Our reading of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism underlines for me the unplanned effects that social movements can have on society. In addition, it serves as a reminder of the challenge we have as leaders and participants in these movements to strive to be aware of the impact of our actions. I want to be clear that I am not insinuating a judgement on the virtues of capitalism, I am simply saying we should be thoughtful about the sometimes-significant impact our theology has on what we reinforce as societal values.
Interplay between Religion and the Economy
Weber uses the first pages of his first chapter to lay a claim that Protestants of his time tended to be wealthier than Catholics. He then goes on to develop a concept of a Protestant Ethic. Britannica’s site defines the Protestant Ethic as “the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one’s worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual’s election, or eternal salvation.”
Additionally, we then read from Weber a case that there is a relationship between Capitalism and Protestantism. In his argument to support this claim, he identifies four key values (The Protestant Ethic, Asceticism, The Spirit of Capitalism and The Iron Cage) that provides a foothold for us to have a conversation about the interplay between religion and society.
As a lifelong church attender, I have always explained to myself that religion was our attempt to create structures that help us stay closely in step with God. I see religion as a flawed instrument, where we don’t always make the mark, but it is better than no instrument at all.
The potential connection between Protestantism and major global financial constructs is concerning to me. I am not saying that Christianity should not have global impact. It feels like somehow Protestantism has jumped the track and is now operating out of bounds. Last night in my Community Group, we spent some time meditating on James 1:9: (NLT)
Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them.
God confounds our presuppositions on what truly makes us prosperous. Our faith is supposed to bring us closer to God, not closer to our financial goals and our religion should be helping us to do that.
Culture Eats Strategy, but who makes Culture?
As we trace major movements through time, it is clear that those behind the movements had little inkling of the eventual impact of their efforts. We cannot know how we are shaping a culture when we are implementing change. I doubt if Martin Luther understood the relationship of his work with global finance, and yet, here we are still talking about it. While “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” we don’t always have a firm handle on how culture is developing around us.
Dr Clark shows in his work, that Protestant beliefs did not happen in isolation, but were instead part of a complex social system of which Protestants were a part:
Life in the new Protestant world generated anxiety about assurance of faith. That anxiety was attended to with a relocation of assurance into providence. But the terms and limits of providence became increasingly set by market imaginations, rather than the original Evangelical horizons of faithful Christian living in the material world. What was initially resistance collapses into collusion and intensification. The resistance evinced in the Protestant Work Ethic resisted the deforming forces of capitalism, and quickly gave way to new and emerging work ethics that were intertwined with non-religious imaginations for life. The rational beliefs of the Evangelical life collapse into, and become a rationale for, market imaginations.
This is not the first time that religion that religion has had an impact on financial affairs. Consider:
- The impact of conservative Christianity on American politics as outlined in Kristin Kobes Du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne
- At the time of the crusades, groups such as Knights Templar set up institutions loan money to pious Catholics to help fund their pilgrimages to the Holy Land. (The Precursor to my mortgage repayment plan) 
- An even more sobering example in Mathew 21:12-13 when we watch Christ’s reaction to the money changers in the temple.
It is clear that the customs and values of the Church has a broader impact on finance and culture.
Who is impacting whom?
In our review of Bebbington from a few weeks ago, several of us mentioned in our blogs that we were struck by the “fish in their water” assertion that we are not always aware of the culture we are in. I would suggest that we also are not always aware of the water we are creating. I am thankful that people like Weber are asking questions that lead us to greater understanding of the impact our belief systems are having on a large scale.
The Fish is Still in Her Water
Above, I said that we needed to “strive to be aware of the impact of our actions” and yet as a cohort, we have already observed that it is very difficult for a fish to be aware of their water. And, while religion is flawed, it is necessary for us to maintain a healthy Christian life. This tension of a flawed necessity that is hard for us to recognize leads me back to my NPO. As I am working to develop strategies for surfacing positive discussions about disagreements, it strikes me that some of these disagreements may come from the lone voice who wants to challenge the culture we are creating and may be the canary in the mine we need when we get off track.
 Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism and Other Writings,” Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).
 Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism and Other Writings,” 1–12.
 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Protestant ethic.” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 5, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/money/topic/Protestant-ethic.
 Martyn Percy, lecture to DLPG students, Oxford, England, September 23, 2003.
 Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” n.d., 120–21.
 Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2020).
 Robert Pohle, “When a Banker’s Tools Included A Mace, a Sword, and Chain Mail,” American Banker (Pre-1997 Fulltext), January 31, 1990.