At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

How the Protestant Work Ethic Became the Atheist Work Ethic

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America’s vaunted Protestant work ethic is getting a makeover: Now it might be more of an atheist work ethic.

So begins a recent article by Kimberly Winston posted at the Religion News Service website.

She goes on to write about a new study published in the Journal of Institutional Economics, which shows an inverse relationship between the religiosity of a state’s population and its “productive entrepreneurship.”

In other words, the less religious a state’s population, the more likely it is to have a healthy economy.

Travis Wiseman and Andrew Young, the two economists who wrote this study, found that the more Christians there are in a state, the lower the level of entrepreneurship for that state.

For some, this may come as a surprise. Yet many of us have come to the realization that the Protestant work ethic has all but disappeared.

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson writes in his recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest:

Through a mixture of hard work and thrift the Protestant societies of the North and West Atlantic achieved the most rapid economic growth in history.

Ferguson goes on to define the Protestant work ethic as a moral framework providing activity derived primarily from the teaching of Protestant reformers.

He then argues that the Protestant work ethic provided a measure of stability and duty to balance the dynamic and potentially unstable values created by competition in a consumer society.

Ferguson also suggests that the Protestant work ethic has long since abandoned its birthplace in Western Europe. Today it cannot even be found in the United States – the country where it arguably had the largest impact.

Although Wiseman and Young don’t say much about the history of the Protestant work ethic, they suggest some interesting reasons for the findings in their study:

This could be because religion imposes opportunity costs in terms of time and resources that may otherwise have been devoted toward productive entrepreneurship…For example, time spent in church reduces time available for engaging in business activity. More subjectively, religion may create psychic costs to pursuing worldly gains rather than salvation in the beyond.

Their second reason is the one that struck me the most. Are Christians so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good?

I have long argued that in the early twentieth century, as Christians began to emphasize the two-chapter gospel and withdraw from culture, they also withdrew from the biblical, moral framework whose influence had been so important in the formation and success of our country.

Almost one hundred years later, the results are clear:

  • Widespread greed and corruption in the business world.
  • The deterioration of marriage and the family.
  • Increased violence.
  • Increased government abuse and corruption.

We have greatly underestimated the powerful influence that Christians can have within a culture even when we are a minority.

As we become serious about being “salt and light” in our communities, we can have the same effect as yeast in a loaf of bread, providing a significant moral framework that positively influences all those around us.

One of the ways we can do this is by reestablishing the Protestant work ethic in our own lives by:

  • Working hard with excellence – “Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:6-7).
  • Working ethically – “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
  • Working urgently – “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives” (Titus 3:14).
  • Working with purpose – “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

In the Old Testament, Abraham was obedient to God, and God not only blessed him but used him to be a blessing to the nations. Let it be our prayer that God would do the same with us.

How can we revive the Protestant work ethic?

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