Shame and the Welfare Ethic

From our many friends at Wikipedia:

The Protestant work ethic (or the Puritan work ethic) is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes hard work, frugality and prosperity as a display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith. The phrase was initially coined in 1904 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

It is argued that Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, had reconceptualised worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole.

Religious worldviews have consequences. I agree with Max Weber’s definition of the Protestant Work Ethic: I personally believe that one of the reasons the United States has enjoyed financial growth is an embrace of the Protestant worldview, influenced by Calvin, and reinforced by a morality that suggests that work is redemptive.

The Protestant Work Ethic and the Welfare Ethic are two opposing views (with religious underpinnings) that are along the fault line of American society’s current national debate. For those who hold to a worldview ensconced in the Protestant Work Ethic, welfare is only to be seen as necessary evil, a stopgap measure to help those who have been overwhelmed by circumstance. Protestantism, of course, was a protest against a state-run church. The individualism of Protestant theology has been a bulwark against statism and the state is seen as a force for evil which must be contained. Nobody summed this distinction up better than Reagan when he said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

The Welfare Ethic is a completely different view in which welfare, provided by a benevolent state, is for the common good. In this view, helping the poor is not the responsibility of the individual but of the state. Paying taxes is a moral act of charity and creates fairness in society (I believe that some have called paying taxes, “patriotic”). European Evangelicals have long ago held to the Welfare Ethic in understanding and interpreting Christianity. Catholicism, which itself was the government for many years, has a positive view of the state and teaches that government is a force for good. President Obama has been consistently growing the size and scope of the welfare state and, in contrast to Reagan, sees government as the solution.

Between November 5th and November 7th last week, our country did not change. The election does provide, however, a snapshot of what has been long changing in our society. A significant part of the change is religious. Protestantism as a backdrop for the moral choices of our nation is receding and it is being replaced with a statist worldview that embraces the Welfare Ethic.

At one time most Americans would have seen a young, able-bodied man on food stamps (or other welfare assistance) as shameful. I personally know three of them, in their mid-twenties, with the ability to at least work a part-time job. “No,” one of them told me, “for $10 an hour it’s not worth it and it might mess with my eligibility.”

This is the Welfare Ethic in the new America. There is no shame in welfare.

Should there be?

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