A little something for Labor Day:
“The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly 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. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. This is the quality which interests us.”
This passage, from Chapter 2 of the renowned sociologist Max Weber’s famous tract, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” illustrates one of the principal themes of the work: to discern the relationship between the Calvinism that was so influential in the United States and the capitalist “work ethic” that was once so important in the country’s self-understanding.
Here is a new book that considers the fate of this association in a very different time–one where Calvinism and the Protestant “ethos” more generally is in decline (though the book perhaps disputes this premise), and what that might mean for our orientation toward work generally: Saving the Protestant Ethic: Creative Class-Evangelicalism and the Crisis of Work, by Andrew Lynn (OUP).
Protestant orientations to work and economics have shaped wider American culture for several centuries. But not all strands of American Protestantism have elevated secular work to the highest echelons of spiritual significance. This book surveys the efforts of a religious movement within White Protestant fundamentalism and its Neo-Evangelical successors to “make work matter to God.”
Today, bearing the name the “Faith and Work movement,” this effort puts on display the creative capacities of religious and lay leaders to adapt a faith system to the changing social-economic conditions of advanced capitalism. Building from the insights and theory of Max Weber, Andrew Lynn draws on archival research and interviews with movement leaders to survey and assess the surging number of new organizations, books, conferences, worship songs, seminary classes, vocational programming, and study groups promoting classically Protestant and Calvinist ideas of work and vocation . He traces these efforts back to early-twentieth-century business leaders and theologically trained leaders who saw a desperate need to foster a new “work ethic” among religious laity entering into professional, managerial, and creative class work.
Leaders interviewed for the study recount the challenges of rerouting energies that were previously steered toward inward spirituality, cultural separatism, and proselytization. Through these interviews, Saving the Protestant Ethic captures ongoing in-group tensions and creative adaptation among American Evangelicals as they navigate changing class and political dynamics that shape American society.