Spain is in the midst of a crippling financial crisis. Several months ago a friend of mine explained to me that this current crisis could be explained by the fact that the banks in Germany were controlled by Calvinistic Lutherans who believed that the doctrine of predestination applied to one’s economic station in life. If one was born poor, it was because God predestined it. He then extrapolated the point to blame Spain’s current problems as inflicted by Protestant Germany wanting to subjugate Catholic Southern Europe, because they were predestined this way. I had never heard anything as strange as that, since it mainly flew in the face of the reality of Spain’s miss-spending and corruption problems, while attempting to blame it all on foreign interlocutors. Just this last week, I realized that my friend Paco was simply articulating an aberration of Max Weber’s ambitious The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism.
Weber’s central thesis is that the Protestant ethic led to a rise in the spirit of capitalism in nations (particularly the USA and the U.K.) that thus led these nations to experience tremendous growth of wealth and become the primary motors of the capitalistic system. As such, Weber seeks to investigate this thesis and explore particularly why religious movements, particularly those with a strong emphasis on modesty, restraint, simplicity, and hard work could help to develop societies leading into an “orgy of materialism.” Weber’s perception of capitalism is prescient, and he is also careful to show that early Protestantism would not be in favor of what capitalism has become, but that they simply set the foundation for such a move.
Probably the biggest contribution Weber’s thesis makes to the overall sociological/historical conversation, is that religion, and spiritual movements can have profound cultural affects even on economic systems. He does an excellent job of identifying clear theological shifts in the Protestant movement (against the Catholic mediation of salvation through the church only, unworldly asceticism, mysticism, and a more traditional economic spirit), such as personal calling to work, personal responsibility for salvation, a shift to rationalism, engagement with the world, and a worldly asceticism, which led to a rise in the spirit of capitalism, namely the rational concept that life is solely about accumulating capital.
It does seem that Weber misses some key points and connections to his thesis. One thing in particular is that democracy (and capitalism as well) has been slow to gain full traction in the Catholic nations of Southern Europe, nations which firmly rejected the Reformation. Spain did not come to full democratic status till the 1980s, the same goes for Portugal, and Italy only entered into democracy after the US invasion of WWII. On the contrary, nations with more Protestant influence like the US, the U.K., Holland, and the Scandinavian nations have had flourishing democracies for some time. I care not to oversimplify this case, for certainly there are a myriad of reasons for this, but in line with Weber’s thesis it bears some investigation.
I also do not wish to dismiss the Protestant ethic of calling, frugality, and an ascetic life that most certainly did lead to the rise of capitalism, but I do want to focus two elements that Weber misses. Namely, the fragmentation and diversification (and possibility of choice) that the Reformation and Protestant movement began, plus the revolutionary reclamation of “the priesthood of all believers.” Most certainly these two facts against the monolithic cultural, political, and spiritual landscape of Catholicism, allowed greater freedom of movement socially and politically. Did this fragmentation lead to the flourishing of democracy and also capitalism? Did the ability for people to take personal responsibility for their own faith, personal standing, and a democratization of the very leadership of the faith thus lead to the possibility of democracy, and within it a growing need and ethic for personal financial freedom and responsibility? Did the need to reinvent and also start from scratch new religious institutions lead to the calling of a responsible and free benefactor class, who could re-build churches, hospitals, and eventually missions against the previous Catholic model where the government and taxes filled the coffers of the church? Of course many a proud American Presbyterian will tell you that the very organization of the US government is based on the Presbyterian system.
Conversely, Southern European Catholic cultures have tended to be monolithic, where all of life flows from and to the church. There are no other options, and no other choice. What is more, instead of a fragmenting and diversifying system where people gained calling, responsibility, and dare we say opportunity, the Catholic Church has tended to fight to retain its monopoly. In Spain, for centuries the Church sided with the landed class and the monarchy in attempting to maintain the status quo. Ideas such as democracy, freedom of speech, and the Reformation were quickly cut down and painted as foreign evils which threatened Spain. This attitude was maintained until the radicalization of Vatican II in the 60’s, as the Spanish church certainly provided for the poor, but never encouraged economic improvement or responsibility. It is no surprise then that when a capitalist, entrepreneurial class did arise in the 70s it was from the Catholic and economic elite, namely in the form of Opus Dei. Spain to this day feels very much divided along old class and familiar lines, with the working and middle classes being more socialist and anarchist leaning, while those who have always held power continue to do so. Weber does find an interesting point here and one that is expounded in the current financial crisis. Spain is a society embodying very much the Catholic ethic that Weber expounds: a joy for life over work, a lack of calling, and a sense that someone else should be responsible (possibly the church or the government). Individual agency and an ability to control one’s situation in life (in a rational sense) are not normal Spanish sentiments. This comes to play as Spaniards become incredulous that Germany and the EU would demand an accounting, and a change in work habits and monetary compensation and benefits.
On the other side of the ocean, it is the Pentecostals working mainly among the poor of South America who may be unleashing another capitalistic juggernaut. Sociologists like Peter Berger and David Martin have pointed out that the Pentecostal elements of life change, personal responsibility, and emphasis on a “priesthood of all believers,” are helping to pull families out of grinding poverty into more stable lives, which of course will lead in future generations to a middle class and economic success. Pentecostals and evangelicals in Brazil have already become an economic and political force. Maybe the next book to be written will be about the Pentecostal Ethic (trademark pending).
From a missions perspective, Weber’s initial thesis and where we see it playing out and not playing out, has a tremendous relevance. What will become of emerging Evangelical and Pentecostal movements in the majority world who find themselves experiencing the benefits of life change that often lead to economic stability, while not getting lost in the “orgy of materialism” and consumerism that is the dark side of late modern capitalism? My recent time in Seoul, South Korea and seeing the rapid expansion and success of the church there from utter poverty to financial miracle, makes this question all the more palpable. How do we as ministers and missionaries cross into cultures like Spain, where the economic and cultural waters are very muddy? Is this simply the ebb and flow of Christianity, as it moves from the needy and oppressed bettering their lives, only to have latter generations leave the faith because they can fill their God-shaped desire with other things?