The Capitalist Ethic and the Spirit of Protestantism

In July of 1897 Max Weber had a fiery altercation with his father which untethered him emotionally. His parents had come to visit their son who, at age 33, had ascended to a professorship of political economics at the prestigious Heidelberg University. Max had experienced something of a meteoric rise in academia by virtue of his relentless discipline and insatiable appetite to read and to write, often working into the wee hours to produce a tireless array of academic publications.

Perhaps Max had inherited his single-mindedness, rigidity, and discipline from his unbending father. It may, in fact, have been those very qualities which so troubled him about his dad. During that visit, years of pent up stewing erupted and Max accused his father of being overbearing and capricious toward his mother, a deeply religious woman and devout Calvinist. The squabble escalated and his parents cut short their visit. Max and his father parted in anger and a month later his father died unexpectedly. Weber entered a dark night of the soul from which he never completely recovered, but it may well have been the journey into deep depression and reflection which spawned one of the greatest works of sociology.

Weber experienced a number of nervous breakdowns over the following four or more years and was eventually forced to relinquish his teaching post. Historian and biographer, Fritz Ringer, ventured that Max suffered from some sort of bi-polar disorder manifesting in periods of frenetic work, unforgiving insomnia, and despondency so deep that Max could spend the better part of a day looking pensively out a window.[1] His wife and second cousin, Marriane, wrote, “everything was too much for him; he could not read, write, talk, walk or sleep without torment. All his mental and some of his physical functions failed him.”[2] Max Weber had come under the spell of a debilitating mental illness. Sometime around 1900 he was briefly committed to a sanatorium.

It was in this period of lostness that Max began wrestling with issues of faith and the impact of religious conviction on economics. Perhaps it was his mother’s ascetic commitment to Calvinism in contrast with his father’s indulgence of wealth which spurred his reflections. Whatever the inspiration, Weber emerged from the deepest part of his darkness around 1903 and began to publish once again. In 1904 he wrote what would become a cornerstone for the field of sociology and a controversial text linking the Protestant Reformation with Capitalism. He titled his essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

What was it that connected these two disparate ideologies? Capitalism functioned well before the Reformation and thrives in other faith traditions, and Protestantism is neutral if not antithetical to the accumulation or leveraging of capital for profit. Yet there exists some important, almost symbiotic relationship between them. Both were essentially movements away from State control, whether of the church or of the economy, and they placed the destiny of one’s spiritual journey and one’s ability to create wealth into the hands of the masses. They were people’s movements – slave revolts. But that's where the similarities end.

For Weber, the spirit of Capitalism is essentially greed couched in the language of profit. He believed Protestantism had translated one outcropping of greed, accumulation, into an ethical imperative. Working hard and thereby making lots of money reflects upon your goodness or even your godliness. Therefore the accumulation of money is a sign of “the elect,”[3] as evidenced by working hard, spending little, accumulating much and refusing to allow money to sit idle. The spirit of Capitalism has no traction in societies that are satisfied with daily bread and choose to enjoy more time over more money.

I have titled this blog “The Capitalist Ethic and the Spirit of Protestantism.” I suggest in this twist on the title of Weber’s classic essay that, in fact, capitalism, or at least the ”ethic” which drives capitalism in the 21st century - a quest for increase without morality, has nothing whatever to do with the spirit of Protestantism. The capitalist ethic, which has served to concentrate wealth into fewer hands and has created a culture of greed and covetousness, is antithetical to the core message of Protestantism which involves the decentralization of the gospel message, making it accessible to everyone, and teaches that to gain the world is to lose one’s soul. In my mind the spirit of Protestantism and of Christianity as a whole is not so much concerned with a work ethic. Jesus was, and will always be, the people’s savior. His attention was particularly given to the poor, the disabled, the outcast, the forgotten, and the excluded. It is Lazarus begging at the gate of the rich man who is the prime beneficiary of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed in his teachings and ushered in with his resurrection. Capitalism today, on the other hand, works best for those who already possess substantial resources or great power and its ethic centers around profit at any cost.

That capitalism opened the door for masses of people to create new wealth apart from the State or a "landed" family was a boon to a poor European population. This economic potential to rise out of a feudal existence of dependence upon a lord should be celebrated. But as is often the case with something which begins with benevolence, our liberators can grow into our tyrants.

There are a handful of ways I believe the capitalist “ethic” of increase at any cost has assaulted the spirit of Protestantism. I’ll briefly explore these over the coming weeks.

  • Money and Marketing

    The capitalist “ethic” has contributed to a corporate, empire-building mentality, including an obsession with finances and a consumerist approach.

  • Individualism

    Private ownership is a pillar to the capitalist ethic and has meant that we are no longer dependent on a community and has spawned a love of possessions and self reliance.

  • Metrics

    Protestants love to count. Whether churches, baptisms, converts, missionaries or ministry budgets, the annual reports for Protestant organizations are full of numbers. We act as though the “Great Commission” of Christ was some sort of numbers game rather than about the reign of God over all things.

  • Program Orientation

    With the assistance of a capitalist ethic we have turned the invitation to participate with God in establishing a realm/domain/kingdom into a formula to grow a congregation or missions agency or program.

I’ll be exploring these and other things in order to call for the church to broaden her imagination in how we understand and follow a God who will not be confined to a capitalist worldview.

1 Fritz Ringer (2004)Max Weber: An Intellectual Biography, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, p. 2

2 Marianne Weber (1988 edition), Max Weber: A Biography, New Brunswick, NY: Transaction Publishers, p. 242

3 Predestination was one motivator, according to Weber, for the Calvinist to work hard. Since one’s eternal election was unknown, godly virtues such as hard work were confidence builders that one was chosen for salvation and actively engaged in the process of sanctification. 


Capitalism with its wealth is the lifeline of the kingdom's work, wouldn't you agree? After hearing Pr. 10:22 all my life -- the blessings of The Lord makes rich and he adds no sorrow to it. -- I studied that phrase throughout the Bible-- the blessing of The Lord. And I discovered that "sorrow" meant painful labor. . . Interesting. With God's blessing our labor won't be painful, but it will be prosperous

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