The Protestant Ethic and Western Civilization

William H. Young

“I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shores,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835). “They willed to their descendants,” he explains,” the most appropriate habits, ideas, and mores to make a republic.”

The Protestant (Puritan) ethic of Western civilization, esteeming literacy, thrift, self-reliance, and diligent personal effort, became a key element of the individual’s path to economic mobility and independence in America, leading to membership in the middle class and above. The Protestant ethic included self-mastery over hedonism and self-indulgence and a strong work ethic. It venerated knowledge and the dignity of human labor, giving life meaningful structure.

In today’s America, some individuals still practice such an ethic, but the vast majority, especially our Millennial Generation—8- to 29-year olds, born between 1982 and 2003—seem never to have even heard of it. Rather, today’s imbued ethic is to feel good about yourself, regardless of how you act or what you do. In now-mediocre education, literacy and knowledge are declining and little honored. In a culture of praise for unexceptional acts, where everyone gets a trophy just for participating, the social construction of self-esteem has robbed individuals of the motivation to improve through competition and achievement. Self-indulgence and debt have replaced self-reliance and thrift. Immersion in social media has replaced a labor ethic for the workplace.

German sociologist Max Weber analyzed the distinctive elements of Western civilization, including economic growth. He noted that the most prosperous, liberal, and rationalist regions of the West were also regions where Calvinist Protestant Christianity had taken hold. He argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905) that the origins of that “spirit” were in the religious ideas that began with the Reformation. Capitalism, for Weber, was the most advanced economic system ever developed over the course of human history. While he addressed its uniqueness to Western civilization, his analysis was framed by America. Weber cites Benjamin Franklin as the prototypical practitioner of a secular Protestant ethic.

Our founding republican principles included that ethic for individuals participating in a reciprocal exchange economy shaped by the nature of man. In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (2005), Harvard professor of Political Economy Benjamin Friedman argues that the distinguishing feature of the American experience, emphasized by Tocqueville but in fact dating from much earlier was classlessness: “By opening the opportunity for advancement, classlessness heightened the incentives—indeed it acted as a discomfiting spur—prodding economic effort.” Classlessness provided an impetus—along with the Protestant work ethic carried here by the Puritans—for the unprecedented economic growth that Americans as a whole have enjoyed over a span of more than two centuries. At the same time, however, the underlying intense concern of individuals for getting ahead exposed Americans all the more to frustration and resentment at times when their hopes were disappointed.”

But in the American academy of the 1960s, the Protestant ethic became a specific target for assault. Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School—cultural Marxism—dismissed the “patriarchal compulsion to work” as serving the interests of class society, and led the turn to sexual liberation and expressive individualism. Epicurean self-regard replaced Emersonian self-reliance.

Today, fully 37 percent of Millennials, many of whom are college graduates, are unemployed or underemployed. And 59 percent of parents support their adult children who are not in college. In a global economy that increasingly requires strong cognitive skills, Millennials have not been provided such skills by our education system and have not been nurtured by parents and culture to acquire the work ethic necessary to compete with a harder working and better educated global work force in the marketplace.

What does the Millennial Generation see as the answer? They think that government should: ensure that everyone has a good job and standard of living. They are more likely than any age group previously surveyed to believe that “it is the responsibility of government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves” and that “government has a role in individual achievement of the American Dream.” (Madland and Logan, 2008) The state is to continue the role of indulgent and protective parents or shoulder the role not fulfilled by neglectful parents.

But the state has never been and is not the economic solution for America, and government at all levels no longer has the financial ability to fulfill false expectations and promises. It is largely lack of education and skills and the entitlement rather than work ethic that are engendering a restive new underclass of unemployables and dividing a nation that has never viewed itself as segmented by class. Classlessness threatens to be replaced by class envy and warfare, taught within public schools and increasingly a message within our politics.

In Part II of his April 2011 essay, Is Our Civilization a Bubble?  Stephen Balch considers whether our civilization has created its own mega-bubble by its runaway expectations of entitlement and concludes that “an accompanying misunderstanding of humanity’s condition is what threatens to puncture it.” The Millennials have grown up in a bubble inflated by failure of parenting and nurture, disregard and deterioration of education, and the values of a social media culture. But “more than two-thirds of Millennial women” are opposed to the idea of mothers returning to traditional roles in a family (Madland and Logan, 2008) that have so benefited children throughout earlier American history, demonstrating the continuing misunderstanding that threatens to puncture the family and education bubble.

There are other contributors to the dilemma of the cosseted Millennial Generation: slow economic growth; an education system, public and college, that is not meeting societal needs; the self-esteem syndrome; and the state of marriage, single-parenthood, and the family. These contributors will be addressed in separate articles. It is clear, however, that the demise of the Protestant ethic—esteeming knowledge and literacy, thrift, self-reliance, and diligent personal effort—is a major reason for a growing underclass of under-motivated Americans.

Tocqueville presciently identified Puritanism as a key element of what became the American Dream over two centuries. We need to reinstate the Protestant ethic as an ideal if we are to sustain a healthy middle-class in ever more challenging economic times.  And ironically, while our supposed saviors of sustainability may not wish to become Puritans, the Protestant ethic would form the right kind of ascetic ideal that would address contemporary materialism and improve our nation’s future.

The academy should reverse its dismissal of the Protestant ethic and stress the need for our college-educated elite again to instill it in our society and culture.  And colleges and universities should once again teach the wisdom of Western civilization and American history (as recommended by NAS) regarding the proper role of individuals within our capitalist economic system.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain 

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