Evangelical tribalism and the Protestant ethic (Or, Max Weber doesn’t live here anymore)

Evangelical tribalism and the Protestant ethic (Or, Max Weber doesn’t live here anymore) April 18, 2012

In the previous post on this topic, I mentioned that the power brokers and power seekers of the religious right have deliberately nurtured, encouraged, enforced and exploited evangelical tribalism. They have helped to draw the particular boundaries of the tribe and to define who is Us and who is Them.

But what accounts for the thing itself? The effort to delineate strict boundaries and to require unquestioning compliance with “the big four” (anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-evolution, anti-environmentalist) only works because evangelicals seem to desire such boundaries. The tribal impulse is being manipulated by the fundraisers and vote-herders of the religious right, but it seems to have preceded them. So where does it come from?

I think it arises, in part, from salvation anxiety.

That’s a term sometimes used to describe what Max Weber wrote about in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Reformed Protestantism, Weber said, offered believers no way of knowing for sure that they were among the elect, that they were truly saved, and no way of ensuring one’s place in God’s good graces:

There was not only no magical means of attaining the grace of God for those to whom God had decided to deny it, but no means whatever.

Those who have ever been a part of the American evangelical subculture know all about salvation anxiety. It’s why churches have altar calls even when everyone sitting in the pews has already come forward several times in that very church. It’s why evangelical youths re-re-re-dedicate their lives to Christ every time they’re invited to do so. It’s why many of us early on mastered the multi-leveled self-awareness required to pray with utter sincerity while simultaneously gauging that sincerity in the hopes that it will seem sincerely sincere.

For those who don’t already know what this is like, start with the belief that most people will be damned to an eternity of conscious torment — that this is what “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it” means. Now add that you yourself are powerless to determine or decide your own salvation — you are powerless to choose between that wide gate to destruction and the narrow path to salvation. You may think and want and hope and believe that you are among the elect few to be spared from “destruction,” but “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Whether or not you are among the very few who will be saved is entirely up to God and you cannot know, for sure, one way or the other.

Weber thought this was the source of an intolerable anxiety. Many evangelicals would agree.

Weber’s big idea was that this anxiety fueled what he called the “Protestant ethic” or “Protestant work ethic.” Since evidence of God’s eternal favor was not available or possible, he thought that Protestants sought or settled for the only evidence that was possible and available — the temporal evidence of material blessing. Work hard, practice thrift and find consolation that the prosperity it brings may be a sign that you really are among the elect.

Weber’s thesis has been critiqued and tweaked and questioned quite a bit over the past hundred years, but it remains a respected and fascinating theory. To whatever extent it once held true, however, I don’t think it has aged well during the past 40 years.

I’m not suggesting Weber’s thesis was flawed, but it no longer holds true because the Protestant ethic no longer offers any credible promise of material prosperity.

Since about 1970 in the U.S., wages have been stagnant (adjusting for inflation). Huge increases in productivity have not produced any corresponding increases in wages. What that means is there is no longer any meaningful cause-and-effect relationship, or even any meaningful correlation, between working harder and prospering more.

And what that means is that the single-minded devotion to work that Weber described no longer offers any reassurance that can help Protestants cope with the anxiety of uncertainty about their salvation. What Paul Krugman calls the Great Divergence — escalating economic inequality coupled with the divergence of productivity and wages — means that a Protestant ethic will only compound that salvation anxiety. Working harder and having nothing to show for it can appear to be evidence that you are not favored by God, thus heightening the fear that you are not among the elect.

So how, then, are Protestants to cope with salvation anxiety? For some, I think, the solution has been tribalism.

Tribalism allows you to know that you belong. It allows you to claim, with confidence, that you are among the righteous. It promises the assurance of salvation that Reformed Protestantism otherwise withholds.

Am I really, truly saved? I want to be, and I think I am, but how can I be certain? Reformed Protestantism says you can’t be.

But tribalism says you can. Just assume the positions. Affirm the proper stances in opposition to abortion, homosexuality, evolution and the environment and you’re part of the tribe. Those issues make it clear and obvious to all of us who is and who is not a member of the tribe — and if it’s that clear and obvious to us, it must also be just as clear and obvious to an omniscient God.

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  • pharoute

    The flip side is worse: the billionaires who revel in closing businesses and selling off assets, who layoff hundreds or thousands of people, who unashamedly boast of gluttony and excess, they are the blessed of God, they are the 144,000 that are going to Heaven.

  • Interesting analysis of the problem. Any ideas on solutions?

  • Would it be fair to say that the modern US religious Right is the inevitable byproduct of Calvinism?  If you preach a theology telling people that they must seek to attain a cosmically elite status among other people, then isn’t it only a matter of time before they come to sanctify and identify with whatever the existing bigotries and hierarchies of their own society happen to be? 

  • DiscreteComponent

    I don’t understand why  anyone would accept such a damning theology.  What you have said here makes it just a little more understandable to me.  Thanks.

  • I don’t think it was inevitable, because I don’t think what you’re describing is actually what *Calvin* was preaching — it’s what it got turned into later. Remember, one of the core tenets of calvinism is that election is unconditional and grace is irresistable. Calvinist theology *isn’t* about “telling people that they must seek to attain a cosmically elite status” — *proper* calvinism is the belief that some people *from before they were born* were *destined* to have a cosmically elite status and (a) NOTHING THEY CAN DO will change that, and (b) There is NOTHING THE UNSAVED CAN DO to get into the club. 

    The legacy of Calvin has been a few hundred years of protestant christians freaking out over whether or not they made the cut — and trying to prove to themselves and anyone who will listen that they’re REALLY REALLY SINCERE about this, and their Right Beliefs were magically put into their heads by God and aren’t the various bigotries they invented for themselves.

    But context matters — remember what distinguishes Calvinism from both Catholocism and also the other traditional branches of Protestant theology. By Catholic teachings, particularly when Calvin was writing, you could annoy the pope and he could officially declare you to be Unsaved (The Church has moved to a somewhat more Batman Begins position these days, trying to avoid telling people that they *are* going to hell, but rather just refusing to vouchsafe their going to Heaven.). Lutheranism and Armenianism dispense with the hierarchical authority, but still retain the notion that grace is resistable, and you might well be saved today, putting your full faith in the right place, but just one little slip-up at a key moment, and you might fall into apostasy.  Spent your whole life praising Jesus and saving orphans? Sounds good so far, but how do you know that tomorrow you won’t see an attractive member of the opposite (or worse, the same) sex, think some impure thoughts, then get hit by a bus, sending you to the hereafter while you’re not right with the almighty. That’s the thing Calvin was trying to come up with a solution to: what *Calvin was actually selling* was the idea that “Don’t worry. You can’t possibly blow this. If you’re in the club, you can not possibly screw up so bad that you’ll get your salvation revoked. The die’s already been cast. You’re either on the list or you’re not, so just do what comes natural and stop getting all worked up over whether what you’re doing is going to get you sent to hell.” 

    It didn’t have to lead to authoritarianism and oppression. It could have been a theology that led to a relaxed sort of “I’m okay, you’re okay” culture, where the saved *wouldn’t have to oppress the unsaved in the name of purity* because *they knew that the unsaved were no danger to them*.  I’m reminded a bit of the story of Roger WIlliams, who, as I understand it, founded Rhode Island with protection of religious freedom not because he was a fan of religous plurality or had a liberal theology himself, but rather because he was *so utterly sure* that *every single person* who did not hold *exactly* the same religious beliefs as himself was going to hell, that he saw absolutely no point in persecuting them here on earth (and even kinda thought that doing so showed a lack of faith, as if one didn’t trust god to adequately punish the sinners without the earthly faithful getting involved). (I am not entirely sure I have my seventeenth century theologians straight, so I could easily be talking about someone else)

  • Thank you for all that.  I suppose that as a Westerner I should know more about   post-Reformation doctrines and disputes than  the basics.  It certainly can get confusing . 

  • Nathaniel

     It might have been more likely to result in your hippie version if Calvin weren’t a bit of a dick.*

    *In the same way that Dick Cheney is a mite heartless.

  • The “Protestant work ethic” never worked for most people. It always pre-supposed a social equality that did not exist. That equality actually exists way, WAY more now than it did 100 years ago. Certain white males have lost ground against certain other white males, but everyone else has gained massively. 

    The Protestant work ethic will never work, not even in a utopian society which does its best to see that everyone has the same chances, because there are inconvenient people in the world like me. If you want to say that I deserved my disability, ok then — what about someone who is born with a disability? Do they all have to be Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking, or else they can be judged as lazy? What if they aren’t neurotypical and cannot even learn to read? Is God showing his displeasure toward people before they are even born by making them unable to fit into the “Protestant work ethic” ideal?When a philosophy cannot acknowledge the reality of certain human beings, it’s worthless. Randians can’t acknowledge the existence of disabled people either. And there are a whole lot of we disabled people in the world.

  • Tybult

    Now add that you yourself are powerless to determine or decide your own salvation

    My gut instinct, when presented with this particular choice, is to say “All right, well I’m-a go get my sin on.”

    But I do understand falling into the trap of substituting an unrelated but measurable quality for an unmeasurable quality. I’ve done it, and suffered anxiety as a result.

  • guest

    Excellent OP and comments–it was lovely to start my day with such interesting and useful ideas.  I’d like to contribute this:


    the best book I’ve ever come across on our relation to work and how it came about.  I’d have to go look up what I’ve written about this, but let’s see how much I can get from memory–the author points out that our ideas about work come from the preindustrial world (pre-revolutionary America) where the following statements were actually true:

    Work is a ‘calling’, an expression of identity and a way to contribute to the community
    Everyone must work–the community’s survival depends on the effort of every member
    The harder you work, the more successful you become
    [there’s a fourth statement, but I can’t remember it at the moment]

    In an industrial and post-industrial economy we continue to believe them, but they’re no longer true. Most people don’t go into family businesses, serve apprenticeships, or develop particular aptitudes or lifetime training for their occupational roles.  Our contribution to the economy as consumers is far more valuable than our contribution as producers.  We all know that it’s no longer the case that, say, the more hours you work making shoes the better a shoemaker you become, the more shoes you sell, and thus the more successful your shoemaking business is–the connection between individual effort and individual success has been almost completely severed for almost everyone.  Anyway, I highly recommend it.

  • friendly reader

    Lutheranism and Armenianism dispense with the hierarchical authority,
    but still retain the notion that grace is resistable, and you might well
    be saved today, putting your full faith in the right place, but just
    one little slip-up at a key moment, and you might fall into apostasy. Spent your whole life praising Jesus and saving orphans? Sounds good so
    far, but how do you know that tomorrow you won’t see an attractive
    member of the opposite (or worse, the same) sex, think some impure
    thoughts, then get hit by a bus, sending you to the hereafter while
    you’re not right with the almighty.

    I can’t speak for the Arminians, but no, that’s not what Lutheranism teaches at all.

    In Lutheranism, grace is entirely up to God, there’s no choosing or resisting. It comes from having faith, but faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, not an act of effort on your own part.

    Lutheranism considers doubt over your saved state to be a temptation from the devil. Luther lived his early life panicked about his own salvation, his theology was a reaction to that. Faith is just trusting that God has saved you and letting go of your anxiety about salvation.

    And no, one sin does not mean you automatically go to hell. Our founder would hardly have advised people to “sin boldly” if that was the case. We reject the idea of penance and constant need to be re-saved. Faith should let you live your life in service to others without being worried about your personal salvation.

    Luther technically believed in predestination, but discouraged people from thinking about it, because otherwise you’d just feel anxious – the antithesis of trusting God (faith).

    Now, Lutheranism may teach all that, but Lutherans have managed to be anxious anyway, and extremely tribal, though that tribalism has almost entirely centered around interpretation of sacraments. But you’re nonetheless completely mischaracterizing Lutheranism here.

  • Yeah, as a former Lutheran I can tell you that I never felt any sort of salvation anxiety at all, nor was I ever encouraged to feel it.  It’s just wasn’t very high on the list of things to worry about.  In fact, there really wasn’t even a list of things to worry about. 
    As it was presented to me in my Confirmation classes, “Just have faith and God will take care of the rest, so you can just get on with living your life.  Oh, and if you want to try to be a good person, out of gratitude to Jesus for, you know, saving you, or whatever, that’s cool, too.  It’s not going to get you any extra points or anything, but, honestly, he’d like that, and it’s kind of the least you can do.  Also, we’re not going to tell you what you have to do to be a good person; you and Jesus can hammer out – no pun intended! – the details.”
    Of course, there was also discussion of the history and organizational structure of the church, doctrinal differences with other denominations and religions, and a lot of time talking about the Sacraments, but ultimately that’s what the theology boiled down to.

  • Nick the Nevermet

    Howdy.  Sociologist here. 
    A few quick comments.

    First, Weber is a genius, and his
    argument about the Protestant Work Ethic is fascinating, but he’s
    wrong.  It’s one of the glorious quirks of academia that
    something can be brilliant and wrong simultaneously.  I don’t
    have the other citations handy, but a good one for refuting the
    hypothesis that the Protestant work ethic accidentally started
    capitalism is Richard Lachmann’s Capitalists in Spite of
    Themselves.  In short, there’s more evidence that capitalism
    was an unintended consequence of conflicts between elites (nobles,
    other nobles, & the church) than it was an unintended
    consequence of spiritual anxiety.

    Second, while Calvinism is
    the primary target, Weber’s point is that all/most Protestant forms
    of Christianity created more anxiety than that Roman Catholic
    Church.  It’s just that Calvinism created the most ‘pure’
    version of it theologically.

    Third, Zygmunt Bauman is a very
    cool, extremely accessible sociologist with a lot to say about how
    social order works (and doesn’t work) since the rise of
    postmodernity.  He writes about as quick as NT Wright, so
    there’s a gazillion books out there one can find, and most of them
    are very good.  One of his constant themes is that the
    postmodern world creates BOTH a consumer culture and neo-tribalism;
    they are two sides of the same coin, and both are ways to deal with
    the massive amounts of complexity and uncertainty in our world. In
    the case of consumerism, we pick and choose and build whatever we
    want however we want it. For neo-tribalism, there is an oasis of
    total certainty created by a community which requires strong
    boundaries. Both are flawd strategies to deal with a flawed social
    order. Dealing with contemporary American Christianity through
    consumerism and tribalism is already a common thing, but Bauman is
    worth a read if people want to explore those themes more.

  • I don’t think that Max Weber has become irrelevant, given the current emphasis on the prosperity gospel. A lot of Protestants are really, really big on the prosperity gospel–that is, if you are favored by God, then you will profit in this world and be honored in the next one. Conversely, if you’re poor in this world, this is a sign that you are sinful and that God is frowning on you.

    This is, of course, a crock. And it is is not all supported by Jesus’s teachings. But nevertheless, it’s very, very popular, especially among North American Protestant fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentacostals, and other non-mainstream Protestant sects like Mormons. It gives people a reason to feel superior to and more righteous than those lower than them on the socio-economic scale while simultaneously assuring those who believe in the prosperity Gospel that they themselves will never, ever be the have-nots, for God would NEVER make good people suffer. (Never mind that this contradicts pretty much everything in the Bible.) 

    Unfortunately, believing that poverty and sickness are God’s vengeance also makes those who embrace such philosophies less willing to accept the fact that sometimes shit just happens and you have to deal–because accepting that shit happens means accepting that it might happen to you. 

    In today’s economy and health care crisis, this is not comfortable. It’s much nicer to believe that nothing bad can happen to you if you don’t WANT it to happen and that there are magical fixes for everything even if it DOES happen. It’s a demonstrably silly philosophy, and one not even remotely rooted in human experience. But it’s also quite a popular one. (This belief system explains a lot about much of the neocon hatred for social programs–including health care and Social Security–and poor people.)






  • Mira

    What Weber said about the Protestant work ethic is not the same as the prosperity gospel, just analogous. The similarity is that both set up visible “proofs” of salvation that are related to work and earning: your worldly success is a sign of your heavenly success. And in that basic, truly problematic argument, yes, that matters today as really bad theology. 

    The difference is this. Weber talked about a work ethic, not an earnings ethic, because he was writing about a time when Calvinism and Puritanism really, really discouraged consumption and display of wealth. The point wasn’t to show that you were saved through wealth. The point was to show that you were saved through the application of personal discipline to your work, day in, day out, because it was a quality that people believed translated into the spiritual realm. If you could deny your impulses and work hard in the world, what might you be capable of doing for God? It was conspicuous discpline, of which money was pretty much just a byproduct. 

    It would have been inappropriate to show your salvation through consumption in those specific, highly religious societies (i.e. NOT all of seventeenth century Europe – conspicuous consumption was alive and well elsewhere). According to Weber, the fact that they were discouraged from spending the wealth they built up led to greater accumulation of capital, which resulted in capitalism as we know it. (As a sociologist below pointed out, this second part of the explanation is not really accepted anymore, but the first part is the important one in this discussion.) 

    Weber also wrote that the work ethic remained part of American culture while the distaste for consumption did not, so by his late nineteenth/early twentieth century times, we had the capitalism, but not the Calvinism behind it. So I disagree with Fred that his work has become less fitting in the last 40 years – the disconnect was already there, and it didn’t have to do with what you gained from work in the first place, it had to do with what personal qualities you showed through work.

    Phew. Anthropologist in love with 19th century social theory here. Don’t get me started on Marx. 

  • Granted I didn’t sleep too well last night…

    …but am I the only person who let out a naughty sort of giggle when I read the phrase “just assume the positions”?

  • Theo

    It seems to me that the modern evangelical focus on salvation by “the magic words” would seem to be a strategy for countering salvation anxiety, wouldn’t it? Once you’ve read the spell you’re all right.

  • ConservativeWhitebread

    Funny thing about that is you don’t have any direct results that you did every last part of the spell right.  Some people will claim they followed every step to the letter and can still suffer that anxiety that they didn’t.  I know I have.
    It also doesn’t help that damn near everyone has their own separate formula.  And I know I heard growing up that it was unique to every individual – you had to find your own formula either through constant trial and error, or try to trust “intuition” and/or the Holy Spirit hotline, which has the exact same problem.

  • Sagrav

    I think that is good enough for some individuals, and that is the source of yet another problem among the ‘faithful’.  There are individuals who feel that it doesn’t really matter what they do in life:  cheat, steal, slander, waste resources, act full of pride.  As long as they say the magic words, they’ll get into heaven.  Yeah, they might have to re-enforce the magic by asking for forgiveness every so often (to wash off that week’s allotment of sin), but then you’re fine!  

    It’s one of flaws that I see in traditional Christian morality.  Our good works are likened to “used menstrual rags” by God, all sins (from petty thievery to murder) are equally damning for our souls, and only magic words (and maybe some brief emotional sincerity) can save one from an eternity being tortured in flames.  If you ever question this logic, you usually get the response that God is beyond our understanding, so we just don’t understand his god logic.  He is infinitely good too, so even if His master plan leaves most of us writhing in pain forever, it is still a good thing.  

  • Tonio

    Now add that you yourself are powerless to determine or decide your own
    salvation — you are powerless to choose between that wide gate to
    destruction and the narrow path to salvation.

    Sounds like the type of learned helplessness that people acquire from abusive upbringings. That maybe why they don’t conclude that it’s fundamentally immoral and unjust to condemn anyone to “an eternity of conscious torment.”

  • Jay

    Three comments:

    1) Tribal behavior is pretty much universal in humans.  Every cohesive group of people develops behaviors that signal “one of us”, and develops an awareness of neighboring groups’ signals as meaning “one of them”.

    2) The belief that evolution and Christianity are compatible is itself a marker of a tribe that thinks of itself as “the reasonable Christians”.  This tribe recognizes both outright atheism and creationism as signifying membership in other tribes.

    3) Some people come to the conclusion that evolution and Christianity are incompatible not because they read Genesis naively, but because evolution and Christianity each have implications for human nature, and those implications do not align well.  The Red Queen’s Race would not have been instituted by a loving, caring God.

  • Nick the Nevermet

     #2 is absol

  • Cathy W

    That is, indeed, the basics of how I recall Roger Williams’ approach to religious pluralism. He himself wouldn’t pray with his own wife, because he wasn’t certain she was saved and didn’t want to contaminate his “saved” prayers with her possibly “unsaved” ones. They kicked him out of Massachusetts Bay Colony because he was kind of a jerk about that kind of thing – and then he went on to found a colony of his own that had as one of its guiding principles that spiritual matters were God’s problem and not Caesar’s.

  • Ursula L

    Being anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-evolution and anti-environmentalist aren’t randomly chosen tribal markers.

    The Evangelical movement was and is led by older, straight, white men.  

    When The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was written, the supremacy of older straight white men in society was largely unquestioned, and the advantages they had were taken for granted, or at least seen as natural.  In that world, these men could look at their success and imagined they’d earned it, hitting a triple rather than being born on third.  

    But these days, age, sexual orientation, race and sex/gender don’t carry quite as many automatic advantages as they used to for older straight white men. As we struggle towards a society that is more equal on the issues of age, sexual orientation, race and sex/gender, older straight white men find that they have less of an advantage than they’re used to, and some see being treated as equals as a harm, compared to being treated as superior.

    So they oppose safe and legal access to abortion care.  Because that’s about giving women autonomy, and keeping women’s options in life limited by the biological costs of fertility.  In their world, a woman has no sexual or reproductive autonomy.  She belongs to her father, who prevents her from having sex or having children until she is suitably married.  And then she belongs to her husband, who has the power to make her have sex with him when and how he chooses, and to prioritize his desire for children (sons!) over her health and life.    A woman’s concerns about her sexual satisfaction, health and life are irrelevant to the control over her life and body that is passed from one man (father) to the next (husband.) 

    They oppose rights for QUILTBAG folks.  Because QUILTBAG equality, like women’s equality, means that straight men aren’t automatically at an advantage due to their straightness and maleness.  QUILTBAG rights, and gay men in particular, are a particular threat because if your world-view defines relationships as powerful men and subordinate women, then a man seeing you as sexually attractive means that he might see you as a woman.  They can’t imagine gay men having a relationship as equals anymore than they can imagine a straight couple having a relationship as equals.    One must be the “woman”, be subordinate, and the existence of same-sex relationships suggests that their can be relationships where a man is in the subordinate role or a woman is in the dominant role.

    They oppose understanding evolution because it means that the benefits of being white aren’t God-given.  Genetics shows us that the genetic differences between races are minimal.  Stories like Eve, and all women, being punished for the fall, or Cain being given a mark to show his sin, or Noah cursing a son who saw him naked, or Lot being told to give male guests to be raped, but giving his daughters to be raped instead, have all been used to justify oppression of groups alleged to have inherited those punishments.  If you take away the “literal” understanding of these stories as being God-given justification for oppression, then you’ve got to consider that the groups you were oppressing might not actually deserve the lot they’ve been given by you in a society where you start out with the most power.

    They oppose environmentalism, because it calls them to accountability for the way in which their actions might affect future generations.  In their mind, adult men are supposed to control the world.  Being held to task for the consequences that their control might have on future generations undermines the understanding that as mature adults, they deserve anything they can get in the world.  To them, the older generation is supposed to dominate the younger, and the younger submit to the older.  

    The various “antis” are all about the men leading the Evangelical movement not wanting to find a young, lesbian woman of color in a position of authority over them.   Power is their birthright, and they will inherit that power from the previous generation of straight white men when that generation is ready to step aside and they are suitably old and mature. 

  • Genetics shows us that the genetic differences between races are minimal.

    Actually, it shows us that the genetic differences between races as we think of them are nonexistent except in skin color. We may as well separate people into races by eye color, it would make as much sense. Genetics shows that “race” is completely a societal construct and has no biological meaning. 

    But your post is spot-on. When it comes down to it, we’re telling this group of men that they aren’t allowed to rape any longer. They think it’s their God-given right to rape. That, indeed, rape of women and children by them is an impossibility, because only old white men have any say in what happens to anyone’s bodies. No wonder they’re holding on so angrily and so hard, just as their predecessors, Southern plantation owners, did.

  • Complex arguments are complex

    Hm. Some very interesting comments all, but I think that there’s a lot of misunderstanding of Weber going on here. In the first place, he did not claim that Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, caused Capitalism, just that the behaviors inspired by the one and required by the other had a kind of affinity in which the two mutually fed each other, within the highly contingent context of their particular locales. It was not just the Calvinist’s anxiety about salvation but his loneliness, his need to feel connected to the community, that led him to industry, even as that same Calvinism demanded that he live austerely. As a consequence, he ended up with a surplus, which he re-invested. Clearly capitalistic and Calvinistic attitudes toward work each appear separately in various places and times, but from the vantage point of Weber’s observations, those countries in which both were present (along with the requisite labor force and natural resources–which he does not discount, but where those are equal, &c) Capitalism was able to flourish more rapidly, as its values were reinforced by Calvinistic attitudes and as those attitudes were themselves reinforced by Capitalism, which rewarded them.

    But more importantly, in the second place, Weber very clearly does not think that the Protestant ethic is a real thing even in his own day. He calls the current state of things “an iron cage”–i.e., we are trapped in the pattern of the current economic system which was built by people with real beliefs and motives, and though we no longer share those beliefs and motives we are nevertheless stuck in the structure they have constructed. At least, until someone(s) come along who are capable of dismantling the iron cage: as he says, no one knows who will be born in this cage in the future.

  • Jay

     Regarding the third, though, I’m sure people have made that argument. I
    also know plenty of arguments about the compatibility of Christianity
    and evolution, including a rather fascinating article that suggests that
    evolution could be seen as a theodicy.

    The evolutionist critique of Christianity certainly has much to do with theodicy.  Both notice that God’s works, if that is what they are, seem not to live up to God’s own moral standards.  Christianity has been struggling with this problem for some time; the word comes from back when the language of the church was still Greek, not Latin.  I’ve never seen a solution to this problem that really passed the smell test for me.

  • Tricksterson

    Well, I didn’t giggle but I did smirk.

  • Noskcirenoj

    As a former Lutheran Pastor I so wanted to reply as you did.  I am surrounded by fundamentalists who do indeed have salvation anxiety.  You pegged Martin to a tee.  Thanks.


  • Noskcirenoj

    Great boiling down, Jon; one Jon to another. 

  • Sheila O’Shea

    I’ve long suspected that the And Jesus Told The Apostles In Secret What This Parable Meant parts of the Bible were added in by folks who were trying to be helpful, or who had heard one person’s interpretation and inadvertently took it as Christ’s own words.  Unfortunately, I fear it may have done more harm than good, because it seems to me that a lot of Calvinism hinges on those interpretations being the Absolute Truth.  The idea that the parable of the wheat and the tares might have other meanings is lost because we have the secret decoder ring that tells us what it’s supposed to mean.

  • Tricksterson

    So, is salvation anxiety anything like performance anxiety?

  • Sounds like what I was taught as a Lutheran, though the church my family went to was pretty liberal. The preacher didn’t talk about salvation much at all.

    When I went to church, this was the idea I got from it: God loves you more than you can possibly imagine, because you’re a mere human. And when you do something wrong, he is sadder than you can possibly imagine, because you’re a mere human. Don’t you want to do and be good for the being who is responsible for all the love and goodness in the world and who will reward you with an eternity of bliss when you’re dead, all because he loves you? If you’re not good, you’ll break God’s heart.

    And you could never really be good enough, all you could do is try, all the while remembering that you could never live up to God’s love for you. God wasn’t a punishing father, but the guilt trips were brutal. Kind of reminded me of my grandmother.

  • Tricksterson

    I the Creator is beyond anything we can imagine (something I agree with) why do we keep trying to put words int It’s mouth (assuming it has a mouth)?

    And that conception of God would definitely make sense if He was Jewish wouldn’t it?

  • Original Lee

     I think that the Pilgrims actually screwed this up for Americans, because the Pilgrims were the Calvinist splinter group that tried too hard to read the predestination tea leaves by linking salvation to solvency.  I have long thought that if the settlers had landed in a place with a milder climate, their ideal commune might have had a better chance.    We could have been a much more open and laid-back society (in many ways, more Dutch).  But the Pilgrims had to spend so much time on sheer staying alive that I think they segued into looking for external signs of salvation status because that reduced the number of things they had to worry about.  Additionally, the group was not homogeneous from the beginning, because the servants and the gentleman adventurers and the soldiers did not necessarily belong to their sect, which I think helped the tribalism to germinate.

    I think we’re seeing some parallels in our current society – too much stress in one area (for Pilgrims, physical survival; for modern Americans, economic survival) means people demand less complexity and stress in other areas. 

  • I think we’re seeing some parallels in our current society – too much stress in one area (for Pilgrims, physical survival; for modern Americans, economic survival) means people demand less complexity and stress in other areas. 

    I’ve read somewhere that as people feel less and less secure in the economic sphere, they start demanding more security and control in other spheres, generally the social-sexual sphere.

    This is one possible explanation for the disproportionate attention focussed on the idea that there’s child molesters behind every tree, and that every high school kid is a potential miscreant just waiting to happen*, and the need to enforce social-control laws like “anti cruising” laws (legally, passing the same place more than once in a certain time period in certain cities is considered ‘cruising’ and subject to fine and/or imprisonment).


    * Seriously, have you seen some of the punishments meted out to people in, like, grade 8 that would have been handled by informal school suspension methods a generation ago? These days they get brought up on criminal charges and tried as adults, for Pete’s sake.

  • Nick the Nevermet

    2 things.  First, we may never get the decoder ring exactly, but historical research can be extremely useful.  Marcus Borg’s book on taking the Bible seriously but not literally, more than anything else, is why I’m a Christian.  And the fun thing about the historical stuff is that there is TONS of very good stuff out there.  Borg, Crossan, Bultmann, Wright, Perrin… these guys don’t agree that much (writ large it’s the 1st 3 vs the last 2), but they give you a much better idea of what the metaphors behind the Gospels could be.  God forbid that we ask how did 1st Century Jews think when we look at the Gospels & the Pauline Letters.

    Second, as stated above, Calvinism doesn’t need to be dreadful moralism that feels like it’s out of Warhammer 40K.  Anyone who believes Calvinism, with all its predestination & total depravity, must necessarily be harshly conservative needs to read Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans.  Put bluntly, Barth uses Romans to build an absolutely terrifying postmodern critique fueled by Calvinism to attack common theological trends of the day in the name of promoting Christian love and socialism.  Now, in practice, I agree its taken an unfortunate form often, but theology is a tool, nothing else.  The real question is what you build with it (that’s another thing Calvin argued for).

  • MaybeKay

    Yup, former Lutheran here as well. Never worried about it. And when I stopped going to church and my mom asked our pastor whether I would go to hell or not, he basically told her not to worry about, it’ll be handled by God. Lots of other things to worry about as a Lutheran, but salvation anxiety was not one of them. 

  • Chuckie Kautsky

    “Anyone who believes Calvinism, with all its predestination & total depravity, must necessarily be harshly conservative’ – for example, William Lloyd Garrison was raised a Congregationalist.

  • Juulie with two ‘u’s

    …and the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come! Whosoever will, may come!”  The water of Life is available to everyone at every point.  If you need to know whether or not you’re “saved”  all you have to do is ask yourself, “Do I WANT to be saved?”  …and if the answer is “yes”, then you are!  The rest of our life before we “pass to the other side” is just practicing what life will be like in the eternal presence of God.  Since we are now in the presence of God if we want to be.  Once I realized all this, my salvation anxiety just dropped off.  I WANT to be saved!  I want God here now, and I want to live with God eternally.  And God wants that too, so it’s a done deal.  Hallelujah!

  • It sounds like you don’t like men and the Bible. Did you ever think or read that the Bible verses and how it is interpreted might have an effect that is dynamic in all of social upbringings.  Or is it dead White Skinned Men make up a world were they felt comfortable.  Slavery is rampant in the world today as it was and has been before Jesus was born.   Why do you write so vindictive about topics and place blame on a black Jesus as some blacks point out.  Or are you saying that Jesus is white and spoke with the whites only to oppresses Blacks or gays. Jesus in the Bible I read speaks only of love  In the real world Blacks oppress Blacks or whites in Africa and have been for decades and years. It’s rather feeble to place blame if the picture and whole picture couldn’t be seen.  Black Muslims kill Catholics to cleanse their country of Christians in Central Africa at present. In Florida there is a black church of Christians that don’t allow white people in the doors found in Leesburg. This church has been there for a long time and I don’t know exactly how long.  We could go on and on so don’t flatter yourself because your a Black female gay rights person implying that gives you special rights you of all people should understand this is not morally acceptable.  A true feminists who would believe oppressiveness behavior is morally wrong is what your really trying to speak of anyways.  Most feminists will not buy into your argument because they would not want to oppress white males either as well as the gay rights movement.  God is the God of love and love is or could be anyone’s choice.  Please let us all love our neighbors and stop the hate and using other societies or modelities to place blame.  With love Bobby

  • It really feels like you’re just trying to throw enough mud to see if any of it will stick rather than make a cogent point.

    As it is, all I get from your post? “LOL REVERSE DISCRIMINATION”, which is a load of crap anyway.

  • I’ve finally found what I have been looking for. Thanks