Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we look at the man famous for his theory of Protestantism and Capitalism.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 14th of June 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

So today is the anniversary of the death of Max Weber in 1920. Usually, we don’t note sociologists or political economists on this show- but Max Weber is undoubtedly an exception because of his theory of a Protestant Work Ethic that somehow linked the Reformation and Capitalism.

First, a note on pronunciation. I’m going to be saying “Weber” as I do because that’s how I’ve always said it and “weber” with the W sound makes me think of a barbecue grill. And also, you can pronounce stuff however you’d like. Also… thanks to Bonnie in North Carolina, the town is pronounced: “beau-ger-town.”

Weber was born in 1864 to Maximillian Sr and Helene. Max Sr came from a line of established businessmen and made his way into German politics at the Reichstag. Helene was a descendant of a prominent Huguenot family (those are the French Calvinists, and that’s an important point). His dad was harsh, and his mother was pious.

Max Jr went to school in Berlin and Heidelberg- although he would be a famous sociologist, there were no sociology departments at the time. So he studied law with an eye to how it affected populations- both in the present and historically. He lived with his parents throughout his studies and only moved out in 1892 when he was married and was soon made a full professor at Heidelberg. The “Weber” circle included famous academics, and it seemed Max was on his way. But in 1897, Weber had a mental breakdown. His father died, and the two had not ended on good terms. He was a disciplined academic who believed he naturally tended to laziness. According to his wife, who was also his first biographer, he thought that rigorous discipline was all that kept him from emotional crises. But one came nonetheless.

He would be out of the teaching life for over a decade- but would continue to read and write. And it was between 1904 and 1905 that he published two articles that would be published as “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” And while it came out half a century after Marx’s Communist Manifesto, it encouraged a similar approach to investigating hidden motives in the market.

Briefly, Weber argued that Protestantism and its doctrine of the unconditional election put humans in a bind. If God predestined those who would come to faith, how could we know if we were elected? It was Weber’s thesis that one's vocation or work and success at it could indicate one's status. So, according to Weber (who collapsed Protestantism into Calvinism), Capitalism and the market economy resulted from the Protestant Reformation. Northern and Western Europe, as well as the United Kingdom and America, were developed by Protestants who had to work hard but also had to be modest- so this led to lots of capital being made and then saved and reinvested.

And from 30,000 feet, it looks kind of bonkers. Capitalism existed before the Reformation and was successful in non-Protestant areas after the Reformation. And Weber knew this but argued that his model has such explanatory power that it can deal with concrete counterexamples.

Unlike Marx, Weber sees Christianity and particularly the Protestant variety as a boon to society either as a spur to the market or a guarantee of individual rights. Weber argued that Protestantism was arranged horizontally without the level of hierarchy inherent in Catholicism.

If I may make one more parallel to Marx- he raises interesting critiques and asks pertinent questions. Still, grand theories purporting to explain everything haven’t excited me since I was an undergrad.

Weber would eventually become involved in German politics after World War I. He was a reformed Imperialist who became a supporter of the liberal Weimar Republic. However, his life was cut short by the 1918 pandemic- he caught influenza and died on this the 14th of June in 1920.

The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from Psalm 124:

Praise be to the Lord,

who has not let their teeth tear us.

We have escaped like a bird

from the fowler’s snare;

the snare has been broken,

and we have run.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 14th of June 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Webers include Max, The University of Michigan Basketball star Chris, and Pro Bowler Pete; he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who should clarify; Pro Bowler Pete weber is not a good football player; he is an actual Pro Bowler. Ten Pin style. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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