Protestant Work Ethic

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Early in the 1900s, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) was pondering why some European countries had evolved into industrial powerhouses while others still had largely agrarian economies.

He realised that the former group were the Protestant countries of northern Europe, while the latter group largely comprised the Mediterranean and Balkan countries where the predominant denomination was either Roman Catholic or Orthodox.  He concluded that some aspect of Protestantism must be responsible for industrialisation, and the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic was born.

Weber concluded that the teaching of the protestant reformers, reinforced by later writers like Benjamin “time is money” Franklin, placed an ethical value on hard work, diligence and frugality as the outward evidence of salvation.  The negative value Protestants placed on ostentation meant that many of those who had wealth, particularly the non-conformists, re-invested it rather than spent it, resulting in the build up of capital and the start of capitalism.

Much discussed and frequently discredited, particularly with the decline of organised religion in Europe (see next week’s blog), the PWE has been nevertheless an interesting indicator of an economic dividing line across Europe which continues to this day.  As a current example, what do the countries which suffered most in the Eurozone crisis have in common?  They’re all in the non-protestant group: Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Greece.  Or, as a more irreverent commentator put it, they’re countries where people work for less than 20 hours a week.

That commentator’s corollary was that in the Protestant countries, we live for less than 20 hours a week.  And that is a perceptive observation.  Because the PWE means that people in the protestant countries, even those who are not active believers, unwittingly subscribe to the view that work is a moral imperative, that one ought to work, and work hard, to use the gifts that God has given us wisely.  We have even interpreted the parable of the talents to reinforce this view, and we will comment on that in a blog in two weeks’ time.

The PWE is still alive and kicking in the western church in the form of hard work and responsibility.  It seems that Christians today in the west, while on one level fully buying into the idea that our salvation is a free gift of grace which we can do nothing to earn, spend the rest of their lives working hard for God to pay off the loan which they’ve taken out.  This creates in us the drive to continue serving even when overwork is squeezing the life out of us.

Mission workers often typify this situation.  Overworked into a joyless drudgery, they continue to drive themselves dutifully while drying up on the inside.  They call it ‘laying down their lives’.  But it is in many situations an unnecessary and unrequired sacrifice.

Syzygy believes that the PWE has contributed significantly to the overwork and stress that cripples mission workers, leading to burnout.  They carry the weight of their responsibility heavily, and feel guilty if they stop to enjoy themselves.

One of the questions that we at Syzygy frequently ask mission workers is:

Would God love you any less if you never did anything for God again?

The answer, of course, is always no.  So why do we live our lives as if our salvation depended on our works alone?  Max Weber knows.

Other blogs in our mini-series on the Protestant Work Ethic cover issues such as:

Eurozone crisis part 2

With the tedious inevitability of a long-lasting B-movie franchise, another episode of the Eurozone Crisis is shortly to be released, this time with some new lead characters.  Since we reported on the temporary resolution of the Eurozone crisis six months ago, things have proceeded fairly smoothly. The Germans have continued to impose rigorous financial efficiency on the rest of the zone, by requiring the vulnerable countries (notably Greece, Italy and Spain) to make swathing cuts in government expenditure with the intention of balancing their budgets. To an extent, this seems to have worked, as the interest rates on their debt have fallen. The citizens of these countries, however, are significantly disgruntled at the poverty these cuts are imposing.

There is a fairly compelling argument that balancing the books will not in itself bring the Eurozone out of recession, since some amount of government spending is necessary to stimulate the economy back into growth. The Germans of course, who face the bill for keeping the fragile economies going, are reluctant to countenance any increase in government spending, and of course don’t need to do this at home since their own manufacturing sector is doing very nicely.

Two events occurred last Sunday which will significantly threaten the fragile consensus over the German approach to Eurozone stabilisation. Francois Hollande, who was elected President of France last Sunday – the first Socialist President since Francois Mitterand left office in 1995 – believes in government stimulation of the economy.  ‘Austerity can no longer be the only option,’ he said. This means that the ‘Merkozy’ consensus which saw France and Germany together working to control government debt is now likely to be shattered, with France moving to a position challenging the Germans. Both sides recognise the danger of this and are keen to appear conciliatory.  Mrs Merkel, the German Chancellor, was the first leader to phone and congratulate Mr Hollande, who in turn will visit Germany for talks immediately after his investiture on 15th May.

Nevertheless, the argument seems to be swinging against the Germans as the Eurozone economy bumps along the bottom, and many people are realising that the German approach has not delivered recovery. The Eurozone may be about to change course. Hollande has a powerful ally – Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, who recently told the European Parliament ‘We have had a fiscal compact. Right now, what is in my mind is to have a growth compact.’

The second major event was the result of the Greek general election, which took place on the same day as the French presidential one. Many Greeks are extremely unhappy with the austerity imposed by last year’s EU-IMF bailout of the Greek economy, and disgruntled voters deserted the main political parties en masse. The protest vote was garnered by radical parties of the left and the right.  The second largest party, Syriza, firmly rejects the terms of the EU bailout, which means it cannot ally with the two other largest parties, who are pro-austerity, to form a government. There may have to have another election, which could well see Syriza improve its position.

This means that the government which eventually emerges is far more likely to reject the extreme measures which have been imposed on it in exchange for the bailout of its economy. This will lead either to the exit of Greece from the Euro – something which is already being discussed, albeit in reasonably guarded terms – or a renegotiation of the terms, which will not go down well in Germany, where voters are already unhappy at working long hours and retiring late in order to support the ‘lazy’ Greeks. Mrs Merkel faces a general election next year and after suffering recently in local elections she will be keen to avoid upsetting her voters. Germany has warned Greece that there will be no more money if it fails to keep to the agreed terms.

The ongoing uncertainty will ensure that the value of the Euro on international markets will remain depressed, and European mission workers will continue to find it hard to raise funds for their ministry.

Eurocrisis? What Eurocrisis?

europe_flagSome of you living abroad may have heard confused rumours of cataclysm in the Eurozone, that the UK is leaving the EU, or that David Cameron has left us marginalised and out in the cold.  Certainly a meeting in Brussels last Friday will have momentous consequences, although it’s too early to tell whether Cameron is Neville Chamberlain or Margaret Thatcher.  This week we will look at the Eurozone crisis and why it has arisen.

The Eurozone consists of 17 EU member countries who share a common currency, the unimaginatively-named Euro (€).  The UK is not one of them.  The new currency was introduced in 2002 in an attempt to bind Europe even closer together.  However the inventors of this plan overlooked the obvious fact that serious stresses would appear in the system if there were a) no common fiscal policy and b) no strong central government able to implement said fiscal policy.  This left a situation where many of the Eurozone countries are able to run their economies in ways which actually result in economic divergence.  This problem was not immediately apparent as the economic growth of the last decade obscured it.

However the crisis in the finance industry has led to liquidity problems in several governments, with many having to pay increasingly impractical rates of interest to borrow money.  So they are slashing spending, which leads to domestic discontent and higher unemployment, thereby reducing government revenues and increasing the need for borrowing.  These countries include the relatively minor economies of Ireland, Portugal, and (most notoriously) Greece, though Spain and Italy are also under pressure.  In the past, these countries would have devalued their currencies, and we’d all have gone there for cheap holidays, bought their cheap exports, and everything would get right in a few years.

The Euro prevents that happening, so these governments have to be given huge handouts.  The only Europeans  with enough money to do this are the Germans and (paradoxically) the UK, which finds itself forced to help the Euro out as the Eurozone is our major trading partner and Euro-chaos affects our exports.  But Germany is picking up the bulk of the bill and is getting increasingly annoyed about it.

So the Germans are trying to fix the problem.  They argue that they are not going to keep pouring money into a bottomless pit, and are particularly aggravated about having to bail out the Greeks, who retire earlier, pay less tax, and (allegedly) don’t work as hard as the Germans.  So heads of government spent the last week in Brussels discussing a new European treaty which would enforce some Germanic discipline in governance, and resolve the problem.  Part of these deals would mean more regulation on financial institutions.  David Cameron had already made it clear that the UK will cede no more sovereign power to the EU, and insisted that an exemption for UK financial institutions was his price for agreeing to the changes.

Europe said non.  Instead they made a separate deal to strengthen the Eurozone, with only the UK left out.  Some argue that Cameron has stood up for the UK, others that he has betrayed us.  The word being used a lot is isolated – some argue that by taking no further part in the discussions, the UK will have no say on important issues that will affect us.  Others claim that we are now effectively isolated from a coming Euro-disaster.

It is too early to tell whether Cameron’s action is heroic or suicidal, but one indicator is that the Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency last week threatened to downgrade the credit ratings of all the Eurozone countries.  This means that S&P thinks that they are less able to pay their debts, and their cost of borrowing will go up.  The UK however, continues to maintain its coveted AAA rating.  Which means that the UK government can borrow money at the cheapest rate for decades.  It could be a good time to invest in sterling.

Read the next instalment: