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"From deadness to life: how today’s conservative Protestants recovered and adapted the Protestant ethic" by Andrew Lynn, author of "Saving the Protestant Ethic: Creative Class Evangelicalism and the Crisis of Work" published by Oxford University Press

From deadness to life: how today’s conservative Protestants recovered and adapted the Protestant ethic

In 1982, William E. Diehl, a devout Lutheran and former sales manager at Bethlehem Steel, published the book Thank God It’s Monday. Diehl’s book sought to help conservative Protestants bridge their day-to-day work and their religious identities. Diehl’s ideas found an audience, and his title itself also proved effective. Another book written by an author with no connection to Diehl appeared in 1990 speaking to the same themes. It too was called Thank God It’s Monday. Other Christian authors followed suit. Since 1982, Christian publishers have released eleven different books titled Thank God It’s Monday.

These books represent only a small portion of the significant surge in books written by conservative Protestants that address work and economics. Several hundred new books on the topic now appear every year, whether written by pastors, laity, business leaders, or theologians. This trend in publishing also coincides with the introduction of eight different national conferences on the integration of faith and work since 2002, as well as new seminary courses, worship songs, and bible study materials speaking to the same theme.

If these trends are any indication, the Protestant work ethic is booming. Religious leaders have devoted renewed energy to ensuring that laity view their work lives through particular theological frameworks. Scholars have begun labeling these recent efforts the “faith and work movement,” a twentieth-century parachurch effort that spans various Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, White Evangelical, and even some Catholic groups. It would not be accurate to say this movement is representative of all “Protestant work ethics” today: there are numerous orientations toward work contending for cultural legitimacy among various Protestant groups. But we can recognize in the Thank God It’s Monday books and their corresponding subculture a particular effort to steer conservative Protestant groups toward a set of shared ideas about work.

These ideas center on a few main points: work has inherent value, secular work outside the church is not in any way subordinated to “church” work, and the fruits of work can themselves be sacred and eternal. On the surface such ideas appear to resonate with the classical Protestant work ethic conventionally associated with Puritans and their Calvinist forebearers. But we should not miss the fact that the faith and work movement is also reformulating and creatively adapting earlier theological frameworks in order to make them fit with both contemporary work life and with contemporary ideals about work.

“The faith and work movement is reformulating and creatively adapting earlier theological frameworks to fit contemporary ideals.”

For one, early Protestant theology was largely formulated in reaction to the ecclesial offices and authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther venerated the “menial housework of a maidservant or manservant” performed in faith over and against the purportedly faithless activity of monks and priests. Work in the world, not in the church, was a valid avenue or “calling” because Christians participated in God’s creating and sustaining activity on earth. Defectors from convents and monasteries would often add to this refrain. As members of Saint Anne’s convent in Augsburg declared in their exit from the convent, “We should not sit around idly, waiting for baked doves to fly into our mouths. Work, yes, work is what men must do, each according to his ability, in service to his fellowman. Idleness is forbidden; there is nothing Christian in contemplation.”

The Protestants who promoted and received this message occupied a very particular economic setting: all labor was largely presumed to function within a more organic web of obligations and hierarchical relations. Luther himself did not see his commitment to egalitarianism as unlimited—it did not override the “given” order of the world. Few lay people, after all, were in any position to pursue their own wellbeing and wealth at the expense of others. Early Reformers, then, saw the Protestant work ethic as primarily championing a spiritual egalitarianism that neutralized ecclesial power and status.

The economic environment had changed by the time the Puritan work ethic appeared on the scene. In the British colonies in North America, the older bonds of feudalism and Christendom had largely faded. Economic developments in the seventeenth century moved an increasing number of workers from sustenance farming into other trades. Industrial jobs related to coal, timber, clothing, and other consumer goods created entirely new modes of labor, with many workers becoming wage laborers whose lives intersected with larger networks of trade. 

The cast of Puritans that drew sociologist Max Weber’s attention—Richard Baxter, John Cotton, Cotton Mathers—were then speaking to a different world than that of the Reformers. Weber’s 1904 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism tracks the crystalization of Puritan teachings that frame work as a means to cultivate Godly character, avoid sin, and love others. These Puritan thinkers saw their task as steering between the Scylla of idleness—a threat gaining anxiety in light of new consumer luxuries luring Christians toward self-indulgence—and the Charybdis of selfish ambition. Puritans promoted a posture of tempered zeal for work activity. John Cotton called for “diligence in worldly business” accompanied by a “deadnesse to the world.” Every “lively holy Christian” must ultimately be “deadhearted to the world” and set one’s heart on eternal matters. Historian R.H. Tawney summarized this Puritan notion of calling as essentially a bugle-call summoning the faithful to a “strenuous and exacting enterprise” taking the form of a “long battle which will end only in their death. 

“Today’s leaders decry any arrangements that sequester and venerate ‘Sunday’ faith over and above ‘Monday’ life.”

Today’s faith and work movement has largely discarded calls to deadheartedness and preparations for death. More common are invitations to a fuller and more integrated life. This message frequently relies on metaphors of farming or gardening. A 1974 book by evangelical art critic Udo Middelmann writes that man’s original purpose was represented in the “creative work” of tilling in the Garden of Eden. The message is clear: creative work remains our calling today. A 1979 Intervarsity Press book by Anglican bishop John Gladwin also compares all work to Adam’s initial tilling of the garden, declaring such effort to represent “the Creator’s pattern for human life.” Such work expresses the “creativity which God gave us at creation.” Popular faith and work speaker Andy Crouch echoes these earlier voices in his 2013 book Culture MakingRecovering Our Creative Calling:         

Like our first parents [Adam and Eve], we are to be creators and cultivators. Or to put it more poetically, we are artists and gardeners…The gardener tends what has gone before, making the most of what is beautiful and weeding out what is distracting or useless. The artist can be more daring; she starts with a blank canvas or a solid piece of stone and gradually brings something out of it that was never there before.

Such messages invite secular workers to conceive their trades and daily activities as engaged in discovering and then creatively corroborating with the divine purposes of the created order. Participating in such purposes offers a bullwark against any transactional or instrumental approaches that view work as “just a job” to be endured.

A variety of theological resources feed into this newer Protestant ethic. Some leaders draw on a sacramental (and thereby not disenchanted, as Weber predicted) vision of reality that denies the strict separation of grace and nature. Others turn to the work of Dutch journalist and politician Abraham Kuyper and his salvific vision for all life spheres, which declares the world not irredeemably profane or secular but potentially ordered for redemption. Other writers simply point to the many biblical characters whose working lives are described in sacred scripture, whether Adam, Joseph, or Daniel in the Old Testament, or Jesus himself. If they could perform work pleasing to God outside of formal religious structures, so can we.

These resources allow faith and work leaders to preserve the early Refomers’ zeal in reconfiguring the sacred and the secular. Today’s leaders decry any arrangements that sequester and venerate “Sunday” faith over and above “Monday” life. Secular workers are not “second-class citizens” to full-time missionaries or clergy, these leaders insist. Work activity is religious activity. One organizational leader describes his mission as helping laity see that their “primary place of worship is Monday and not Sunday.” Another leader commonly declares, “God is as present in your workplace—as present in Google—as he is in your church.” Work framed as worship then renders irrelevant the charge of excessive devotion to work. Work devotion is merely another form of religious devotion.

“The economic and social world of today is in many ways the mirror image of the Reformers’ world.”

The novelty of this vision becomes more visible when we consider the particular world in which this message is promulated. The economic and social world of today is in many ways the mirror image of the Reformers’ world. Whereas the Reformers sought to sequester from an encroaching ecclesial authority a realm of “secular” work deemed worthy and good in and of itself, today’s leaders confront a mode of work-centric capitalism that makes demands of all life-spheres, including religion. In his 1964 work One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse saw this organizing of society as not necessarily expelling religion but in fact making room for transcendent visions that ceremonially affirmed existing practices. Struggling to maintain a place in this world, however, would be religious forms not reduced to subjective states and non-interfering commitments. It is these religious forms that now vie for legitimacy in defining what constitutes a “good” and “successful” modern life.

Faith and work leaders, to their credit, do not set out to affirm and thereby reinforce demanding work cultures and unrelenting careerism. They aspire to engage a population of Christian laity struggling to find spiritual or personal meaning in their work. But as leaders have themselves begun to recognize, their audience is disproportionately drawn from career-centered, knowledge economy workers. These workers already derive a great deal of personal and existential significance from their work identities. The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson has gone so far as classifying the dominant form of work devotion among this population as its own religion—workism. Today’s faith and work message in many ways serves Christians residing in close proximity to this workist religion, providing tools to mediate between one’s identity as a conservative Protestant Christian and deep devotion to work and career.

Little of this development would likely surprise Weber. Weber already saw at his time of writing the dwindling influnce of spiritual exhortations to temper or restrain economic behaviors. In the wake of such exhortations, religious energies were instead translated into a compulsion to perform work with greater zeal and discipline. The ethical directives of religion, if they are preserved, are thinned out into what one faith and work leader critically calls “adverbial” ethics. This instructs Christian workers to work excellently, diligiently, industriously, etc. Weber quotes a sixteenth-century monk whose assessment of the new Protestant asceticism proves applicable today: “You think you have escaped from the monastery; but everyone must now be a monk throughout his life.”

In the broader landscape of American Protestantism, these ideas represent just one of many options circulating among religious leaders and the laity. Other orientations toward work and participation with secular institutions also vie for legitimacy, whether the far more global Prosperity Gospel, the politically-charged Dominionist orientation, or more materialist understandings of divinely blessed meritocracy. The faith and work movement’s continued viability likely depends on some portion of the knowledge economy workers preserving their ties with the white American evangelical identity that crystallized in the twentieth century. Such a future is far from a foregone conclusion. 

But sustained interest in the consecration of work in late capitalism is not going away anytime soon. The “Thank God It’s Monday” mantra has now taken up residence as common signage commonly dotting the hustle-celebrating workspaces of WeWork offices. While it is difficult to predict what theological, spiritual, or otherwise cultural orientations will consecrate work in the future, connecting work with larger purposes will likely prove a lasting element of environments that exert demands on workers’ time, energies, and affections.

Featured image is in the public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Seviot

    Genesis 3:17 [To man he said] through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”

    It’s a punishment.
    Protestants would do well reading the Bible carefully.

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