Communism has collapsed in the USSR, China and elsewhere. The world, with the exception of some universities, has concluded that Marx was wrong and wondering what would replace Marxism. Some have turned to Marx’s contemporary and nemesis, Max Weber, and his thesis that it was the Protestant work ethic that brought nation after nation out of poverty.
Marx, a thoroughgoing atheist, assumed that matter is all there is, and thus matter is all that matters. Weber, on the other hand, was a theist, though not necessarily a Christian. His grandparents and mother were children of the Reformation, and Weber understood that ideas have consequences. He sensed the need for social change and joined the Evangelical Social Congress, an evangelical social reform movement.
So, while Marx and Weber were contemporaries, and both interested in the question of why some nations are rich and some poor, they came to very different conclusions based on different presuppositions.
Many readers of this blog know my own story. I began my journey to help the poor over fifty years ago as a university student spending a summer at a Mexico City orphanage. At the time, I was what some would call an Evangelical Socialist. I believed the problems of poverty were rooted in material things. The poor were poor because they did not have money or resources. Years later, when I began working for and traveling with Food for the Hungry International, I began to realize that people were not poor for want of resources, but for want of a biblical worldview, including what Weber called the Protestant work ethic.
For years, as I spoke about these insights, people in the relief and development industry saw me as a heretic. “You are blaming the victim,” I was told.
A positive correlation between religion and a better life
But the world is waking up. The June 21, 2018 edition of Christianity Today included an article by Lincoln Lau and Bruce Wydick, “The ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ Really Does Fight Poverty.”
Before World War I, German sociologist Max Weber famously linked the work ethic of Protestant Christians to the economic development of Europe. The “spirit of capitalism,” he argued, was sparked by Martin Luther’s emphasis on calling and his argument that “worldly” labor was no less holy than the ascetic “spiritual” practices of monks and priests.
Puritans and other Calvinists, he said, later recast that labor as an ascetic practice itself—working was a way of fulfilling one’s duty to God. Wealth for Protestants became “bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life.”
After introducing their subject, Lau and Wydick reveal how people are beginning to see the correlation between Weber’s thesis and outcome in the real world.
Scholars have tried [to test Weber’s theory], looking intensely at Protestantism specifically and religion in general. They have found positive correlations between religion and life of an objectively higher quality, even by secular measures. Religious people tend to be more economically successful and have better physical health, lower crime rates, and reduced rates of drug and alcohol abuse. And studies backed up Weber in finding connections between Protestantism and self-discipline, hard work, honesty, and other economic values. But researchers have not been able to separate causation from mere correlation. Can these positive outcomes be directly attributed to religious beliefs, or are economically successful people (or countries) more likely to be religious? Perhaps a third factor, such as patience, self-control, or persistence, causes people to be both more religious and more economically successful.
God is at work in the world
It is fascinating that the world is beginning to see a correlation between culture and wealth/poverty. May the church begin to realize the importance and power of the Gospel of the Kingdom for all of life including a nation’s health, economy and education.
The entire article is very encouraging and well worth reading.
Corresponding to the claim of the Christianity Today article is the equally startling statement from Linda Qui, that we may have reduced extreme poverty globally during the last 30 years.
At the dawn of the new millennium, the United Nations set a goal of eradicating poverty by 2030. With 14 years left to go, we’ve already reduced the proportion of destitute people in world by 50 percent, according to U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Gayle Smith.
“I think everyone in the room knows that this is a moment of extraordinary progress. Over the last 30 years, extreme poverty has been cut in half. Boys and girls are enrolling in primary school at nearly equal rates, and there are half as many children out of school today as there were 15 years ago,” Smith said in a speech on Capitol Hill.
Here is a graphic that tells the story:
See also Shalom: Watch God at Work in History.
If you are interested in going more deeply in these things please see our books:
- Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture NOTE: Stand by for the new edition scheduled for a Sept 6 release.
- LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day
- The Forest in the Seed