Don’t Blame Calvinism

In his daily set of links to items of interest, Michael Sean Winters commits this drive by:

we as a culture used to know money was corrupting, but have forgotten that fact in recent years. There is something to the argument, to be sure, but there was a fascination with the robber barons and the Newport elite longer before “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” came along. And Calvinism, the strongest religious influence in our culture, has always had a soft spot for wealth, seeing it as evidence of divine approval, rather than as the devil laying his traps.

Notice the either-or perspective on wealth — either it’s from God or from the devil. And Winters thinks Roman Catholic conservatives are guilty of dualism.

What Winters reveals is that Rome has never caught up to Protestants on vocation and how to understand work in the world (whether you make a lot of money or not). Imagine if Rome had taught about secular work as part of the priesthood of all believers. They might have helped Protestants who tried to hold back the tide of acquisitive (or status seeking) participation in the market.

Consider the way that Rod Liddle in his review of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy describes middle-class English Protestantism of a generation or so ago:

I was of J. D.’s mum’s generation, the people who made fecklessness a lifestyle choice, and were somehow encouraged to do so. We jettisoned almost everything our parents believed in and made ourselves much worse off—just as did J. D.’s mother. I tried to make sense of this generational shift in a book—Selfish, Whining Monkeys—which attempted to explain the reasons why my generation had managed, in such a short space of time, to let down their children and their parents. Some of it accords with what Vance has to say, even if he does not spell it out. Gone, for example, was any notion of deferred gratification and work ethic—just one of the many consequences of the diminished importance of religion in our lives.

Protestantism inculcated a simple and perhaps confining moral code: work hard, invest, don’t steal, look after your community, put your family first, wait for reward—always wait for reward. Don’t sleep around, don’t lie, don’t spend more money than you have. For my parents’ generation, divorce was a stigma and vanishingly rare, at that. But recently I stood outside a Middlesbrough job center interviewing one hundred or so people who were seeking work. Every single one of that hundred came from a broken family. Every one. And of those who now had children themselves, every one was no longer with the partner with whom she’d had the child. And this state of affairs had not made them happy; it had wrecked them. They were all J. D.’s mum now.

What’s so bad about that approach to work and economic considerations? Granted, those middle-class virtues are not the sole possession of Protestant creeds and confessions. But it is hardly a recipe for “the lives of the rich and famous.”

And what did Roman Catholics offer as an alternative?

Within the early Christian community through the medieval period, a similar attitude toward work in the world as associated with the body and the lower elements of human nature prevailed. Through the influences especially of neo-Platonic thought, the emphasis was upon a life spent in contemplation, as reflected in these words of Augustine in the 5th century, “the contemplation of God is promised us as the goal of all our actions and the eternal perfection of happiness,” or Aquinas in the 13th century, “the contemplation of divine truth . . . is the goal of the whole of human life.” Work which meets the needs of the body, then, has “no lasting religious significance.” As theologian Ernst Troeltsch notes in his monumental study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, “An ethic which starts from the point of view of an original equality, and which holds that the differences that do exist are due to sin, and which at its best regards the division of labour as a Divine arrangement adapted to the needs of fallen humanity, is inherently unable to see any value in ‘callings’ at all” (Troeltsch, Social Teaching, I, 121).

The monastery or the nunnery, places of withdrawal from worldly activities, exemplified the most valued state of life, and even while bodily work occurred in those settings, the work was a means of purification and the development of virtue, not an activity to be pursued for itself. Furthermore, in the later medieval period as liturgical practices took up more and more of the roles and time of the monks and nuns, they no longer worked to support themselves; many lived off the wealth of the aristocracy through gifts in exchange for prayer. Even the wandering mendicant friars lived off the good will of those whom they met along the way.

In the Catholic understanding, vocation was a response to God’s calling by removing oneself from the cares and concerns of this world. Sociologist Max Weber notes that in Jewish traditions, among the Greek and Roman classics, or in the medieval world of Catholicism, vocation had none of the contemporary meaning of a fulfillment of one’s duties to God by active engagement in the world. Further, in the medieval world someone who engaged in the work of business was certainly suspect; today’s business state of mind “would both in ancient times and in the Middle Ages have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect.”8 “Business was only possible for those lax in ethical thinking.” According to Aquinas, there is “something shameful about it [commerce], being without any honorable or necessary defining goal” (quoted in Tam).

Instead of blaming Calvinism, Winters may want to look in the mirror. He may also want to think, as Liddle encourages readers, about economists on the left and the right who have no dog in the hunt for the church Jesus founded:

But it’s not just the retreat of religion, or more properly, our retreat from religion, that caused this shift. It was also the rise of two supposedly oppositional doctrines that grew up in the early 1960s. First, the post-Marxist Frankfurt school of sociologists (Habermas, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al.), which posited the overthrowing of those old, discredited notions of respect for authority, of capitalism, of anything that could be considered bourgeois, in favor of rampant individualism and free expression—sexually, morally, politically—which unpicked the fabric painstakingly woven by our parents and their parents before them. And then the Chicago school of economists (Hayek, Friedman, et al.), which also posited a rapacious individualism at the expense of the larger society. A deregulated economy in which homes were not places in which one lived, but another form of collateral. An imperative to strive to make money and to spend, to consume and consume without the constraints which had previously attended.