Why the Myth of the 'Protestant Work Ethic' Won't Die Religion and Economy

By Kelsey, Dallas | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), September 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

Why the Myth of the 'Protestant Work Ethic' Won't Die Religion and Economy


Kelsey, Dallas, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


SALT LAKE CITY -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Weber, the "Protestant work ethic" has been disproved by economic studies, criticized by theologians and undercut by historical documents.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."

Protestants get credit

The Reformation is famous for altering how people worshiped, 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. …

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