Modernism and Protestantism

Following up on a previous post of mine, Steven Wedgeworth has just posted the concluding installment of the ongoing discussion he has been having about religion and politics. Several times in the course of this discussion Steven and others have elaborated on how the modern order is in some ways the creation of classic magisterial Protestantism. I thought, as a side-point, I would add some similar comments from Alister McGrath’s book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea on how the modern economic order is related to Protestantism, and especially the Calvinist strain of it. I won’t attempt to organize these logically; I’m just going to cite the comments in the order that McGrath made them, as possible points of discussion.

For the best part of two hundred years thereafter [i.e., after the second half of the sixteenth century], the Protestant zone was bustling and prosperous, and the Catholic area depressed and unproductive. Even in robustly Catholic nations, such as France and Austria, economic entrepreneurialism was primarily due to to Calvinists. Capitalism and Calvinism were virtually coextensive by the middle of the seventeenth century… . This observation is easily made; explaining it is somewhat more difficult. 330

What is clear, however, is that the emergence of modern Western capitalism has a connection with Calvinism–whether as cause or effect, or whether as shared elements of a cultural syndrome. Whereas Karl Marx had argued that the emergence of modern capitalism brought Protestantism into being, Weber argued precisely the reverse. Calvinism made commercial success respectable by declaring that the virtues that lay behind it–such as thrift, austerity, and discipline–were themselves acceptable in God’s sight.

Calvinism is clearly linked to the rise of modern capitalism in other respects. The most important of these is Calvin’s attitude toward usury… . 331

By the middle of the seventeenth century–more than one hundred years after Calvin’s groundbreaking analysis–usury was finally regarded as acceptable. Protestant jurists such as Hugo Grotius and Sumuel Pufendorf supplemented Calvin’s theological analysis with clarifications of economic concepts, especially in relation to price and value, that finally removed any remaining scruples about lending money at interest. The Catholic church did not legitimate usury, however, until 1830, apparently in response to the widespread acceptance of the practice within predominantly Protestant western Europe.

Yet Protestantism did more than bring about the theological adjustment that opened the way to a modern capitalist economy; its early development in the cities of Europe, especially Switzerland, created the economic conditions that made such a change inevitable and essential… . It is now thought that one of the prime reasons for Geneva’s resilience during this period was the emergence of the Swiss banking system, which allowed Basel and other major Swiss Protestant cities sympathetic to Calvin’s religious agenda to bail him out through large loans. The Swiss banking system emerged as a direct response to a shared sense of identity throughout the Protestant cantons of Switzerland and neighboring cities–including Geneva… .

Its survival increasingly came to depend on the generation of new markets and industries. As many refugees brought manufacturing and marketing skills with them, the scene was set for economic expansion… . With the abolition of the old seigneurial ecclesiastical and guild system–the final obstacle to “modern capitalism”–these newcomers could set up business and begin manufacturing and trading without serious restrictions. 334-335

Economic activism subsequently came to be associated with Puritanism in England, Scotland, and the United States in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries… . Although there is some evidence that an ethos of hard work and the prudent use of resources may have become a culturally embedded tradition rather than an instinct that arose naturally from personal religious convictions, there is clear evidence that Calvinism’s later representatives saw an obvious link between their faith and capitalism. 335

From the outset, Protestantism rejected the critical medieval distinction between the “sacred” and “secular” orders. While this position can easily be interpreted as a claim for the desacralization of the sacred, it can equally well be understood as a claim for the sacralization of the secular. 336-337

The historical transformation of the status of work through this ethic is quite remarkable. In his magisterial study of the status of work from Aristotle to Calvin, Vittorio Tranquilli showed how Calvin’s theology led directly from a view of work as a socially demeaning, if pragmatically necessary, activity, best left to one’s social inferiors, to a dignified and glorious means of praising and affirming God in and through his creation while adding further to its well-being. It is no accident that those regions of Europe that adopted Protestantism soon found themselves prospering economically–a spin-off rather than an intended and premeditated consequence of the new religious importance attached to work. 337

The Protestant work ethic finds its applications in many contexts in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the most obvious is the phenomenon of “faith-based activism”: religious groups using their faith both as a platform and a guiding principle for social engagement and voluntary work. Although this is no longer a distinctively Protestant phenomenon, the history of its development makes clear its strong, intentional connections with mainline Protestantism, especially in the United States. 338