March 14, 2005
AMERICA THE UNHAUNTED:
The Calvinist Manifesto (FRANCIS FUKUYAMA, 3/13/05, NY Times Book Review)
THIS year is the 100th anniversary of the most famous sociological tract ever written, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max Weber. It was a book that stood Karl Marx on his head. Religion, according to Weber, was not an ideology produced by economic interests (the ''opiate of the masses,'' as Marx had put it); rather, it was what had made the modern capitalist world possible. In the present decade, when cultures seem to be clashing and religion is frequently blamed for the failures of modernization and democracy in the Muslim world, Weber's book and ideas deserve a fresh look.
Weber's argument centered on ascetic Protestantism. He said that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination led believers to seek to demonstrate their elect status, which they did by engaging in commerce and worldly accumulation. In this way, Protestantism created a work ethic -- that is, the valuing of work for its own sake rather than for its results -- and demolished the older Aristotelian-Roman Catholic doctrine that one should acquire only as much wealth as one needed to live well. In addition, Protestantism admonished its believers to behave morally outside the boundaries of the family, which was crucial in creating a system of social trust. [...]
''The Protestant Ethic'' raises much more profound questions about the role of religion in modern life than most discussions suggest. Weber argues that in the modern world, the work ethic has become detached from the religious passions that gave birth to it, and that it now is part of rational, science-based capitalism. Values for Weber do not arise rationally, but out of the kind of human creativity that originally inspired the great world religions. Their ultimate source, he believed, lay in what he labeled ''charismatic authority'' -- in the original Greek meaning of ''touched by God.'' The modern world, he said, has seen this type of authority give way to a bureaucratic-rational form that deadens the human spirit (producing what he called an ''iron cage'') even as it has made the world peaceful and prosperous. Modernity is still haunted by ''the ghost of dead religious beliefs,'' but has largely been emptied of authentic spirituality. This was especially true, Weber believed, in the United States, where ''the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions.'' [...]
SURPRISINGLY, the Weberian vision of a modernity characterized by ''specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart'' applies much more to modern Europe than to present-day America. Europe today is a continent that is peaceful, prosperous, rationally administered by the European Union and thoroughly secular. Europeans may continue to use terms like ''human rights'' and ''human dignity,'' which are rooted in the Christian values of their civilization, but few of them could give a coherent account of why they continue to believe in such things. The ghost of dead religious beliefs haunts Europe much more than it does America.
It can hardly be a coincidence that the American Republic proceeds from a concise and coherent account of the Judeo-Christian values of human dignity and rights that even schoolchildren know by heart:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Significantly, this provides not just the Foundation of our political structures but limitations upon them such that bureaucratic-rational forms have always been resisted here, with more success than failure. Posted by Orrin Judd at March 14, 2005 12:00 AM