Why the Protestant Work Ethic Is a Menace to Society

Two weeks ago Pew Research pinpointed an historic threshold: for the first time only 48% of Americans deemed themselves Protestant. Yes, the dominant majority since Puritan days has shrunk to minority status, alongside (one trusts) its perennial double: the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant ruling class.  

With the Protestant hegemony fading, let us project a similar demise for the simplistic, planet-threatening credo known as the "Protestant Ethic." That triumphant code consecrates hard work, prosperity and control over nature, complacently measuring progress by net profit and GNP numbers. Here's a conviction that unifies our two parties in love with the status quo, along with reactionaries and fundamentalists everywhere. For all proclaim the Divinity of Hard Work, that Hard Work Conquers All, even that Work is Salvation, as both sign and vehicle of "exceptionalism" and personal deliverance. 

For the hard right, does not the magic of hard work resolve crime, poverty, racial inequality, family shortcomings, economic stagnation and phantom enemies far and wide? The solution to all hard knocks, these hard people say, is hard work, the anvil for human destiny -- and beyond.  Gee, what happened to one-time, theoretical promises of greater leisure time?

Certainly Yanks celebrate that savvy American, Benjamin Franklin, who elevated thrift, industry, and tenacity; or as he put it, "Energy and persistence alter all things." But today's ideological folly distorts the context of birthright, namely background, gender, education, and family assets. Thus schoolchildren still endure injunctions to "keep your nose to the grindstone" (ouch), "there is no substitute for hard work" (Thomas Edison), and my favorite, "hard work never killed anyone" ("but why take the chance," quipped witty Edgar Bergen). 

Or check out Bishop Mitt's website: "Help Romney Get America Back to Work," while refusing to affirm public education, retraining, or support for needy families. So much for the famed "bootstraps" by which the poor will pull themselves up.    

No doubt, America's affluence mirrors perseverance, especially by underpaid laborers, but consider more critical advantages: freedom from central authority, relative tolerance, thus ethnic diversity, matchless resources (farmland, forests, water, minerals), and truly fortuitous geography, poised between Europe and Asia. Military might, material goods, isolation, and good fortune, not simply workloads, clarify how 5% of the world's population commandeers 20% of most goodies.

Our Religion of Work

What needs challenge isn't work per se but the Protestant work credo and noxious linkages: 1) that worldly success signals heavenly election; 2) that will power alone (and the right Christian values) will overcome all uneven playing fields; and 3) that status (read: money) awards "winners" like Bishop Romney the moral right to rule the entire roost. In fact, hard work by itself leads to exhaustion, without often gaining a livable wage. And America's celebrated draw of exceptional socio-economic mobility has migrated to Canada and much of Europe and Asia.

Diligence alone isn't enough: Greeks average 2,017 work hours annually, the highest in Europe, with a two-week vacation. Germans put in 1,408 hours per year, with twice the vacation time, yet Greece is a wreck (20% jobless) while Germany a powerhouse. In fact, our New Deal's 40-hour week base cut America's average workload by 25% (from 1900 and 1950), yet that didn't stop us from becoming the world's richest economic power ever (not getting devastated by two wars helped).

By the way, the U.S. happens to be the only major western industrial nation that doesn't mandate vacation time. Not only that, Time magazine reports: "The average American worker earns 14 days off per year, but only takes 12 of them, according to a 2011 survey by Expedia. About a quarter of Americans don't have any vacation time at all." Many beg off earned "free time" for fear of losing pay or their jobs plus dread the undone workload if they recreate.

Life, Liberty and Obsession

In fact, leisure advances productivity, per the Atlantic, as the Harvard Business Review"showed that requiring business consultants to take time off every week actually boosted their productivity." Likewise, the Journal of Epidemiology found that "fluid intelligence," aligned with "problem solving, short-term memory, and creativity" was higher when working less than 40 hours vs. those slaving at 55 hour weeks. In short, overwork cuts efficiency while amplifying stress and health problems, impedes exercise and ups our reliance on coping mechanisms, namely alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Obsessive work can turn one's life into an earthly hell -- redeemed perhaps only if (Christian) suffering is the gateway to heaven.

Our Founders endorsed "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," not life, liberty and the pursuit of obsession. Work-related maladies (worsened by low-nutrition fast food and insufficient sleep) undermine the "life" and spirit of millions, thus our low national happiness rankings. Gallup polls spanning 2005-2011 discovered nations that work less and play more are happier, namely Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands. Instead, we boast about the "liberty" to work ourselves into an early grave.

Upend the Protestant Ethic

Why not start a new crusade to Upend the Protestant Ethic? Defy "Work is Salvation" or, for that matter, Time is Money, certainly that "Idle hands are the devil's workshop." Like virtue, work is rarely its own reward, of late the deluded modern version of Pie in the Sky. Other noxious fallacies follow suit: 1) that human worth and authority is a measure of how thoroughly we exploit nature (talk about trade-offs!); 2) that our economic dominance (funding military prowess) anoints us as God's chosen people, fit to rule the world. Great idea, lately, huh? Where exactly the Protestant tradition confirms that "might makes right," even endorses imperial pre-emption, I leave to religious scholars.  

The problem is now global, as we export our perverted version of "free" market capitalism with very expensive external costs, as in massive oil spills. Taking the Protestant work Ethic worldwide spreads the disease plus raises utterly unrealistic expectations that five+ billion people can live like "rich Americans." Implicit in Protestant Ethic "progress" is a terrible contradiction: industrialism that glorifies material success must expand exponentially to thrive and deliver goodies. Yet earthly resources are manifestly, painfully finite, worse still as populations grow, and that awful presumption tests non-negotiable constraints of nature. Mother Nature ultimately scoffs at our imagined human control.

Or as Benjamin Franklin might have repeated, against those who deny climatic disruptions staring us in the face, "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid." How hard must we work to find alternatives to the folly of glorying counter-productive, life-taking hard work -- that destroys rather than serves life?

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