Reclaiming the Protestant Work Ethic
March 8, 2016 4 Comments
Mark Hemingway writing on The Federalist the other day had some very wise things to say about why America doesn’t work, not only the way it used to but very badly for those of us trying to make a living and get ahead. It goes to not only the malaise we all feel lately, but to the very heart of why America is exceptional. Read the whole thing.™
So here’s my rather immodest proposal for making America great again. We need a sea change in our attitudes toward work. Those of us who have easy jobs, let alone ones we love, better damn well remain grateful for the opportunities we have. And all of us, especially our elected representatives, ought to start showing one hell of a lot more appreciation and support for those among us who do the hard work necessary to provide the services and produce the goods that make America a safe, secure, and comfortable place.
That this needs to be said is damning indictment of how debased American culture has become. (Mike Rowe is just about the lone significant cultural voice in America screaming into the void about the value of work.) Not that long ago, we were celebrated for our “Protestant work ethic,” although, as with a lot of theological concepts, most Americans no longer have any frame of reference for what that means.
Although often associated with Calvinism, it is was first rooted in Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation, which posits that we serve God by accepting our callings and employing our God-given abilities to do the work that needs to be done. Not because we get to do what we love, but because we do what needs to be done out of love for others.
One does not need to even believe in God to see that an economic order that arises from a culture where naked self-interest is tempered by expressions of respect and gratitude for those who willingly accept responsibility to take care of others is preferable to every man for himself. It’s also vastly better than the other extreme of socialism, where the fruits of our individual labor are disproportionately seized and redistributed without regard to our families and the community members we care about most and are best positioned to take care of.
Proto-libertarian thinker Frank Chodorov described the salutary effects of this on American politics in his 1962 essay, “The Radical Rich”:
There was a time, in these United States, when a candidate for public office could qualify with the electorate only by fixing his birthplace in or near the ‘log cabin.’ He may have acquired a competence, or even a fortune, since then, but it was in the tradition that he must have been born of poor parents and made his way up the ladder by sheer ability, self-reliance, and perseverance in the face of hardship. In short, he had to be ‘self made’ The so-called Protestant Ethic then prevalent held that man was a sturdy and responsible individual, responsible to himself, his society, and his God. Anybody who could not measure up to that standard could not qualify for public office or even popular respect.
And he’s right, look at nearly any President before Kennedy, small town boy, who works hard, keeps his nose clean, and climbs to the summit – with the exception of the Roosevelts, neither of whom was particularly good for the country, to put it mildly.
We used to say, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations’, meaning that we only appreciate the things that we worked hard for, when we inherit our wealth, we simply don’t value it, or others, the way we do what we earn.
There’s a lot in the column, you really should read it all, not least because it has much bearing on who we choose to be president this year.