Skip to main content
Navigate Up
Sign In

The “Protestant/Calvinist Work Ethic"

Barbara Goodrich, Ph.D.

1. Introduction

2. U.S. "workaholism" : An Ideological Attitude

3. Where did it come from?

4. How it developed in the U.S.: Weber on Benjamin Franklin

5. The "Protestant work ethic" at its best and at its most harmful

6. The new "consumer" version of the "protestant work ethic"

7. Some recent examples

1. Introduction

The Reformation, i.e. the rise of Protestantism against the Roman Catholic church in Europe with reformers such as Luther and Calvin, occurred at the same time as a major economic shift in Europe.  The old "powers that be," the old "ruling class," the aristocrats, had claimed that their wealth and power over others were justified by God's having ordained it via a "natural" hierarchy.  But through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, they'd been losing wealth and power to the rising wealthy merchant families (who had originally been mere middle-class, "mere" commoners).  (This same rising middle-class later grew into industrialists and financiers, when the industrial revolution permitted that.)  Now, these new wealthy commoners are becoming the new "ruling class," competing with the aristocrats.   They of course are attracted to the "Protestant/Calvinist Work Ethic" because according to it their new wealth and power over others are justified by God's ordaining it because they appear to be of the "elect,"  of God's chosen few!  

There's a very different style, though, with this new "ruling class."  Before, the aristocrats showed their wealth.  Their portraits demonstrate furs, jewels, brilliant colors for both men and women.   Here's Hans Holbein's famous 1537 portrait of England's Henry VIII, proudly loaded with bling:


(Here's a link to a recent British article asking: "Was Hans Holbein's Henry VIII the best piece of propaganda ever?" )

Contemporary rich merchants displayed wealth through finery, though they often seemed uneasy about it.  Here's another Holbein portrait, of Danzig merchant Georg Gisze in 1532.  (His motto is stated in Latin there; it translates as "no pleasure without regret.")

:::MerchantGeorg_Gisze HansHolbein1532.jpg  

But increasingly, the rising middle-class businessmen show not only their wealth – discreetly -- but they also showed their proudly rigid self-discipline and thrift.  We see a new fashion of men dressing much more soberly than women, especially in plain black.  (Ever wondered about the difference when, e.g., you're at a wedding? This is where it comes from.  A Renaissance bridegroom and his groomsmen would have dressed as colorfully and lavishly as the bride and her attendants.)  

This is Dirck Hals's 1645 portrait of an affluent young man, Balthasar Coymans, in the middle of the fashion change.  Note the ornamentation on his sleeves!

:::Willem(Balthasar)Coymans by DirckHals1645.jpg  

And this is the fashion further advanced, in a group of powerful middle-class businessmen, the Syndics of the Cloth Guild, by Rembrandt in 1662.


2. U.S. "workaholism" : An Ideological Attitude

If you've ever been to Europe (besides the U.K., the Scandinavian countries, protestant Germany, and Switzerland), or if you’ve been to Mexico, or Central or South America (or most of the rest of the world), you've probably noticed that these cultures have an entirely different orientation to work and leisure from that of most U.S. people. Residents of these other countries are usually baffled by the frantic "workaholism" typical of the U.S. (and parts of Northern Europe). These people can put in grueling hours, as U.S. citizens commonly do. Unlike U.S. residents, though, if they work tremendously hard, it's because they need to do so -- the job requires it, they need the money, or some such thing. They make a conscious decision in favor of it.

Most U.S. people, on the other hand, seem psychologically impelled to work much too hard for no obvious reason. Many of us actually feel guilty if we aren't working much too hard.   And we tend to think very highly of people who hate what they do; that is irrationally seen as somehow more virtuous than having a job one loves!  

This workaholic attitude is often treated (by people in the U.S.) as just common sense, just part of human nature. It's not. It's a distinct phenomenon, only a few centuries old (that is, very, very recent in terms of human history), localized to a few areas of the globe, and with specific causes in those areas. *

* (The Japanese traditional devotion to duty requires a similar self-discipline, but in other respects is very different from the usual U.S. workaholism.)

If you and your parents were born and raised in the U.S., chances are that you have this "workaholism" in some form or another.

This workaholism can be very unfortunate in itself, but what is perhaps most damaging is that it was also often accompanied by a devastating secret self-doubt and self-judgmentalism, and a very rigid sense of self-righteousness and dehumanization of others.  This tendency can sneak in even today, even in people who would be appalled by it, if they were aware of it.

3. Where did it come from?

Max Weber hypothesized that this workaholism came from one particular kind of Puritanish Protestant religion, the kind that holds that God has already predetermined which of us will be "saved" and which damned before we are ever conceived and born. (John Calvin is a prime example of such a "predestination" theologian.) Hence, Weber coined the term “Protestant work ethic" or sometimes “Calvinist work ethic.”   (Some other forms of Protestant Christianity share this ideology, but some don’t, though in the U.S. most have it to some degree.)

Now, at first glance, there doesn't seem much to connect a small, heterodox strain of Christianity with the modern, largely secular U.S.'s workaholic tendencies. But the connection is there.

Calvinism (I'm summarizing pretty drastically here, to keep it short):

According to Calvin, each human is steeped in the "original sin" inherited from Adam and Eve. Humanity is horribly corrupt, and powerless besides. The standard line of most versions of Christianity is that by grace the loving God redeems humans from this original sin. (Some versions of Christianity hold that God redeems all humans.  Some versions hold that humans themselves instigate their own redemption by their faith in God, etc..) Calvin, however, was unusual in that he regarded humans as so disgusting that he thought there was an unbridgeable chasm between God and us, and that we were too unworthy to have any influence on God's decisions at all. In other words, nothing one could do would make any difference whatsoever regarding whether God chose to redeem one or not from one’s hideous “original sin” and impending damnation.  (Calvin and his fellow puritan sorts seem to have regarded God as a pretty capricious, arbitrary sort of tyrant.) Further, at least in principle, Calvin believed that one can't determine who is chosen ("elect") by God to be redeemed, and who isn't.   (The word “elect” may have connotations of choice to us, when we think of voting in elections.  But here the choice is thought to be God’s entirely.  Calvin thought that God chooses (or doesn’t choose) us; we can’t choose him.)

It's not emotionally easy to believe such a discouraging doctrine as predestination, a doctrine that one is utterly powerless over, and ignorant of, one's destiny. Weber writes that Calvinist ministers had to adapt their "pastoral advice" into the following:

On the one hand it is held to be an absolute duty to consider oneself chosen, and to combat all doubts as temptations of the devil, since lack of self-confidence is the result of insufficient faith, hence of imperfect grace. The exhortation of the apostle to make fast one's own call is here interpreted as a duty to attain certainty of one's own election and justification in the daily struggles of life. … On the other hand, in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means. (Ibid., pp. 111-112)

Calvin held that one's good works can't influence whether one is chosen by God to be "saved" or not. However, in practice, Calvinism does require a life of systematic and unemotional good works (interpreted here as hard work in business) and self-control, as a sign that one is of God's chosen "elect." Thus, ascetic dedication to one's perceived duties is "the means, not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation." (Ibid., p. 115) One must prove one's faith by one's worldly (i.e. economic) activity and ascetic self-control.

By founding its ethic in the doctrine of predestination, [Calvinism] substituted for the [older Roman Catholic] spiritual aristocracy [or "elite"] of monks outside of and above the world the spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world. It was an aristocracy which… was divided from the eternally damned remainder of humanity by [an]… impassable and … terrifying gulf …. This consciousness of divine grace of the elect and holy was accompanied by an attitude toward the sin of one's neighbor, not of sympathetic understanding based on consciousness of one's own weakness, but of hatred and contempt for him as an enemy of God bearing the signs of eternal damnation. (Ibid., pp. 121-122)

Now, it's rather natural, if one is a Calvinist, to be constantly looking for any little indications that God does approve of oneself, that God has predestined one to be redeemed, that one is "of the elect" of God. And how might God give any promising little hints? Well, material success is one way. If one has a successful business, God seems to be smiling on one! And as for those poor destitute farmers who just lost everything they owned due to a drought, well, God is all-powerful, and must have decided that they should suffer. And who are we miserable sinners to disagree, and thwart the plans of God?

Thus, the Calvinist develops a European version of India's infamous caste system. In ancient India, foreign conquerors solidified their conquest by imposing a religion on the populace. According to this religion, there were set classes or castes of people, and anyone born into the poor castes must have done something in a previous life to deserve such punishment. Similarly, the Calvinist attributes prosperity and poverty to the mysterious workings of God. (Notice that in both cases these beliefs serve to legitimize whatever the status quo power is. The wealthy and powerful, whether in ancient India or in post-Renaissance Switzerland or 18th century Scotland, are presented as justifiably wealthy. And the poor or "untouchable" are dismissed as unworthy of any better treatment. These are classic examples of ideology.)

Dickens captured exactly this peculiar combination of self-punishment, self-righteousness, and misanthropy in his character Scrooge. Scrooge isn't a simple hoarder. Scrooge's avarice is a result of his secularized "Calvinist work ethic."

Lutheranism (I’m only covering a tiny bit of Martin Luther’s reforms): contributed to these general attitudes in that Luther promoted a different attitude towards secular work.  The general attitude earlier in Roman Catholic Christendom had been that secular (i.e. non-sacred) labor was merely what one had to do to get by.   However, the more reflective monastic life of those who had taken religious vows had an additional inherent religious value.  (This may sound strange to modern readers.  But take my word for it: Life at monasteries and convents can have a stunning intellectual and aesthetic beauty, even within its strict ascetic limits, and even now, without the support of the larger society around these communities.    If you’re curious, I highly recommend an astonishing 2005 documentary of monastic life in the European Grande Chartreuse, “Into Great Silence.”  This Carthusian monastery even has the old structure of the elite monks who spend most of their lives praying, and the supporting monks who carry out most of the physical work.  Contrast this to the less strict -- ! – Trappists, who define their hard work as prayer, in a move that almost seems Lutheran compared to the Carthusians.)

Against this, Luther argued that plain secular people, not just monks and nuns and other “religious,” could also find religious meaning in their own plain old work.  (This was related to his “salvation by faith alone” belief, his opposition to the doctrine that one could earn salvation by doing things or behaving a certain way.  Luther was not a Calvinist; Luther did believe that one’s salvation was in one’s own hands, or rather one’s own faith.  But this isn’t the place for discussing that further.)   For Luther, tending conscientiously to one’s secular duties, whatever they were, could be seen as humble obedience to God’s will, submission to his authority via submission to things as they are.   

The obvious benefit of this approach is a pretty powerful “reframing” of how one experiences one’s job.  Even menial tasks can be regarded as gestures of obedience towards God.   This can infuse one’s whole everyday life with a powerful meaning that had been reserved for particular days of worship.   

One of the biggest downsides of this approach is that there is no longer a separate area of life devoted only to God, away from the secular status quo and its own priorities.  In some circumstances, this may make it more difficult to challenge the secular status quo and its values from a different (e.g. religious) ethical standpoint, if ever that is needed.  In other words, with this perspective, it’s possible to assume that whatever happens must be God’s will, even including people mistreating other.  (One argument that was made to U.S. slaves: “Submit to your enslavement.  God willed it.”) Of course, that’s something that is very far from self-evidently true.   (Remember that the anti-slave movement and the 1960s Civil Rights movement were helped by people using non-“worldly” values, often religious ones, to criticize existing laws and customs.)

Another big downside is that by focusing on one's own faith and salvation, rather than e.g. works of mercy, one can slide into being more concerned about simply placating one's own superego than about improving the world for those around one!   People probably have been bitten with this indoctrination if they are worried about whether they've suffered enough, worked hard enough at something they hate, acted with sternly pure intentions, to deserve a certain reward.  (Contrast this approach, which utilitarian philosophers sometimes attribute to their opponent Kant, to the more utilitarian approach: "Is the world better because you had that fun, fulfilling summer job?  Then by golly you deserve that pay, even though it didn't seem like work!")

4. How it developed in the U.S.: Max Weber on Benjamin Franklin

This "Protestant work ethic" complemented the new economic roles that were developing in Europe and its colonies. The economic roles of earlier centuries would have emphasized loyalty to one's lord and unquestioning acceptance of one's place in the social fabric, be it as peasant, as craftsman, as aristocrat. But the new capitalism needed (and rewarded) individualistic ambition and competition. Those who adopted the "Protestant work ethic" tended to succeed a bit more than others in this new economy. (Well, "succeed" economically, at least.) But it was the "work ethic" that got rewarded; the theological underpinnings in themselves didn't contribute much. Thus, we find the "work ethic" able to be secularized more and more as it was adopted by people who didn't consider themselves Calvinists (or even Lutherans).

Weber uses our own Benjamin Franklin as an example. Franklin's father was a Calvinist, but Franklin himself was a "deist," as were many of the U.S.'s founding fathers. (Deists were not Christians, though they respected Christianity, and may have sometimes attended a Christian church.   People who claim that the U.S. was based on Christianity are therefore simply historically incorrect.  Deists did not believe in Jesus as savior, or in divinely inspired scriptures, or in the trinity, or in the Catholic Church.  Instead, they believed in a single personal, benevolent creator God discernable by reason.  Many of them regarded Christianity as a more superstitious, less sophisticated, but well-meaning attempt to reach God.  I suppose Deism could be compared roughly to Unitarianism, with an emphasis on rationality, and without any formal institution such as a church, or religious services.)

And the jolly, amiable, life-loving Franklin was temperamentally far from puritan. (I'll omit his reasons for advising young men to marry older wives, and his various hilarious bawdy writings, since I don't want this to get an "R" rating.)

Nonetheless, the implacable Calvinist work ethic is recognizable in his writing, at least in the persona of “Poor Richard.” (Franklin did write in the guise of various different personalities, such as the Widow Dogood and Ephraim Censorious.   “Poor Richard” Saunders was a whole fictional character, a sweet-natured, hen-pecked, hard-working, amusingly incompetent astrologer.  Franklin also collected, paraphrased, and created countless little slogans, mottos, jokes, and the like, to fill in his Almanac.  So it’s not clear how much of this actually reflected Franklin’s own worldview, and how much is “Poor Richard” or just space-filling, and how much is meant seriously or satirically.)   Weber quotes Franklin:

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.*

*Notice that Franklin here confuses potential money with actual money, and that he implicitly assumes that leisure time and leisure activities have no value whatsoever.

Remember, that credit is money. If a man lets his money lie in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time. This amounts to a considerable sum where a man has good and large credit, and makes good use of it.

Remember, that money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on.* Five shillings turned is six, turned again it is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. 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.

* Of course, money doesn't "beget" money, though that's one of the common errors of bad economic thinking.   The fundamental source of profit is labor and/or natural resources.  Profit doesn’t magically appear by saying the words “compound interest,” or “stock market speculation.”  Those are just the justifications people give for their receiving more money than they put in..

The most trifling actions that affect a man's credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day….

(quoted in Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (Charles Scribner's Sons: New York), 1958, pp. 48-50.)

Weber describes this as a "philosophy of avarice," whose prime duty is "a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself." "Truly," he writes, "what is here preached is not simply a means of making one's way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty."

Weber notes that others have condemned Franklin as a greedy hypocrite, since he openly values honesty, punctuality, industry, etc., only because they help in making money, not for themselves. Yet Weber, for all his dislike of Franklin's priorities, defends Franklin against this charge: "something more than mere garnishing for purely egocentric motives is involved." According to Weber, Franklin isn't a simple self-interested hypocrite. Instead, Franklin, or his persona Poor Richard, is in the grips of a whole ideology, and a particularly demanding one at that. He's in the grips of a secularized Calvinist work ethic.

Here, "[e]conomic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs." With this worldview, one no longer makes money in order to live, but lives to make money. The Calvinist work ethic reverses the means and the goal, so that its ultimate aim is simply "the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life."

Why does Franklin’s Poor Richard adopt this aim? Weber notes that Franklin answers this question in his autobiography only "with a quotation from the Bible, which his strict Calvinistic father drummed into him again and again in his youth: 'Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings' (Proverbs xxii. 29).”   Franklin may or may not have meant it seriously, himself.  Later Americans took it very seriously indeed.

5. The "Protestant work ethic" ideology at its best and at its most harmful

At its best:

Obviously there are powerful, positive aspects to this ideology.  Immanuel Kant, creator of one of the two main competing schools of ethics, seems to have been very much a product of this ideology at its best and most self-aware; strictly fair, honest, conscientious, very hard-working, self-reliant, quite immune to the usual kinds of peer pressure and pressure from the more powerful, of solid self-respect and aiming to respect others.   (These characteristics are similar to the ancient Roman model of the virtuous Roman gentleman of integrity and probity.) 

I also think of a late neighbor of mine, an impressive, very kind-hearted elderly woman whose father was, I think, the president of a Presbyterian seminary in the Midwest.   With her, her natural kindness was channeled by her outlook, rather than suppressed by it or replaced by it.  She was one of the mainstays of the century-old feral cat colony in our neighborhood.  She was never cuddly or sentimental or unrealistic about them, never made housecats of them, but fed the group that showed up at her doorstep twice a day, even when she could barely afford food for herself.   Her lot had a tiny cottage in back, and when a brain-injured homeless Vietnam veteran wandered into town, she let him move in and live there, for free.  They helped each other out for many years, and he became a well-known town character (preferring the raccoons and cats to the humans!), until he grew so frail that he needed to move into a nursing home.   Once we asked her why she had decided to trust a man that most people would have feared, and she said simply that she could tell he was a good man.   She had had her share of adversity in life, losing both her only child and her husband.   But a more extroverted friend cheered her up by putting her in contact with the American Legion, and she found much solace volunteering for them until she died, at a very advanced age, suddenly and painlessly while out feeding the cats.   She found areas that needed her hard work so she in effect created her own duty, and was very fulfilled by it while simultaneously making the world a better place.   (The little brown tabby in a photo on my homepage is one of her cats, pampered by the neighborhood in honor of her.)   

At its harmful:

Contrast these inspiring examples with the same basic ideology when it is unmoored from its origins in theology and ethics and becomes merely a social role based on implicit expectations and competition, distorted by greed:

  • 1)    a driven workaholism, including a need not to enjoy one's work
  • 2)    equating economic success with moral superiority
  • 3)    combining workaholism/economic success with unnecessary self-denial and abstinence, as part of the image of moral superiority
  • 4)    a judgmental attitude towards oneself and others, focusing on one's own virtue or lack of it, one's own guilt or rewards, rather than on genuine respect for self and others, and a desire for life to flourish

The result is Scrooge in Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," a character that Dickens deliberately based on the corrupt version of "Protestant work ethic."

Notice that with the judgmentalism of the Scrooge version, we get a pair of stereotyped categories for people  (an example of Laing's "us and them" mentality) built into it, that have frequently overlapped with racism.

·        There are the hard-working, successful, quietly devout people who might well be "of the elect" (i.e., predestined by God for "salvation").  

·        Then there are the others: lazy, or simply not self-disciplined, or not sufficiently responsible; or enjoying what they do for a living so that it's too "natural" to count as work; or frivolous or profligate or just too attached to things of this world; or believing in the "wrong" religion or no religion; or in despair for whatever reason; or simply poor.   

The key thing to notice is that in the "Protestant work ethic" worldview, all the varied descriptions in the "other" category tend to be conflated with each other.     If someone appears to be "guilty" of one of those descriptions, e.g. seems lazy, then he or she is assumed to be "guilty" of most (or all) the rest, as well. 

We can see how racial stereotyping in the U.S. functioned to categorize ethnic minorities as "the others," the non-elect.  Most racial stereotypes in the U.S. (and in the British colonies that preceded the U.S.) include at least one of the varied descriptions.    If one can believe in such racial stereotyping, one can try to justify mistreating members of ethnic minorities, because God must have predestined them not to be "saved." 

For example, until well into the 20th century, many Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the U.S. believed that:

"All Irish people are uneducated, drunken, lazy Roman Catholics."  

This also implied: 

"Therefore, they are not good, hardworking, successful, self-disciplined Calvinists (or near Calvinists) like we are.  Therefore, we can mistreat them, because they don't really count." 

The fictional stereotype of the "Welfare Queen," developed in the 1980s, is a classic example.  It helped legitimize the Reagan administration's cutting social services budgets.   (Before then, for a while homelessness had been almost non-existent in the U.S.)

6. The new "consumer" version of the "Protestant work ethic"

The classic description of the "Protestant work ethic" – even in its secularized form -- does need to be updated. In the early part of the 20th century, businesses in industrialized countries needed more markets, and thus began selling products to their own countries' middle and even lower classes. People who had earlier been mere "workers" now got a second role, that of "consumers." After World War II, economies in these countries came to rely more and more heavily on these markets, and the developing advertising industry promoted consumerism in general. During the 20th century asceticism thus became less and less acceptable, and consumption of products more and more approved of.

Thus we now have in the U.S. a bizarre "work ethic" according to which we are supposed to work very long hours, very intensely, making maximum dollars (the premium is on salary, not on creativity, fulfillment, human value, etc.), which we then are to spend on consumer commodities. Because there is less of a safety net for the poor, we work even more frantically. Nonetheless, we are supposed to condemn unemployed people as somehow morally disgraced. And of course we work all the harder to avoid being the targets of this apparently moral judgment of the poor and/or unemployed.

When this "Protestant work ethic" is combined with consumerism, we get more categories, more stereotypes, and more ill effects on the society as a whole.  Here are a few examples.

·         A former slave in the late 19th century could work to get an excellent education.  However, superb credentials and outstanding natural intelligence usually couldn't outweigh the race barrier.   (There are innumerable cases in the late 19th and early 20th century U.S. of African-Americans with superior test scores and qualifications being turned down in favor of less qualified people of northern European ancestry.)   And one can be, say, a gifted physician, but still make a very low income, if one's practice must be limited to patients who aren't able to get a fair wage, either.

Now, here's a further twist.   According to the updated "Protestant work ethic with consumerism," if someone doesn't have enough disposable income to be much of a consumer, he or she is not "worth" very much.    So even if we have a very hard-working, responsible, self-disciplined person (could even be an actual Calvinist, or Lutheran!) who is successful in his or her own small community, still that unfortunate person will be written off by the larger society -- because of the very poverty caused by the larger society's excluding him or her!  

 (Incidentally, there are certainly success stories of early African-American owned and operated businesses.  But most such businesses simply couldn't compete with most other businesses, even apart from racial bias.  New businesses need some initial wealth, to start up with.   Most populations will have "capital" to use for new businesses, wealth built up by generations of producers.   But a population that has been enslaved will no longer have its "capital."   Either it will have been left behind in the population's original homeland, or it will have been stolen.)

·         Middle-class women in the U.S. were affected both positively and negatively by the new consumerism and the powerful new advertising industry.  Especially after World War II, with the economic boom, women had more money to spend on housekeeping and on the new housewives' gadgets.   In the past women had frequently tended their own vegetable gardens, canned their own food, kept chickens for eggs -- sometimes a cow for milk, baked their own bread, and sewed their household's clothes and linen

(Sound exhausting?   It was!   If you ever get the chance to see the PBS documentary about the "1900 house," you can watch a modern family struggling to live a beautiful house built in the year 1900, complete with only 1900 furnishings and appliances.   But then before World War II, most middle-class households had three generations, grandparents and possibly aunts and uncles, as well as parents and kids, and everyone could help out.  Further, every family that could possibly afford it would have at least one poor servant, as well.)

With the post-war economic boom, and new technologies, women could now more easily  buy groceries and mass-produced clothes.

Now, because women were the primary purchasers of minor household needs, such as groceries, children's clothes, small appliances, etc., many ads were directed to them, to winning their approval.   However, their new role as valued purchaser came, so to speak, at a price.   Women were affirmed in a new and somewhat flattering role, but it was essentially a passive role.  Rather than being valued for their creative seamstress, gardening, and cooking skills, and general housekeeping ingenuity, now they were valued simply because they could buy something.  

Even worse, advertisers discovered that they could market products to women very effectively by creating fear and self-doubt in women.   Is your house clean enough?   Are you pretty / young / thin enough to keep your husband?   Disinfectants and cosmetics sold at unprecedented levels. 

·         We can even argue that the "generation gap" is caused by consumerism.  The "generation gap" first developed in the U.S. after World War II.  The economic boom allowed middle-class adolescents to have their own disposable income, in the form of allowances, for the first time.   Producers leapt at the opportunity to market youth-oriented commodities to adolescents.   Recording companies began publicizing music specifically for young people (e.g. rock and roll), clothing manufacturers began designing clothes for them, etc..   And advertisers were able to convince young people that only these kinds of commodities were "cool."   With enough commodities came a sort of youth "lifestyle."   

(It's sad that most U.S. residents think of populism and the civil rights movement as a 1960s  hippie phenomenon.  Both movements originated much earlier.   Without the '60s clothes, music, lifestyle, and generation-gap mentality, though, we might not overlook the gritty, substantial victories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries:  child labor laws, women's suffrage, i.e. the right to vote,  the landmark collaboration of black unions, such as the porters on Pullman trains, and white unions to form the AFL-CIO: their insignia still shows a dark hand and pale hand in a handshake, etc..)

·         And of course political participation in the U.S. has been damaged.   U.S. citizens tend to regard themselves as "consumers" of government, rather than as citizens of a republic.   Political strategists make decisions based on demographics, "marketing" their candidates and positions on the assumption that people will vote according to their demographic group's vested interests.    Few public figures appeal to what may be in the country's best interest -- or the world's, or the environment's.   (So it isn't absurd, given the "citizen as consumer" perspective, to dismiss concerns about the environment as being part of a "special interest group."   After all, the environment, the world, the country -- none of these are in a consumer's sphere of influence -- or interest.)

Perhaps this metaphor of "citizen as consumer" can explain the often dangerously low voter-turnout in the U.S.   (People in most other countries with free elections are astonished at frequent U.S. voter apathy.)    If a consumer is sufficiently disgusted with the two leading brands of some product, that consumer can often simply avoid or postpone buying either.    A citizen of a republic (or democracy), though, doesn't have that luxury; there will be some government or other.  One can't just decide to miss the sale and forfeit the bargains.    The consequences of an election can be far too grave.

7. Some recent examples

If this secularized Calvinism seems unfamiliar to you, we can find examples almost everywhere we look in this country.  Here are a few of the more bizarre ones:

  • Sometimes, people can agree passionately with the values expressed by, say, some protest or other, yet refuse to participate because "those protestors should be out doing some work." In these cases, even defending their own social or political priorities is seen as a luxury that shouldn't be indulged in.
  • The old protestant work ethic can certainly be pitted against "family values," too. In the mid-1990s, during a public discussion on whether women should work outside home, one person (male) described stay-at-home moms as "piggy-backers," that is, people who weren't pulling their own economic weight. (Despite the fact that child-rearing is one of the most demanding and most valuable activities in any culture.) 
  • Similarly, in the April 16, 2007 New Yorker, Leslie Bennetts’s book The Feminine Mistake was reviewed (unsympathetically) as having no patience with stay-at-home moms (stay-at-home dads weren’t mentioned), and simply not considering mothers who can’t afford good childcare, e.g. the woman Bennetts hired as a nanny for her own children.  Apparently, Bennetts approves of women working as nannies to care for another family’s children, though strongly disapproving of women caring for their own family’s children!  This bizarre conclusion is only made possible by the unspoken background of the old protestant work ethic, including the belief that one can't possibly enjoy one's work, or even find it fulfilling, since then it wouldn't be virtuous to do it!   
  • Another piece from The New Yorker (Jan. 4, 2010) profiled Whole Food's CEO and co-founder John Mackey:  Mackey's worldview is an interesting combination of ascetic vegan and fitness missionary, civil libertarian, and heavy-handed corporate capitalist, roles that are often regarded as incompatible.  (And which many of his critics insist are.  After all, what he recommends seems to be that we all, as citizens and consumers, take full responsibility for ourselves and our health, with no communal or governmental safety nets, but that we simultaneously, as employees, submit to our paternalistic employers, and trust that they will be guided by  "mission" values which will improve our lives.  And Mackey holds as an article of faith, against evidence throughout history, that entrepreneurs and business owners will always profit most by being guided by such missions and values as care for the environment.  However, as a climate-change skeptic, he worries that what he calls "hysteria about global warming" may lead to greater regulation and higher taxes.) 

I was puzzled by Mackey's passionate avowal of an unusually patchwork worldview until the similarities between it and the traditional protestant work ethic emerged.  If you're interested, read the article and see what you think.  I think the praise for workaholism is there, certainly, but there's far more.  Mackey seems to want to re-conflate economic success and moral virtue (updated to a particular semi-environmentalist, mission-statement kind of virtue), in a way that would constrain business owners by their consciences, but without any stronger enforcement from governments or unions, should their consciences fail.  The focus is on the conscience, not on any real-world consequences.  And Mackey is also seeking to re-introduce an expensive, ironically consumerist version of abstinence as a mark of moral worth.   (It is a fact that a low-fat vegan diet would prevent many, many health problems among North Americans. This is confirmed by the same scientific community that has been trying to alert us to the dangers of climate change.  However, Mackey takes this fact as an excuse implicitly to blame patients in general for their health problems, diet-related or not, and to direct attention away from the scandalous fact that many Americans are simply not receiving adequate medical care.    And whereas Mackey holds individuals responsible for avoiding cancer by not eating the cheap, accessible foods most heavily advertised to them, and judges them harshly if they lapse, he doesn't seem to want regulations to enforce corporate executives' avoiding exposing those individuals to carcinogens via pollution.   His advocacy of veganism thus doesn't seem really motivated by an interest in promoting health, but in self-denial for its own sake.)

So I'm hypothesizing that much of the emotional intensity of Mackey's worldview may in fact come from a centuries-old ideology that, in its original form, Mackey would probably not approve of!

  • Recently someone on the radio was arguing that if people in their 40s are still in jobs earning the extremely low U.S. minimum wage, rather than owning their own profitable businesses, they aren’t enterprising enough to deserve more than that minimum wage.   Notice that this isn’t the usual economic argument in favor of keeping the minimum wage low – it’s a  moral judgment about those currently earning it.   Strangely enough, the speaker didn’t place the same moral burden on business owners who couldn’t afford to pay their workers more than minimum wage; that was considered perfectly acceptable (though it certainly seems logically inconsistent).
  • Cloth Guild It can be argued that some of the U.S.’s particular problems with alcohol are rooted in the Protestant Work Ethic.  U.S. citizens who’ve traveled abroad often remark on the different attitude to alcohol in different countries.  In France and Italy, children are permitted to drink a tiny amount of wine, and young adults comfortably party down with their grandparents.  The seniors don’t judge that kind of thing harshly; instead they’re participating.  Social drinking is very common, but there are very few episodes of young people binge-drinking.  In particular, secretive alcoholism is very rare there, but surprisingly common here, and the social problems and dysfunctional family dynamics that go with enabling and denying secretive alcoholism are of course much more common here.   Even in the U.K. – protestant by definition, though not very puritan -- where I was stunned by how much alcohol people regularly drink, the alcohol problems are much more open, more public.  (Note: I am not advocating drinking – certainly I’m not advocating letting children drink.  I’m noting the very different styles of drinking; that’s all.)  (Update: A 2007 EU study on binge-drinking, a slightly different alcoholic problem, which put Ireland as the EU country with the most binge-drinkers – a clear exception to the trend.  The next few countries were countries with Protestant traditions, such as the UK and Scandinavian countries.  Those at the bottom included Italy and Greece.)  
  • Most bizarre of all to me: On a search engine, type in “Jesus” and “prosperity” and look at the results.  You’ll find websites with such claims as “Prayer can make you rich, too!”   And even though superficially this may seem Calvinist, since it’s associating wealth with God, it’s a complete corruption of everything that Calvin (and Luther) believed.   The tacky internet sites are treating the deepest experiences of one’s life (whatever you believe are behind them) as mere means to the end of more money.  Calvin and Luther both, on the other hand, exhorted us to orient our whole lives and everything in them, money-making included, to God.   Instead, the purported theology of those “pray yourself rich” websites is really, shockingly, almost identical to the crasser pagan superstitions of the late Roman empire.

Final note:  See how the notion of “ideology” comes in handy sometimes? 

And see how it’s useful to be familiar with the religious past of one’s culture, whatever one’s own religious inclinations, or lack of them? 

© The Regents of the University of Colorado, a body corporate. All rights reserved.

Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. All trademarks are registered property of the University. Used by permission only.