What is the Protestant Work Ethic?

What is the Protestant Work Ethic? May 23, 2023

Christ in capital: Protestant Work Ethic
Image by Gordon Johnson / Pixabay

American Christianity has a long history of entangling religion and work. The Puritans began settling the New World in the 17th century and brought Protestantism and Calvinism with them. If you’re unfamiliar with the Puritans, you can read a little about their story here.

The Protestant work ethic is the idea that hard work is proof of one’s salvation. This might sound odd (especially if you grew up with this idea) but this is the core of the message. Puritan theology was Calvinistic, and hard work and piety was the best way to prove that you were elect. Protestant work ethic is not necessarily bad – it has roots in personal restraint and diligence. These virtues are valuable even outside of the Christian tradition.

Three Principles Of Work

The Protestant work ethic is based on a few important principles that can help guide us in our daily lives. First and foremost, it emphasizes the idea that work is a calling and a duty that has been given to us by God. While many people may think that work is what we have to do, here it is our duty to work. We have a responsibility to work – and if not, we shouldn’t eat (II Thes. 3:10).

Another key principle is frugality and thrift. People are encouraged to manage their resources responsibly, just like the biblical concept of stewardship. Stewardship influenced the way individuals approached their finances and possessions. The belief that wealth was a sign of God’s favor led to a culture of saving, investment, and entrepreneurship, as individuals sought to increase their material prosperity while avoiding extravagance and wastefulness.

Finally, the Protestant work ethic encourages a strong sense of individual responsibility and self-discipline. It rejects idleness and promotes a disciplined and focused approach to work. The ethic values self-reliance, initiative, and perseverance in the pursuit of success. This emphasis on individual agency and effort contributed to the development of a competitive and ambitious society, where hard work and achievement were highly regarded.

How is this Bad?

While I’ve thrown out the Protestant work ethic, I don’t think it’s worthless. There are many qualities that I’ve listed that I appreciate and strive for. These qualities help drive entrepreneurship and innovation. However, the way the Protestant work ethic has developed and mutated over the years in America has been far less charitable.

Fierce individualism has been engrained in the American culture – socially and economically. It reinforced the idea that success and social status were attainable through one’s own efforts, leading to a meritocratic mindset. Individuals are solely responsible for every outcome – even if they’re unavoidable. A farmer’s crops are desolated by drought, yet they should have been prepared for the worst.

Similarly, the Protestant work ethic’s idea of wealth as a blessing reminds me of modern televangelists. The idea that God gives the faithful money and power is prevalent in modern society. This claim also affirms that if you are not wealthy then God is not blessing you.

Finally – and maybe most importantly – capitalism has removed the need to work to eat. I often heard that verse above quoted to me in church as a defense against EBT, food stamps, etc. ‘The poor need to get a job’ and ‘They’re just lazy’. While a Christian may say that about the man sleeping on the bus bench, I haven’t heard many Christians talk about the CEO or trust fund recipient with the same language.

What Now?

I don’t want to eliminate the ideas of the Protestant work ethic. In fact, I am a small business owner who works hard and tries to save for the future. I think there is a way to take the best parts of this hard working construct while leaving what doesn’t work behind. The expansion, corruption, and decline of American Capitalism over the last century has made the virtues of the Protestant work ethic almost impossible. We need to view our country as a whole – as a group working together instead of individuals alone together. How do we work when we see ourselves and our success directly tied to our neighbor?

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