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does the protestant ethic matter?

Elizabeth Bruenig has a long review in The Nation on three recent book on Martin Luther, talking about, among other things, how Protestantism set the stage for capitalism and modernity.  The piece, weirdly, doesn’t mention Max Weber at all, or the later questions about whether Weber was right about the Protestant Ethic forming capitalism.

For what it’s worth, it’s pretty unclear if Protestantism did form capitalism, particularly through the disciplinary mechanisms Weber describes. Though it does seem fair to say-and Bruenig nods at this-that Protestantism was actually a series of reforms and internal changes to Christian Europe’s understanding of the self and its relationship to larger organizations and institutions. Most historians of the reformation and church history have the dividing line not really at the 95 theses but at earlier changing understandings of confession and homilies, both of which emphasizes the relevance of the individual believer as an actor in their own faith and, though the term is more than a little anachronistic, something of a consumer as well. Meanwhile, cities got stronger, and so did relatively autonomous tradesmen. There are a lot of pieces moving towards the kind of autonomy that formed capitalism, liberalism, and democracy.å

Yet even if there’s no Weber, the review is still worth reading, especially for this interesting note about the changing nature of contract law, something that reminds me of a book I’ve linked to hear before, Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests.  Here’s Bruenig, referencing an essay by Brian McCall in Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and its Consequences for Church, State, and Society:

 “Protestant theology contributed to a shift in the underlying basis of contract liability,” McCall writes, “shifting from causa to consideration and promise to bargain.” Catholic jurists had formerly required that the purpose of a contract be a just and equitable one in order to enforce it, and they viewed breach of contract more as an issue of breaking promises than of failing to meet the substantive terms of the agreement. But Protestant theology gave rise to the idea that contracts were covenants, “which, although freely made, once entered into [were] absolute.” Thus, by the middle of the 17th century, Protestant courts had no obligation to try to bring about a general moral good when they adjudicated cases on property and contracts.

This sense of “no obligation” is an interesting one, mostly because of how it ties into Weber’s interests in The Protestant Ethic and the Weberian themes scholars like Phil Gorski would pick up in their work. There might not have been an obligation to turning contracts into moral documents, but there was a moral obligation to, well, read a lot of contracts. That shift in the nature of the moral universe, to turn the study of mankind from God to man, is a central conceit in the story of the shift to modernity.

Gorski has a convincing argument in this article and then in this book that the kind of discipline Protestantism (and especially Calvinism) required had a significant effect on modern state formation, making possible the kind of bureaucracy a modern state requires.  So the question of discipline-and the goal towards which that discipline is directed-are another important part of the Protestant story, one Bruenig doesn’t notice as much. Now you might say that discipline isn’t so much Protestant as it is Calvinist, but I’m not sure a reform started by a guy who self-flagellated as often as our man Luther can claim self-discipline as an idiosyncratic element of it battier wings. Indeed, self-discipline is in some ways the very essence of Protestantism: if every man is his own priest, then every many is also his own confessor, his own corrector, his own guide through the eternal place.

Yet this creates as many problems as it does liberations, as Bruenig gets to in her piece. A spiritual individualism free of coercion can produce a free and beautiful relationship with God, but it can just as easily produce a self-justifying series of excuses about why the hard bits of the Gospels don’t really mean what people think they mean. And then we’re left with the individualist myopia  of a people called Americans, a place where the right to own a gun makes more sense that the right to health care, where my right to who I really am can gain media accolades and magazine covers but my right to finish college without crippling debt is just another idiot millennial’s wistful dream. And sure, there are kinds of Protestantism, many of which not nearly as individualist as what I’m describing here.  Bruenig’s good on this too. But the question is not whether all forms of Protestantism are equally individualist but whether Western individualism, especially, American individualism, has Protestant roots. And I think Bruenig’s right: if we’re Americans, we’re all of us descendants of Protestants, regardless of what we or our parents say we believe. And while I won’t claim to read Luther’s impressive and often contradictory mind, it seems clear these aren’t the Protestants he was looking for.

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Written by jeffguhin

July 12, 2017 at 7:52 pm

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  1. Reblogged this on The Past Speaks and commented:
    The 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the theses to the church door has prompted some interesting writing about the Weber thesis and the possible connection between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism.

    Like

    andrewdsmith

    July 24, 2017 at 10:19 am


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