Part VII – A Deeper Look at GLI: Reshaping the Protestant work ethic

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This web feature is Part VII in a series looking at the assumptions we have about guaranteed livable income. The first feature deconstructed the question of whether people would work if they had income security. Part II examined the issue of whether people have a right to income security, regardless of activity. Part III considered the availability of jobs in Canada, and whether it is reasonable to assume that every Canadian could have a job that would meet their needs. Part IV questioned whether policy makers and bureaucrats can truly and fairly judge the ability of others to engage in paid employment. Part V explored how our cultural notions of productivity have shaped our dominant perceptions about work. Part VI analyzed how our individualist notions of responsibility prevent us from adopting a holistic, communitarian understanding of responsibility.

“The Bible says, ‘If you do not work, you shall not eat.’” Several times I have heard this line pulled out as a trump card in conversations about poverty, justifying harsh attitudes towards the poor. This is bad exegesis of the verse in question, which was responding to a particular situation in which some Christians weren’t working because they were waiting for the imminent return of Christ, but it serves to highlight the religious importance of work and the moral implications of the work ethic.

Our Judeo-Christian heritage has contributed to a work ethic that shapes our understanding of poverty and income security, creating cultural attitudes that make many uncomfortable with the idea of guaranteed income security. Some people feel that a guaranteed livable income is not only economically unfeasible, it is immoral, because it rewards people who are not working.

In both Protestantism and Catholicism, work is portrayed as positive and important. Medieval Christianity prioritized the religious life (the priesthood or religious congregations) as the highest form of human activity. The Protestant Reformation broke with this tradition, and gave Western culture a sense of all work as vocation – a calling from God. Work therefore became a form of service to God, and spiritual dignity could be found even in manual labour. Calvinism further developed the sense that work is the will of God, highlighting the Christian duty of serving as God’s instruments on earth, participating in God’s work of transforming the world into the kingdom of God. Work therefore came to be deeply tied to what it meant to be a Protestant Christian.

Pope John Paul II also conveyed a profoundly positive sense of work in his 1981 papal encyclical, Laborem Exercens: On Human Work. “Work is a good thing for man (sic) – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’.” Work is also viewed as a “moral obligation,” a way of co-creating with God and therefore something all humans should be able to do. Because of this, unemployment is “in all cases an evil,” while work is a duty “in all the many meanings of the word.”

However, the religious nature of the work ethic should not be overstated. In my own Calvinist/Reformed upbringing, for example, the value of work was certainly emphasized but was never attached to money in any way. Our duty was to work hard at everything we did, at home, at school, as volunteers and in paid employment. Effort had no correlation to payment, and work was not seen as limited to the paid labour force. Money was not viewed as a particular blessing, and certainly didn’t say anything about your relative virtue. Your work effort, on the other hand, did.

The sociological nature of the Protestant work ethic is just as, if not more, important to our cultural understanding of work. Max Weber was the first to posit a connection between the Protestant ethic and capitalism in his 1905 work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argued that certain values associated with Protestantism such as viewing work as a vocation, profit as acceptable, and diligence and austerity as virtues contributed to the rise of capitalism. These values made hard work a social duty that contributed to the order of the community. Reinvesting profits in business ventures was seen as an acceptable use of profits, while charity towards those who were not working was seen as perverting the social order.

These beliefs remained part of Western culture even as it secularized. Work came to be seen as part of the natural social order, justified on the basis of its usefulness in maintaining the social order and economic system of capitalism. Work is believed to contribute to the economic well-being of the nation and to prevent the decay of the social fabric expressed in crime, addictions and poverty. Those who do not participate in paid work are thus understood as destabilizing to both our economic well-being and our social order.

However, from a Christian perspective, there are major problems with using the work ethic as a justification for withholding income support. First, our notion of a work ethic has been misapplied to discriminate against those who do not participate in paid work. Vocation is not limited to those activities which take place in the paid workforce, and poverty is not the punishment of the idle. It is time-consuming and can be hard work to be poor. Many working poor hold multiple low-waged jobs to try and make ends meet. Many more Canadians on social assistance struggle to care for their children, to meet basic needs through visits to food banks or community programs, to satisfy the demands of the Canadian social system, and to search for paid work or seek retraining. Not everyone who is poor lacks a good work ethic, just as not everyone with income security has a good work ethic.

Furthermore, the emphasis on work ethic can overshadow our Christian responsibility to provide justice to the poor. Christians are called to respect and protect the dignity of every individual created in the image of God. When poverty harms that dignity, we have an obligation to address poverty and to respond with justice, generosity and compassion to those who are poor. That is our moral obligation, not punishing poor people so that they will stop being poor.

Chandra Pasma is CPJ's former Public Justice Policy Analyst.

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