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Status Symbols, Predestination and the Protestant Work Ethic

Jun 26, 2003
Michael Hogan

We all live in a Yellow Submarine called a status symbol. Some of us have additional status symbols in the garage. Payments for two luxury vehicles can be as much as the mortgage. Why do folks work so hard to keep up with the Jones?
The answer begins to unfold five centuries ago, when a 16th century French born Swiss Protestant theologian named John Calvin became presumptuous. Calvin presumed to know Gods plan. In time, John Calvin convinced the world we are predestined by Godís plan to head for Hell or Heaven. In this, Calvin believed God has an iron will and will not change a manís destination because it is all pre-planned and permanent.
John Calvinís theological theory became so prevalent that people began to change their lifestyles and spending habits because of Calvinism. Today, many protestant sects are referred to as Calvinist. Certainly, Calvinism continues to be well known, nor is it limited to Protestants. In Calvinist Holland, it is well understood that Catholics and Jews are Calvinists, as well.
How great an affect did Calvinism have on the world and does Calvinism continue to affect our world today? Three and a half centuries after John Calvin a German gentleman named Max Weber became one of the three founders of sociology by studying the affect of Calvinism on us all. In the end, Weber considers Calvin largely responsible for the great success of Capitalism. How so you say? To answer this question, we must go back to a previous question: why do folks work so hard to keep up with the Jones?
While no Calvinist knows for sure if he is going to Heaven or Hell, many want to give the appearance of being chosen by God to go to Heaven. By Max Weberís time in the late 19th Century, beliefs were much as they are today. It was believed a manís success or lack of success was determined by God, just as his destination to Heaven or Hell.
Robber Barons and Princes (depending on which side of the Atlantic one gained ones position) supported the notion of success and failure being God given. Mass media continues to support this theory, along with its corollary: Social Darwinism.
The accouterments of success became sought after as proof a person was headed for Heaven. People worked harder than ever for these trappings of a life headed for Heaven. Multitudes took on mountains of debt to appear chosen by God. Some wound up in the suburbs with two luxury cars in the garage, trying to convince our neighbors we have been chosen by God for a walk through Heavens gate.
In the end, Max Weber concluded Calvinism was responsible for all the overachievers who made Capitalism a success proving they were on their way to the Pearly Gates, rather than Fire and Brimstone. Weber immortalized his theory by calling it the Protestant Work Ethic. Here again, my Dutch cousins taught me Calvinism belongs to Catholics, Jews, Muslims Hindus and all people.
An obscure 16th Century theologianís theory is responsible for much (not all) of Capitalismís success and our need to keep up with the Jones. This according to a theory called the Protestant Work Ethic by Max Weber.
If you think Max Weber has heavy duty, industrial strength, no nonsense theories, you must meet a second father of sociology Ė Emile Durkheim. There is a reason the world continues to read such towers of thoughtful power.
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