At Work

The Protestant Work Ethic: Alive & Well…In China

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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.

– Niall Ferguson

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson suggests in his recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, that the rise of Western dominance over the past five centuries is a product of six “killer applications” that “the Rest” lacked. These are the six applications I outlined in a recent blog post about Christianity and western civilization.

Ferguson’s sixth application is the Protestant Work Ethic. He defines this app as:

  • A moral framework.
  • A mode of activity derived primarily from the teaching of Protestant reformers.

Ferguson 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.

He also postulates that the Protestant Work Ethic has long since abandoned its birthplace of Western Europe, and today cannot even be found in the United States – the country where this work ethic arguably had the largest impact.

Ferguson’s most surprising observation, though, is that the Protestant Work Ethic is alive and well…in China.

Christianity has exploded in China over the last twenty years. A 2011 report from the BBC conservatively estimated there were 60 million Christians in China. Small, primarily Protestant “house churches” are especially having a strong impact on the country.

This growth in religion has accompanied China’s rapid economic growth over the last twenty years. Now the world’s 2nd largest economy, China illustrates how even a limited amount of economic freedom has the power to lift millions of Chinese out of abject poverty and build one of the strongest economies in the world.

Ferguson suggests that China is starting to supplant the West, but is doing it by becoming more Western. China is booting up several of Ferguson’s “killer apps” – especially the Protestant Work Ethic.

Ferguson doesn’t think the combined rise of Christianity and a booming economy in China is a coincidence. Like Europe in the 18th century and America in the 19th, Chinese Christians are providing China with a workforce that is:

  • More learned.
  • Willing to work longer.
  • Willing to save more of their earnings than their counterparts in other parts of the world.

Other scholars are making these same claims. In their recent book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, John Mickelthwait and Adrian Woolridge, both economists and journalists with The Economist, suggest a scenario similar to Ferguson’s. Mickelthwait and Woolridge interview several Chinese business people, tech experts, and other members of the new Chinese middle class.

God is Back opens with an evangelical-style Bible study in Shanghai, where the pastor proclaims,

In Europe the church is old. Here it is modern. Religion is a sign of higher ideals and progress. Spiritual wealth and material wealth go together. That is why we will win.

This statement echoes the 18th and 19th century American view that economic prosperity and religious freedom, supported by the Protestant Work Ethic, go hand in hand.

The authors of God Is Back further argue that religion and the modern world are not at odds and that the American Protestant Work Ethic can still function in today’s world to create prosperity and individual freedom.

They further suggest that in China, Christianity is offering people a wide range of additional social rewards beyond economic ones, including comfort, community, and meaning. Mickelthwait and Woolridge go on to state that modern life cuts people off from tradition, creating a longing to reconnect that only religion can satisfy.

While making a connection between Protestantism and economic growth may be subject to individual opinion, the fact that both are surging in China cannot be denied.

It’s interesting to note that while Christians in the East have brought their faith to the workplace, Christians in the West have left their faith at church.

The deterioration of the Protestant Work Ethic in the western world coincides not only with a decline of faith, but also with the rise of greed in our society – a rise blamed on both corporations and individuals. Christians have ceased to be salt and light in the workplace. The results are clearly seen.

We at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics believe it is necessary for Christians in the West to rediscover the Protestant Work Ethic, within the context of our culture’s lost Biblical doctrine of work. As we properly understand and live out our vocational callings, we can impact our communities, our cities, and our world by restoring the culture to the glory of God.

What do you think? Is there a connection between the rise in religious faith and the rise in a country’s economy? Leave your comments here

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