Americans’ propensity to work hard has often been attributed to the so-called Protestant work ethic. That term comes from the German sociologist Max Weber, who argued in the early 1900s that Protestant Calvinism had laid the groundwork for capitalism by imbuing people with a respect for work and an interest in saving money.
But was work really that important to a Protestant work ethic? Contrary to popular understanding of that ethic, work took second place for its original Calvinist upholders. Religious objectives took precedence. And that meant work couldn’t be what established one’s fundamental identity and it couldn’t be of special importance because of the economic benefits it reaped. Work was at best a mere sign of what really mattered: one’s religious standing, which was achieved not by means of work but through God’s grace.
For these reasons, those currently reluctant to work or reassessing the value of work can look to the Protestant work ethic for encouragement. As the early Calvinists knew, there are more important things in life than work.
Recent employment figures indicate a greater reluctance to work. There are many more open positions than there are people willing to fill them, and in what has been termed the Great Resignation, many people are showing an increased willingness to quit their jobs.
There is support for these forms of detachment from work in the original meaning of the Protestant work ethic.
Weber argued that Protestant Calvinism, which was founded by the French theologian John Calvin in the 16th century, bolstered the rise of capitalism at a time when many other ways of making a living still existed. Capitalism didn’t necessarily entice farmers, tradespeople, craftspeople, and other laborers to better their economic circumstances; they were quite happy to live as they always had. But Calvinists believed in the value of working hard, irrespective of anything that might come of it, as a way of proving that God already intended to save them from eternal damnation. Only those already saved by God could work hard while delaying gratification in the use of any money earned. Capital for future business ventures was in that way amassed.
Those religious motives for work detached Calvinists in significant respects from their labor in ways that might prove instructive today. The Calvinists did not believe their salvation was gained through good deeds; their economic activity was therefore not enough to bring about God’s favor, either. The way one worked became nothing more than a sign of one’s elect status. Working in ways that indicated you had been saved made you more confident in salvation — and served to make that religious standing obvious to others — but work itself did not save you.
In other words, the Calvinists weren’t so much invested in their work as they were in what work signaled. They measured and evaluated work’s economic benefits only in light of their religious interests.
And so if the Protestant work ethic is all-American, maybe detachment from work is, too. We all might remember that the next time we consider whether to take a job or hand in our notice. We can use work to serve our religious or spiritual commitments, as the Calvinists did, but that doesn’t mean we should make work itself into a religion, the primary and all-demanding object of devotion or attachment.
Kathryn Tanner is Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and a Public Voices Fellow in the OpEd Project at Yale University.