Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is the Protestant Work Ethic relevant?

When I write about what conservative friends think about issues of public policy, I’m not writing about conservatives as a class, only about the friends to whom I have listened.  It disturbs me when I read articles that assert conservatives or liberals believe thus and so.  I consider my self left of center and very pragmatic.  What some commentators ascribe to all liberals or progressives is foreign to me, and it seems the height of conceit to slather an entire political spectrum with a brush of one unverifiable color.  In like manner, I cannot say conservatives think or believe thus and so.  I can only say what I understand my particular conservative friends think and believe because I have listened to them one at a time.  They cannot speak for all.  They can’t even speak for others who live in our area and vote like they do.   They can speak only for themselves, as I can speak only for myself.  When I write articles that imply a dialogue between us, I take the risk of misstating what they would say for themselves, but it’s one I’m willing to take for the sake of writing anything at all.

With that said, my friends farther to the right end of the spectrum believe that it is essential for people to be responsible for their own well being, and that government assistance programs are, for the most part, agencies enabling dependency rather than responsibility.  But for all the welfare programs, people would find ways to work for their needs rather than relying on government handouts.  But for all the government regulations, there would be abundant opportunity for entrepreneurial growth in business and industry.  The creeping socialism of the left is the greatest danger to America’s prosperity.  No doubt you have heard something similar, and more.  The roots of those assumptions lie deep in the American psyche, and I suspect they are tied closely to the so called Protestant work ethic, popularized by Max Weber in the early part of the 20th century as our civic inheritance of Puritan theology applied to daily life.  

Protestant by its foundation in Calvinist theology as expressed by colonial Puritans, it has a curious affection for one way of understanding justification by works that many Protestants ascribed to Roman Catholics, and to which they were adamantly opposed.  Grossly and unfairly summarized, it might be said that one side believed success achieved through hard work and civic diligence was a sign of God’s preordained blessing.  The other side believed that God’s blessing could be achieved through hard work and civic diligence.  Either way, hard work and civic diligence are at the center.  At best, slackers and reprobates fail the community, fail God and are bereft of God’s blessings.  At worst, they are signs of the devil’s handiwork sapping the life out of the community.  

What some of my very conservative friends leave out of their take on all of this is civic diligence.  It’s the same thing missing from what several right wing commentators write, to the extent that I stumble across them from time to time in our local paper.  It’s a big mistake.  Civic diligence is central to both ways of understanding the importance of hard work and God’s blessings.  The other day I was reading an essay on this very subject by John Cotton, one of those old colonial Puritans.  In it he asserted that there were three mandatory characteristics of the work to which every Christian [man] is called.  First, all work must be not only for his own well being, but also for the public good.  Second, the work one is called to is work for which one has skills, abilities, and understanding, and not other kinds of work.  Third, the work one is called to must be accomplished in ways acceptable to God’s purposes.  Obviously he had more to say, but the point is that if one wants to appeal to the founding principles of an American work ethic as the standard against which modern social policy is measured, then one ought to know what those principles are. And those principles always point toward the responsibility one has to the community for work that contributes to the well being of the community.  They require people to do what they are capable of doing, but not what they are not capable of doing.  They require that work be accomplished in morally, ethically acceptable ways.  

It’s the communitarian emphasis that my very conservative friends would find suspicious, even threatening, if they knew about it.  The rugged individualism and freedom from community oversight they attribute to the founding ideologies of the nation are not there.  Just to be fair, nascent European style socialism is not there either.  It’s important to make that point because they have a tendency to say if you don’t believe what they believe then you must be a socialist.  It doesn’t work that way, but trying to bring a more complex understanding into the conversation generally ends the conversation.  

Apart from the communitarian issue, their current delight in the president elect ignores the call to high standards of the moral and ethical component that characterized the early American work ethic.  For those old New England Puritans, success that does not reflect God’s will and ways is the work of the devil.  No matter how successful such a person might appear, it is destructive to the community and a sign of his or her eternal damnation.  It is to be rejected by the community.


Maybe none of this is important as we enter 2017.  Friends who think they are appealing to traditional American values are unlikely to read essays by those who gave birth to them.  I suspect they don’t really believe in them anyway.  They adhere to a Disney theme park version, and are not going to give it up.  On the other hand, maybe we need make it a part of the public debate.  What are the most workable ways to understand the scope of and relationships between communities and issues at the national, state, local levels?  What responsibility does the community have for creating conditions under which meaningful work opportunities for every level of skill and ability can exist?  What does it mean for persons and communities to have high moral and ethical standards for the work they do and the way they do it?  In what ways can we maximize individual right to live and work as each will without jeopardizing the right of others to do the same?  If each is to be as responsible for one’s self as each is able, what is needed for it to also provide for the necessities of life?  What is the responsibility of the community toward those who are irresponsible for what ever reason?

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