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Socio-Economic Consequences of the Protestant Reformation


An examination of how the 16th Century Protestant Reformation laid the groundwork for liberal economics, capitalism, socialism, and our current socio-cultural distempers.


Charles W. Moore

 Author Notes

Freelance journalist, syndicated columnist, and web publisher based in Nova Scotia. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications across Canada, in the U.S., and overseas. He is also editor/publisher of the Barquentine Ventures Online Journal and the MacCave Online Journal.

 Essay - 1/6/1998

The salutary characteristics of the theology of the Protestant Reformation, and its secular spawn--socio-economic liberalism, include hard work, frugality and individual self-reliance. Modern materialism was developed around these principles, which favoured production over consumption and the interests of the individual over that of the collective community. The Protestant dogma of personal judgment advanced the concept of democratic governmental systems based on representing the preference of a majority or a plurality of individual voters. The destruction of the medieval system of authority removed traditional religious restrictions on trade and banking--especially proscriptions against usury--which had inhibited the development of modern capitalism.

Reformation theology, especially that of John Calvin, emphasized industriousness. The famous "Protestant Work Ethic" terminology actually derives from a famous study by a German Marxist economist, Max Weber, first published as "The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism" in 1904/'05. Weber's thesis was picked up and expanded upon by English economic historian R.H. Tawney who argued in his "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism" (1922) that historical causation is not influenced solely by economic considerations, and that the peculiarly Protestant (especially Calvinist) synergy of asceticism and worldliness facilitated the rise of capitalistic productive efficiency. Weber pointed out that while the necessary material and circumstantial factors that could have accommodated the establishment of capitalist economic structures had existed in Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, Judiac, and indeed Orthodox/Catholic societies; various philosophical, religious, and ethical characteristics inherent to those traditions inhibited such development. By contrast, post-Reformation Christian society provided just the right conceptual soil in which the seed of capitalism could germinate and flourish.

Max Weber was the first to clearly identify and define the organic relationship between the Reformation theological ethic and broader social and economic developments such as capitalism and liberalism. He argued that the following characteristics of Reformed theory led to the rise of capitalism: (a) the emphasis proto-reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin placed on the Christian "calling" inclined people to work harder; (b) the Reformers' emphasis on frugality, including a greater commitment to earning than consuming, encouraged accumulation of capital for investment and business growth; (c) belief that success in one's temporal work provided an indication and assurance that the individual Christian was living a well-ordered, disciplined life; and (d) the commercial attitudes that inevitably evolved from these assumptions. In turn, R.H. Tawney argued that Calvinist Puritanism was most "congenial to the world of business," and that it gave the "capitalist spirit" a "tonic."

During the more than 12 centuries in which Roman Catholicism had dominated the spiritual and temporal affairs of Western civilization, economies grew at a glacial rate. In this steady-state environment, people tended to work only as necessary to fulfill immediate or short-term needs. Work was seen as something to be avoided entirely if possible by the higher social classes, and best left to serfs, servants, and peasants. Nor did the latter categories see anything innately virtuous about labour, and consequently they too did as little as they could get away with.

Hilaire Belloc observes: "Under the old social philosophy which had governed the Middle Ages, temporal, and therefore all economic, activities were referred to an eternal standard. The production of wealth, its distribution and exchange, were regulated with a view to securing a Christian life for Christian men. In two points especially was this felt: First in securing the independence of the family, which can only be done by the wide distribution of property, in other words the prevention of the growth of a proletariat; secondly in the close connection between wealth and public function.... The artisan in the towns, organized in his guild, had control over his own life and that of his family. He was not, as he has now become, the economic subordinate of wealthier men. His relations with his apprentices were organic and domestic, unlike the modern relation of mere mechanical contract between laborer with the capitalist who exploits him....

"The society of Christendom, and especially of Western Christendom up to the explosion, which we call the Reformation, had been a society of owners: a Proprietarial Society. It was one in which there remained strong bonds between one class or another, and in which there remained strong bonds between one class or another, and in which there was a hierarchy of superior and inferior, but not, in the main, a distinction between a restricted body of possessors and a main body of destitute at the mercy of the possessors, such as our society has become. It has become so through the action of the Reformation, which was at the root of the whole change."

The Calvinist Protestant idea that work for work's sake was innately virtuous supplied a theological rationale for liberal economics and its paradigm of growth. Calvin's emphasis on individualism meant each individual's responsibility to serve God. Every individual Christian had a duty and obligation to be as self-reliant as possible, and to lead a life centred on hard work and frugality. The central doctrine of Reformation theology is salvation by grace through personal faith in Jesus Christ. A question that naturally arose was how can one know that he is really a member of the elect? Catholics receive assurance of their salvation through rites of the Church: the Sacraments and priestly absolution, but these had been rejected by the Reformers. Therefore one answer was found in "By their fruits shall ye know them." A Protestant could receive assurance that God's grace was effective in him through living a daily existence characterized by moral order and devotion to temporal as well as spiritual affairs. While one cannot be saved through one's good works, they still needed to evidenced in one's life in order to provide assurance of salvation.

Martin Luther's ideal for Christian living was apostolic poverty and simplicity, but he also held that we should apply ourselves to our work in a thoroughgoing manner and strive to do well at any enterprise we put our hand to. This amounted to a significant departure from the "present needs" ethic of work that prevailed under medieval Catholicism.

Labor became an end in itself--"a station assigned him by the Lord," according to Calvin, who believed that idleness, "sloth," and even relaxation were essentially sinful and indicative of insufficient commitment to God. The individual would no longer cease from his labours once his essential financial and physical needs were satisfied. Continuous work was necessary to fulfill one's obligations to God and to avoid the dangers of idleness. As with so many other aspects of Reformation theory, its economic implications led to unintended consequences. In Calvin's perspective we find the roots of 20th Century manic workaholism. The idea of hard work and ceaseless activity is about all that remains of Calvin's doctrine for most of Western society, but he was successful beyond his wildest expectations in making people feel guilty about "doing nothing."

Four centuries later, materialism is now centred on consumption rather than production. Calvin doubtless never imagined that his half-thought-out ethic of ceaseless production would lead to what we now call Capitalism, but that it would was inevitable. Unlike the economics that existed under Catholic Christendom, in which people tended to work only as much as absolutely necessary, Calvin's ceaseless, tireless production for its own sake was bound to create surplus material wealth which would go to waste if not consumed, an embarrassing problem since, to Calvin's way of thinking, enjoyment of the fruits of one's labour was as carnal and "sinful" as idleness. The solution to this dilemma was reinvestment of the surpluses in even more efficient production and creation of a means of marketing it--leading to the development of consumer capitalism. Calvin tragically underestimated the seductive pull material wealth and comfort would exert on individuals once their production and acquisition was sanctioned by Christianity (and thus the social moral consensus). If he had possessed a realistic view of human nature, he could never have thought that an ethic of work for work's sake combined with material asceticism would be sustainable.

Liberal capitalist economics soon took on a life of its own. Individualism gradually lost the ascetic ideals that Calvin and the other Reformers preached, and along with it the sense of individual responsibility to God. Today it has developed into a secular dogma of freedom to do and/or consume whatever one desires, uninhibited by any sense of moral restraint, let alone duty. Pleasure becomes the primary objective of life, an ethos that pulls the floor out from under moral society. Post-Reformation empiricist English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) argued that man's natural and rightful objective in life was temporal happiness, and a measure of Locke's influence is found in reference to "the pursuit of happiness" in the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 1776. Locke argued that the proper role of morality was to caution against indulgence in immediate pleasures that result in lasting misery. He believed, far too optimistically, that man's instinctive inclination to be happy should provide sufficient motivation to ensure moral behavior.

However, under a paradigm of sovereign individualism, reason can no longer impose limits on the pursuit of pleasure--including the immediate gratification of every desire, no matter how perverse, criminal, or immoral. As Locke's contemporary Thomas Hobbes argued: when we say "good" we simply mean that which we desire, and by "evil" that which we choose to shun; and that will is "merely the last appetite in deliberating." Likewise, for Hobbes, "True and false are attributes of speech, not of things, and where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood." The objective standards that stand in condemnation of crime and cruelty derive from religion, and have no place in a society based on a consumption ethic. The Reformation made all authority--parental, political, religious, academic, etc.--suspect, or at best subject to individual interpretation. The liberal impulse is to remove all external restraint on the free agency of the individual--to set up a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption and sensuality, and is ideologically at odds with the concepts of self-restraint and self-discipline.

Capitalism set up a system dependent for its survival upon the promotion of consumer demand. People are encouraged to spend and consume rather than to save and conserve. The principle of delayed gratification, which initially provided an ascetic rationale for the accumulation of capital, were soon discarded in favour of the spontaneous, emotional, and subjective ideology of endless consumption. Capitalism subordinated the sense of being to a desire for having, and transformed the value of commodities from usefulness to their exchange potential. American philosopher Richard Weaver wrote that one of the "strangest disparities in history," is the "sense of abundance felt by older and simpler societies," contrasted with the "sense of scarcity" felt by our materially rich one. That gnawing sense of insecurity pertains not only to the individual's material estate, but also to the soul's status. There may have been lot less individual liberty under Medieval Christendom, but there was virtually no suicide either.

It was no major leap to go from regarding idleness and relaxation as sinful, to thinking of efficiency and productivity as innately virtuous--that output was as important as input. Because industrial activity is inextricably linked to the material goods it produces, it is not hard to trace the process by which material prosperity came to be regarded as unquestionably "good;" an outward sign of divine reward for "right living." If work (which increasingly came to mean wage-slavery in industry) was a temporal manifestation of moral propriety and spiritual well-being, then there could hardly be anything wrong with the material fruits of labour or with the environmental sacrifices that resulted from industrial progress. Belloc writes: "In denying the efficacy of good deeds and of the human will, of abnegations, in leaving on one side as useless all the doctrine and tradition of Holy Poverty, Calvin opened the door to the domination of the mind by money.... Calvin himself would have said with learning, sincerity, and zeal that the glory of God was the only object worthy of human activity, but as he divorced such activity from the power of saving the individual soul, what could there remain save the pursuit of riches?"

The notion of the positive goodness of material wealth and prosperity gradually developed into a heresy that has enjoyed a particularly strong constituency in North America, suggesting that anyone who is not materially prosperous--whether he lives down the street or in the Third World--is somehow deficient in character, lazy perhaps. Nineteenth Century Protestant evangelist Dwight L. Moody implicitly repudiated the traditional Christian ideals of poverty and simplicity, stating that "It is a wonderful fact that men and women saved by the blood of Jesus rarely remain subjects of charity, but rise at once to comfort and respectability.... I never saw a man who put Christ first in his life that wasn't successful." The operative words here are "comfort and respectability," the arch-objectives of bourgeois liberalism. "The Gospel of Wealth" preached by Moody fit in perfectly with the burgeoning liberal/humanist apotheosis of material comfort and prosperity. This notion, widely promoted by 19th Century Protestant evangelists, equated Biblical teaching with individualism, free enterprise, and unlimited material accumulation. It is still a dominant motif in many sectors of evangelical culture, manifesting itself in such ideas as the "name it and claim it" pseudo-gospel of acquisition.

It is notable that among Moody's close associated and supporters were such 19th-Century Capitalist barons as John Wanamaker, Cyrus McCormick, Philip Armour, Jay Cooke, Cornelius Vanderbilt ll, and J.P. Morgan. Another prominent 19th-Century American Protestant, Russell H. Conwell, also ingratiated himself with captains of industry by preaching that financial success was a reflection of personal righteousness while poverty was a mark of God's punishment. Evangelist Billy Sunday, a contemporary of Moody and Conwell, was also a friend and confidante of big-name capitalists, including John D. Rockefeller, S.S. Kresge, Elbert H. Cary, Louis F. Swift, Henry S. Frick, and John M. Studebaker. A New York Times columnist of the day asserted that wealthy capitalists supported Sunday as a "police measure--as a means of keeping the lower classes quiet."

The term "Gospel of Wealth" was actually coined by Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, in an essay of that name first published in The North American Review in 1889. Carnegie postulated that civilization depended upon a threefold set of "laws":

1. The "sacredness" of private property.

2. Open commercial competition.

3. Unrestrained accumulation of wealth.

Carnegie believed these laws were ordained of God, and that anything which undermined them was "the work of the devil." Consequently, in his schematic, those who lived in accordance with these "divine laws of economics" (ie: unbridled capitalist liberalism), were guaranteed to prosper. Conversely, anyone not materially successful must have serious deficiencies in his Christian life.

The fact that even a cursory reading of Jesus' teaching on poverty in the New Testament reveals the "Gospel of Wealth" to be utter heresy, seems not to have phased Carnegie (or legions of other bourgeois liberal professing Christians) in the least. They, in R.H. Tawney's words, had persuaded themselves that "greed is enterprise and avarice economy."

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung observed that by the beginning of the 20th-Century it had become "gratuitously offensive" to imply that Christianity should be hostile, or even indifferent to the material world. On the contrary, wrote Jung, the "good Christian" is the "jovial citizen;" the "enterprising businessman;" the best in whatever field of temporal endeavour he involves himself in; "worldly goods," Jung continues, are "interpreted as special rewards for Christian behavior."

Secular humanism evolved from the Reformation doctrine of individual sovereignty, as the Lutheran/Calvinistic concept of covenant with God was gradually (but inevitably) displaced by the liberal religion of self-gratification. The Calvinist idea that productive work was outward evidence of Christian salvation became outmoded as far as most of society was concerned. However, pressure to conform with a Protestant Work Ethic ideal of behavior remained. The "need," as Jung characterized it, is to propitiate a "great power" outside of ourselves. A "Wholly Other," representing the perfect and only reality. The fact that most people now substitute money, power, material prosperity, and "good citizenship," for God, makes little difference in terms of the P.W.E.'s compulsive hold on their psyches.

We might reflect that the Reformers, with self-perceived best of intentions, sowed the seed of the Reformation's auto-destruction by promoting a simplistic, easily distorted, "down-to-earth" idea of visible righteousness. Today, the true cathedrals of consumer society are shopping malls. The marketplace ministers to our personal needs, and is the chief moral instructor of post-modern, post-Christian individualism, taking the place of both the Church and the extended family. Calvin's rigid asceticism, intended to focus the individual's mind on serving God, ultimately and ironically ended up creating and serving the hedonistic demands of a new bourgeois-consumer class. It is no accident that the so-called "Gospel of Wealth," originated in North American Calvinistic Protestantism.

As American historian Christopher Lasch observed: [The bourgeois] extols cooperation and teamwork while harbouring deeply antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, in the manner of the acquisitive individualist of nineteenth-century political economy, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire."

Technological development expresses a revolt against the limitations of the human condition, and appeals strongly to the seductive notion that we can remake the world in accord with our desires and harness nature to our purposes, thereby achieving humanistic self-sufficiency.

By the late 20th Century it had become obvious to anyone with eyes to see, that this heroic project was going sour. Not only were the earth's ecological systems breaking down under the stress of human activity, but nihilism, neurosis, and despair were running rampant in the most prosperous, "developed" societies. Many people in the "deprived" Third World living under repressive regimes were arguably happier than the average discontented Westerner. The more we conquer nature; the more we increase our power and wealth; the more we consume; the more scientific knowledge and technological sophistication we possess; the deeper despair bores its way into our collective psyche, feeding on our uneasy sense of failure to live up to our potential as human beings rather than as consumers and despoilers of nature.

"A despairing humanity is not merely an unhappy humanity;" writes Theodore Roszak, "it is an ugly humanity, ugly in its own eyes--dwarfed, diminished, stunted, and self-loathing. These are the buried sources of world war and despotic collectivism, of scapegoat hatred and exploitation. Ugly hates beautiful, hates gentle, hates loving, hates life. There is a politics of despair.... Out of despair [people] grow burdened with moral embarrassment for themselves, until they must at last despise and crucify the good which they are helpless to achieve. And that is the final measure of damnation. To hate the good precisely because we know it is good and know that its beauty calls our whole being into question."

The average person nurtured in the bosom of liberal democracy tends to be scandalized by any suggestion that hierarchical feudalism had anything to recommend it in terms of justice. Popular prejudice caricatures feudalism as a barbaric and oppressive system benefiting only those born into the aristocracy, and that its overthrow was a triumph of human justice.

However, it is arguable that the average person of whatever feudal class was happier and more satisfied with his lot in life than the typical stressed-out denizen of our post-modern liberal democratic cultures. Part of the problem with democratic capitalism is that it created its own dialectical opposition, a large population segment with political and social freedom, but without the economic freedom to take advantage of it--Marx's Proletariat--a faction convinced that it has "nothing to lose but its chains," and therefore possessing no sense of loyalty to, or stakehold in, capitalist society. Depending upon circumstances and opportunity, varying percentages of this self-perceived dispossessed class will become lawless and even predatory, a phenomenon manifesting manifold examples in contemporary Western democracies.

The full citizen possessing political freedom, but little practical economic freedom, is bound to resent the injustice of being exploited by others of equal political status whose only claim to superiority is the power that comes with greater wealth. The obvious material and social inequalities that abound in purportedly civicly "equal" liberal democratic societies are a constant goad to these festering resentments. The ordered and generally acknowledged stratification of social and economic relationships between the duty of superiors and loyalty of inferiors in feudal culture, even when a degree of injustice obtained, was a moral reality familiar to both parties and mutually recognized as their mutual guarantee of a stable, economically secure, and civilized existence. No such bond of mutual commonwealth exists in an economic culture predicated on contract rather than status. Thus, when a wage-earner's services become superfluous to a capital enterprise's economic needs, the capitalist will terminate the worker's employment, perhaps with sincere regret, but with no sense of duty toward the employee beyond the discharge of any contractual obligations. Likewise, the wage-earner feels no particular sense of loyalty toward his employer beyond the stipulations of his job description. However, it is not difficult to discern who has the whip hand in such a relationship, or to recognize how it leads to social instability and alienation.

The impersonality of corporate culture only increases that alienation. Many people who work for large companies may never lay eyes on, let alone meet or talk to, the upper managers and directors who control decision making and policy, and thus the economic destiny of the workers. And even those individuals are not the true employers in companies owned by public shareholders, who, especially these days, often live in foreign lands.

The structural flaw in the liberal economics from which both capitalism and socialism derive, is that the vast majority of citizens come to regard themselves as employees, with little control over their economic security. Labour unions purported to address this problem, but succeeded mainly in reinforcing the contractual dynamic in the workplace. This increases, rather than reduces the level of antagonism in the employer/employee relationship, and in no way enhances any sense of commonwealth. The unionized worker is still a wage-slave, who may have achieved a greater degree of economic justice through collective bargaining, but who ultimately has no secure hold on his socio-economic status beyond the terms of his union's current contract, and is still subject to layoffs. Not only that, he is even less of a free agent than he was as a non-union worker, now having another set of bosses over him--the union executive.

Karl Marx's remedy has proved to be an even greater failure than capitalism at achieving economic and social justice and a sense of mutual commonwealth. Alienation is the cosmic disease of modern and post-modern society. People feel, with considerable justification, that they are essentially on their own, obliged to swim or sink. The palliative of the impersonal welfare state, resented by its powerless beneficiaries and taxpaying benefactors alike, is a shabby substitute for Christian society in which the more fortunate assume a sense of duty toward the less fortunate, rather than merely a legal obligation that is dispatched when they pay their taxes.

The manifold horrors of our present century, in which the most hideous brutality, cruelty, and evil have co-existed with the ascendancy of liberal humanist ideologies; poverty and famine with material abundance; technological advances with ecological destruction; are largely a consequence of the modern tendency to cast all constructs of problem and solution into an economic context. The futility of this approach is manifest for anyone who has eyes to see. However, because affirmation of the absolute sovereignty of God is incompatible with the sovereignty of man--whether the latter be under democracy or dictatorship--no other solution is seriously considered or even imaginable to growing numbers of people. They see civilization collapsing around them, but can't explain why this is happening. What they don't grasp is that no political or economic system can cure this illness.

In truth, the only force powerful enough to arrest the disintegration and descent into neo-pagan barbarism is the Faith that built Western civilization in the first place--Catholic/Orthodox Christianity. Religion is the only paradigmatic basis for workable, sustainable, just societies. Because of this fact, the High Middle Ages serves as a model of sanity and practicality in terms of economic development and social structure, especially when contrasted with the suicidal madness of our age with its overarching greed and monomania for productive efficiency and delusions of endless material prosperity.

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