Unless you have been living in a very remote Appalachian cave, you will know that the European economy is in deep trouble. The basic problem is that countries with widely divergent economies have formed a common currency zone, and that the resulting strains are threatening to destroy the euro, possibly taking the global banking economy along with it. Very roughly, the more successful countries such as Germany and Finland are Northern European, while the laggards are mainly on the Mediterranean. The worst offenders are the PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain.

So much is well known, but recent commentators have raised the subversive suggestion that the underlying difference might be religious as much as economic. At the Globalist, the magazine’s founder Stephan Richter wrote a piece provocatively titled “Martin Luther and the Eurozone: Theology as an Economic Destiny?” Richter argues that the Eurozone’s core problem is that the region contains countries that do not understand the thrift needed to belong to a club that demands tight limits on deficits and public borrowing. In fact, he says, there is a simple rule. If a country adopted Protestantism in the sixteenth century, then it would properly qualify for the Eurozone today. “If it had stayed predominantly Catholic, or even Greek Orthodox, then not. With few exceptions, that simple rule would have saved hundreds of millions of people around the world a lot of despair, along with much of the animosity and frustration that now prevails – never mind trillions of euros in asset value…. Too much Catholicism, it seems, is detrimental to a nation’s fiscal health, even in the 21st century. Indulgences then – and an inability to properly manage public finances now.”

Now there are obvious exceptions to this principle, Catholic countries or regions that appear to be flourishing. Richter resolves the dilemma thus – perhaps not too convincingly: “Even though Luther failed to take hold in these places, even core Catholic areas like France, Slovakia, Austria and northern Italy have gradually adapted the economic values, work ethic and integrity of Dr. Luther and John Calvin.”

Chris Bowlby has a related piece on the BBC’s News Magazine. Among other things, he notes how “religious ideas still shape the way Germans talk and think about money. The German word for debt – schuld – is the same as the word for ‘guilt’ or ‘sin.’ Talk of thrift and responsible budgeting comes instinctively to Angela Merkel, daughter of a Protestant pastor.” Thinking ahead to the five hundredth anniversary of the 95 Theses, Bowlby asks,  “And where will the Eurozone be in 2017? Still intact? Or coming to terms with a new historic divide between the Latins and the preachers of Protestant thrift?”

My basic problem with this argument is that it simply contains too many exceptions to be worth much – thrifty Catholic Northern Italians, hard working Catholic South Germans, and so on. At some point, the amount of special pleading (“Well, they’re just an odd exception because…”) becomes overwhelming. France, especially, is a screaming exception.

Having said that, it is intriguing to see commentators even in highly secular Europe returning to these religious explanations. Religion still constitutes a major portion of cultural and national self-definition, even in countries where churches have long been languishing.




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  • The “exceptions” are not surprising. France, Bavaria, and Northern Italy have long been more open to the Enlightenment principles of their Northern neighbors. France, unlike Spain and Italy (and Portugal, Ireland, etc.), had a revolution that forever changed the intellectual and religious climate of the country. Bavaria, even with its provincial pride, is a part of Germany and has inherited the Protestant ethic of the country. And Northern Italy has a long heritage of democratic and capitalist enterprise, which became part and parcel of the Protestant political theology. The point is that where Protestant influence is found, greater economic stability is found. This includes the so-called “exceptions.”

    The countries where Protestant, Enlightenment, and modern democratic/capitalist influence has been scarcely found (in the traditional strongholds of Catholicism), economic instability is found. Thus, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece are in this lot…to no one’s surprise. The narrative fits.

  • Philip Jenkins

    All fair comment by Mr Davis – but if France, Bavaria, and Northern Italy are indeed exceptions, they are enormous ones. That fact tends to trash the argument as originally made in the sources I use, which put the case (deliberately over-simplifying, certainly) in straightforward up/down terms of

  • Andale Evans

    Of course Germany is thriving more then any other member of the European Union and has traditionally been a primarily Catholic country. How would you account for that?

  • Philip Jenkins

    I just disagree that Germany had “traditionally been a primarily Catholic country”. The new post-1871 Germany had a strong Protestant majority. That was somewhat less of West Germany post-1945. Today, Protestants and Catholics have a fair balance in the reunited country.

  • Just so. And the most prosperous part is the most Catholic and traditional part.

  • The whole thing is a perfect example of the Whig style of interpreting history. It has a conclusion in mind and then glosses over or explains away as exceptional any deviations from the putative hypothesis it is trying to prove. It is a colossal example of begging a question.

    The problems with the hypothesis start with Dr. Luther and Dr. Calvin themselves. Anybody who thinks they envisioned modern society or anything like it is looney. In 1524, just seven years after he started teaching, all around the Holy Roman Empire, as many as 300,000 peasant rose up in arms against their feudal masters, many of them interpreting Dr. Luther’s teachings just as we do. Dr. Luther called out to the German nobility to slaughter them “like the dogs they are.” The idea that he wanted a disruption or transition from the feudal order he knew just doesn’t jive. Starting there. He did not believe in “religious liberty” as we have come to estimate it, and neither did generation upon generation of his successors and disciples. That’s why they settled on the principle “cuius regio eius religio” with the Holy Roman Emperor: whose the land, his the religion. Each principality within the HRE would have its own state religion, that of its feudal lord. So how did we get from there to here? Through an enormously complicated process of hundreds of millions of people interacting over five hundred years. That thought must always be borne in mind.

    The Whig method of reading history though, is to say, “Gee, how did we get here?” and to disregard – one way or another – contrary cases and evidence.

    Not good method.

  • There are a whole slew of problems with the argument that the article recounts.

    The first one to be noted is noted in the article – none of the countries in question are that religious anymore, and can’t in a clearly meaningful sense be said to take any particular religion, other than secularism, as the guiding spirit of their national governments. That goes for all the PIGS and the non-PIGS. (I haven’t heard Ireland counted as a PIGS country before, and I think the reason is because they didn’t need or ask for foreign bailouts; nor has their government been spending egregiously, except in the case of a single big bank bailout.) For example, all of the countries have national banks and allow all sorts of usury – a practice frowned on by the Church and traditionally rejected by all Christians. Many of them have legal abortion and most have easy divorce. Their relationships with their majority churches vary dramatically – from state salaries (in Scandinavia and Spain) to complete separation (in France) to separation with some preferential treatment (in Italy).

    Secondly, the association of thrift with Protestantism is kinda looney, too. A long line of Catholic saints before and since the Reformation have practiced and encouraged it. The French peasantry, devoutly Catholic, was and is notoriously thrifty, as are Germans, and no more in the Protestant North than in the Catholic South. Greece has been wildly unthrifty, but so have plenty of northern countries, like the UK. Japan’s Debt-to-GDP ratio is 208% to Greece’s 165% ( Catholic Italy has a 120%, it’s true, but Iceland, all Protestant, all the time, has a 130%. Catholic Ireland’s 108% ratio is higher than the primarily Protestant USA’s, but we’re at 104%, so it seems a pretty specious distinction, in practical matter of fact. Catholic France is doing better than us, at 86% – so is that too close to call also, or is a 20% margin significantly better? If that’s no big deal, then certainly the Protestant UK, at 85%, is no better than France, in practical terms. Or is the UK really Protestant? Are they Anglican? Is Anglican a kind of Protestant, as Catholics think, or not, as many Anglicans think? Or is that too close to call. Germany is beating them all, at 82% (unless that’s too close to France and the UK to make a difference) and it’s a religiously divided nation. But Austria is not. It’s almost all not-terribly-religious-Catholic, and they’re whoopin’ Germany with a 72%.

    I can go on.

    The whole thing is vastly more complicated than any simplification can accurately portray, and an attempt to accurately portray it by asking such questions is beyond foolish. It shows the questioner to be impervious to actual facts.

  • Oh, and it gets MORE complicated!

    So why is Japan not on the verge of bankruptcy with a 208% Debt-to-GDP ratio, and Greece is way over the edge with a ratio of 165%?

    Because how much money I bring in, and how much money I put out (in spending and in debt payments, another form of spending) aren’t the only factors involved involved in solvency. Savings/capital are involved as well. Japan’s government is heavily capitalized and Greece owns diddly squat. Same with the USA. We have basically the same ratio as Ireland, but far more stuff in reserve, if not cash. We can sell stuff off, borrow against stuff, and Ireland is out of stuff.

    Is being out of “stuff” a sign of spendthriftiness? What about African countries? They’ve had their stuff taken from them, to a large degree. Ireland had generations of its “surplus production” shipped out for foreign benefit. Hardly a moral vice to be abused by a conquering nation, is it? How did the UK get so much stuff in reserve? Was it all hard work and good Protestant ethic? Really? Nothing to do with exploiting China, India, half of Africa, oodles of little islands, Canada, Australia, and the US in trade relations for centuries? OK. Maybe. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that whole pyramids from Egypt ended up in the British Museum, and Big Ben is not on display in Cairo. Or maybe those pyramids are just part of the loot that the UK took by main force. Is *that* what is meant by Protestant work ethic?

    No, this whole thing is far more complex than such a shallow, superficial question could begin to deal with.

    Thanks to Mr. Jenkins for calling the question into question.