyman's vocational "calling" wherein any work by a believer ought to be undertaken as if the Lord were ordaining it Himself. Such studious and industrious work in one's calling led to the accumulation of capital in the form of wealth. The Puritan writer Richard Baxter advised that "wealth as such is a great danger; its temptations never end, and its pursuit is not only senseless as compared with the dominating importance of the Kingdom of God, but is morally suspect" (loc. 2,091). Yet even without pursuing wealth, more and more people were building wealth. What then?

There was a sense of Old Testament blessing by God via wealth that permeated the Protestant ethic. So, it seems, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they were not to work for the accumulation of wealth. On the other, hard work and financial gain was seen as "proof" of one's calling and, hence, one's salvation. "The real moral objection," writes Weber, "is to relaxation in the security of possession, the enjoyment of wealth with the consequence of idleness and the temptations of the flesh, above all of distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life. In fact, it is only because possession involves this danger of relaxation that it is objectionable at all" (loc. 2,098).  For Baxter and many Puritans, labor, not wealth, was the pursuit. The problem was what to do with the wealth that resulted as the fruit of labor.

There were admonitions against using wealth to engage in any sin or idleness. The idea of stewardship rang like a clarion bell: "The idea of a man's duty to his possessions, to which he subordinates himself as an obedient steward, or even as an acquisitive machine, bears with chilling weight on his life" (loc. 2,274). So what was left? Weber writes, "When the limitation of consumption is combined with this release of acquisitive activity, the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save" (loc. 2,302). Quoting John Wesley on the subject, Weber notes, "'we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich'" (loc. 2,344). Wesley goes on to write that those same Christians ought also give all they can to lay up treasure in heaven.

The spirit of capitalism had begun to take root. Still tempered by a strong sense of duty to God and proof of one's salvation, wealth was seen as a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it offered some tangible sense of one's calling and election. Yet on the other it offered more and more temptation to fall into sin.

Over the intervening centuries, a fundamental shift has occurred. "Protestant" has largely been dropped from "work ethic" and its resultant "spirit of capitalism." The very faith that enabled capitalism to take root, Christianity, has become anemic in its ability to guide and direct the fruit of its adherent's labors. Instead, churches subordinate their Godly wisdom to the leadership and organizational wisdom of Fortune 500 companies. Churches turn away from the Prophets in favor of the Profits that result from slick marketing and advertising among their constituents. In short, the typical Western church has lost her voice and is all too happy to be invited into the dance. Capitalism is shroud in consumerism and individualism. Acquisition begets consumption begets more acquisition. Weber closes with the following observation: "No one knows who will live in this cage [that is, the desire to acquire and consume goods] in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas or ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance" (loc. 2,432). God, I pray for new prophets. Humbly I echo Isaiah, "Here am I. Send me." (Isaiah 6:8).

Anderson Campbell

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  • Michael Ratliff

    I’m wondering if Weber would agree that Christianity “…enabled capitalism to take root…” as I have read from other sources, and even in these essays, he understood that capitalism had roots from much earlier and he himself was very much a capitalist having inherited an expanding business enterprise. I think the vein of capitalism addressed in these essays is the one you allude to – that which is “capitalism gone wild!” The capitalism that would allow a church to promote stewardship as an opportunity to ease a consumeristic congregant’s conscience by giving so that a bigger building requiring more resources to maintain can be built and more members can be sought by slick advertising…This is what I think Weber found to be abhorrent both on an individual basis and at the corporate level: “unlimited greed for gain. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse but capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous rational capitalistic enterprise.” (loc. 396)

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie and Mike – with Mike I see Weber as not linking capitalism too closely with religious ideas…there is an influence and a shaping of the religious upon the ‘spirit of capitalism’ but Weber would say that only with further exploration of ‘worldly asceticism to its dissolution into pure utilitarism…traced through out all areas of ascetic religion.’ [183] might the cultural significance of ascetic Protestantism be estimated. He suggests that the role of the Protestant ascetic upon economics is a preparation, not conclusion, for further work exploring the shaping and influencing of ecomomics upon religion and vice versa. [183]

  • Anderson Campbell

    Guys – Thanks for the feedback. Perhaps I’m overreaching, but it seemed to me that Weber was intimating that the rise of Protestantism created circumstances favorable to the development and spread of capitalism. I agree that he doesn’t say that Christianity caused capitalism or invented it. Yet it does seem that he singles out Protestantism as creating pathways through which capitalism would flourish. Am I misreading it altogether?

  • Glenn Williams

    This got me thinking as to how the nature of asceticism has changed over the years. From what Weber describes as a way to acquire wealth and justify this as proof of God’s salvation, to realising that this extremity had also led many to see that ultimately this spirit of consumerism and complacency could lead to sin. I think we may need to discover a healthy theology of asceticism and what that might look like today.

  • Michael Ratliff

    Actually, Weber linked a certain type of religion – Calvinism – with a certain type of economic phenomenon – “Capitalism, as an economic system, resting on the orgainsation of legally free wage-earners, for the purpose of pecuniary profit, by the owner of capital or his agents…” (loc 169). It is a specific strand of capitalism, 1) Weber connected a certain strand rather than the whole of capitalism and  2) The development of this strand of capitalism may have been influenced and enhanced by calvinism, but religion was not the impetus for the broader expression of capitalism – “… great individual undertakings, involving the control of large financial resources, and yielding riches to their masters as a result of speculation, moneylending, commercial enterprise, buccaneering and war…” which is “as old as history.” (loc. 168) Weber partook in this older form of capitalism through his family business enterprises.

  • Michael Ratliff

    I think it has also led some to discover the emptiness of a capitalistic, consumeristic lifestyle and redirect their lives and their wealth from these pursuits to a more alturistic cause.

  • andrewbloemker

    Leading a generation guided by profits to prophet is not only a good title to a book, but needed so badly. It makes my heart sink when I think about how the church has become more like a business than places of worship and community. The encouraging thing is that there are people starting to realize this and have a desire to “be the church”. They are starting to rediscover some of the “old ideas”. I am excited to be a part of it. Thanks for your post. There are some really challenging things to think about #dmingml