At the end of the last post I mentioned that Max Weber – a German sociologist and encomiast – who in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, gave much of the credit for the rise of free market economies in the West to the advent of Protestantism. He believed that the rise of capitalism and the improvement in economic conditions of the common people were a result of the change in religion. The Protestant Religions gave people the belief that if they worked hard and did the “right things”, they could achieve a better life. If people feel that there is hope for them to have a better, more comfortable and satisfying life if they work hard – if there is hope – they will be inclined to take responsibility for themselves. Protestantism encouraged individual responsibility and a positive moral ethic which not only rewarded honesty, fairness, and integrity but also made hard work a virtue It was this that Weber believed made the cultural basis which helped capitalism prosper and end the dark middle ages.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Rudyard Kipling wrote a little poem called “The Law of the Wild”. It goes as follows:
And this is the law of the wild As true and as blue as the sky And the wolf that keeps it will prosper But the wolf that breaks it will die Like the vine that circles the tree trunk This law runneth forward and back The strength of the pack in the wolf And the strength of the wolf is the pack
Like the wolf, we need to take individual responsibility for ourselves, but at the same time be able to work effectively together.
It is likely that neither Martin Luther nor Henry VIII expected that their differences with the church in Rome would affect the culture and economic life in Europe to the degree that it did. But the greatest effect was likely manifested in the American Colonies. It seems likely that the protestant Christian Reformation in Europe led the writers of the U. S. Constitution to include language requiring the separation of church and state. The primary incentive might have been the protection of various Christian denominations that felt persecuted in Europe, but it also seems certain that they would have knows that it would allow other religions as well. And I believe that there is evidence to support this assumption. But perhaps equally as dramatic was the effect of the rise of capitalism on the development of the U. S. economy. In the “New World”, the European immigrants had to take individual responsibility and work hard in order to survive. There was no rich church organization, aristocracy, or government to save them (or to blame if things didn’t go well). And like the “wolf” in the Kipling poem, they had to help each other in times of need. They needed the “pack”. They needed teamwork and it had to be done voluntarily.
They also didn’t want a strong all-powerful central government. It is likely that they saw that strong central governments had resulted in oppression, not allowing freedom of individual choice in such things as religion. So the U.S. was formed as a “republic” – not a pure democracy. the powers of the central government were restricted to those things enumerated in the constitution. They obviously would have agreed with Lord Acton’s statement from the 1800’s that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. So the U.S. development was based on a culture that gave virtue to individual responsibility, hard work, helping our neighbors through volunteer work, and a moral, ethical code of behavior toward each other that was consistent with protestant Christian values. But they were also consistent with other religion in how we should treat each other. After all, the Ten Commandments, are from the Hebrew scriptures and are the basis of Jewish law. Stephen Covey, in his best seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said that from his research that there were common elements regarding personal relationships in all the worlds major religions. And based on my personal knowledge and experience, I would agree with Covey.
When Russia became the USSR and adopted Communist/Socialist values, they outlawed religion. The reason for this, I have been told, is because they didn’t want Religion or God competing with the government for people’s loyalties. This interesting in light of plebian socialist rhetoric. Perhaps it was the recognition on the part of the political leaders that people needed a set of common cultural beliefs (civil religion?) to pull them together and they did not want a God based religion competing with the Communist Manifesto. But it’s also interesting that the rhetoric did not match the practice. It would seem that a central power authority is necessary to have equal distribution of the fruits of production. So the majority of the population may have been equal, but the power and wealth were apparently with the party leadership. The socialist rhetoric and stated objectives sound very noble, but the results were not particularly desirable. Maybe history has confirmed Lord Acton’s thesis. Maybe power really does corrupt despite the best of initial intentions. Maybe one of the secretes of the strength of the “pack”, is that the “wolf” must join voluntarily. Maybe people were not motivated or saw the fact that they were not allowed to keep or at least control the fruits of their labor. Maybe one of the lessons of history is that individuals need to take responsibility themselves, voluntarily, to do the right things.