Work Ethics

by G. Murphy Donovan (August 2012)

 “Churches must learn humility as well as teach it.” – George Bernard Shaw

Atheism was all the rage a few years ago when several books received a measure of notoriety. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great by the late Christopher Hitchens are examples. Ironically, when pressed, neither author claimed to be atheists. Apparently, agnosticism is the all-purpose hedge for rationalists. Religious beliefs are impossible to quantify; but, the merits of faith are also impossible to dismiss. Empiricists, with few exceptions, are loath to assess the qualitative or civic virtues of religion.  These same critics are quick to catalogue depredations committed in the name of faith. For many, on the progressive side of the political spectrum, religion is little more than an historical anachronism.

Now comes Harvard’s Niall Ferguson with a more utilitarian view of religion. In a nutshell, the author of Civilization; the West and the Rest (a PBS series also) says “not so fast,” to those who minimize religion. For Ferguson, the earthly value of religion in America is a function of reconciliation, reform, and diversity of thought. Islam never saw reform and Europe merely nationalized the Protestant and Catholic variants of Christianity. In contrast, America left faith to personal, not public conscience, and prospered in unprecedented ways.

Ferguson marvels at the vigor and variety of religion in America then and now. And like Max Weber (1864-1920) a century before, he celebrates the “Protestant work ethic;” the links between religion, competitiveness, and enterprise. Indeed, Ferguson suggests that religious tolerance may be more significant than any ethnic, cultural, or political diversity. In short, his arguments are, among other things, a pin prick away from bursting the modern myth of religious moral equivalence.

For Ferguson, religion in America, is different, a value added. The Yanks never nationalized their faith. Indeed, the New York Times worries that Ferguson comes close to linking Mediterranean economic indolence with Catholic and Christian Orthodox religious apathy – praying less and working less too. Indeed!

The separation of church and state in America is complemented by Weber’s so-called “protestant work ethic,” a pragmatic reconciliation of earthly success and heavenly merit. In short, for most American believers, there are no official religions and no clashes with commercial success – or access to bonus points in the hereafter. Of course, the definition of “work” has always been a controversial issue, then as now.

Nonetheless, the metaphorical and historical record supports the Ferguson perspective. Indeed, when examining religious culture; the arts and literature may be more useful than any science of history. Take that camel passing through the ‘eye of a needle’ as an example.

The Christian aphorism reads: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This metaphor appears in three out of four Synoptic Gospels. Clearly, this pre-Reformation view created a false dilemma for Christians; a conflict between commercial success here and salvation there.

The adage has a Hebrew antecedent with a different spin. The Babylonian Talmud uses “the eye of a needle” as an image of the space through which God’s compassion might pass to save sinners.

Islam uses the camel and needle metaphor also; to illustrate the difficulty infidels might have attaining heavenly reward. The relevant Surah ends with a line seldom quoted these days: “And thus do we (Muslims) recompense criminals (infidels).”

Christian and Islamic scripture took an ancient Midrash and turned it on its head. And Catholic antipathy for commerce lasted well into the Enlightenment. Antiquated views of usury and other haram practices still plague Muslim economies today. The vestigial contempt of Christian Socialists and Muslim recidivists for commerce and capitalism has an ancient lineage.

In contrast, unique American attitudes on these matters have an interesting paper trail where colonial era Jews may have had more than a little influence. Mordacai Noah and Jacob La Motta corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams on religious issues. Jefferson had written the original Bill for Religious Freedom for Virginia; (1786) and with Madison’s help, the “establishment” clause was also written into a First Amendment of the federal Bill of Rights (1791). Noah and La Motta noted the discrepancy between law and practice, but Jefferson reassured La Motta by revising a famous axiom of the day. “Divided we stand, united we fall,” quipped the sage of Monticello.

Jefferson’s testimony to religious diversity was underlined by John Adams who had the insight to recognize the linkage between faith and prosperity. Adams, writing to Noah, avowed: “I wish it (the Constitution) may do more; and annul every narrow idea in religion, government, and commerce.” Here the linkage between religious freedom, good government, and enterprise is quite explicit.

Adams was preaching to the choir. Unlike Christianity and Islam, conflicts between religion and worldly achievement did not exist for most Jews. Or at least such conflicts, for the most part, did not restrain entrepreneurship in the arts, science, or industry. Indeed, this single facet of Hebrew culture may explain the extraordinary success of Diaspora minorities worldwide. Jews were able and enterprising enough to fill many of the vacuums created by restrictive Christian and Islamic commercial dogmas.

And Jefferson seemed to have known instinctively that any replay of the religious quarrels that had plagued the Christian West and the Islamic East could wreak havoc in America too. Jefferson made the so-called “Protestant work ethic” possible when he and Madison championed religious diversity in Virginia and federal law. Religion in America thus became another competitive class of ideas, not an impediment to democracy or commerce.

Religious pluralism and the separation of church and state were of a piece with ethnic, cultural, and political tolerance. Ethnic tolerance may have been an orphan for several generations, but the moral basis was there from the beginning.

Historical observers like Max Weber and Naill Ferguson are probably correct about the seminal influence of religion, but they may be wrong about the “Protestant” work ethic. The original ethic was probably Jewish. Jews worked harder because they had to; over time, high expectations in art, science, and commerce became culture. Colonials were just practical enough to recast a similar link between American worldly success and heavenly merit.

And Jefferson’s greatest achievement may have been that ‘establishment clause,’ those few words that make the American religious, political, and commercial success possible – and unique.

Alas, the impending American presidential election is likely to stimulate more anti-capitalist trash talk about justice and fairness and the “moral” hazards of entrepreneurship, success, and wealth. Throughout, Americans might want to remember the tolerant tradition that made American prosperity and progress possible. Abraham Lincoln put it best:

“That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.”

Or as a less eloquent New England adage claims; “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

G. Murphy Donovan writes frequently about politics and national security.

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