Thursday, January 19, 2006

What if the Reformation never happened? part two

2. Left unchecked by the church, the rising capitalists of Europe would have led the secularization process with disastrous effects for the political and moral situation of the continent.

Most of you have undoubtedly heard or even used the phrase, “the Protestant (or puritan) work ethic.” That phrase is generally associated with the work of sociologist Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930). Weber argued that the modern period, which he dated back to the Reformation, represented the coalescence of two powerful forces to create an ethic and ethos; those two forces were Calvinism and capitalism. And for Weber, “capitalism was the social counterpart of Calvinist theology.” Appealing to the idea of vocation, Weber argued that Calvinist theology held a calling not to be “a condition in which the individual is born, but a strenuous and exacting enterprise to be chosen by himself and to be pursued with a sense of religious responsibility.” As a result, mercantile business, “once regarded as perilous to the soul,” now had a spiritual purpose, and the pursuit of riches, once feared as an enemy to religion, now was an ally to spiritual growth.

While Weber’s thesis has been subjected to withering critiques and spirited rejoinders, one historical fact from the period is the rising European middle class, connected to the rise of capitalism, who united with the Reformers to topple oppressive popes and priests, and eventually in the seventeenth century monarchs. The sixteenth century itself was a period of incredible population growth, increasing overall from 60 to 85 million people. This population moved to the cities throughout the century: in 1500, only five cities could claim 100,000 people, but by the end of the century at least a dozen could do so. These cities became centers for change, the place where bankers, skilled artisans, and scholars partnered with merchants in order to challenge the prevailing elite.

This was particularly the case in Calvin’s Geneva. As Alister McGrath noted in his wonderful biography of John Calvin, Geneva transitioned from older style capitalism to a more modern form of capitalism at precisely the time that the city achieved independence and Calvin’s reforms were taking shape. After a period of economic recession in 1535 to 1540, the city-state experienced a twenty year period of growth that coincided with the decision to invite Calvin to return to the city in order to reinaugurate and further the Reformation there. To be sure, McGrath is careful to stress that the association of capitalism and Calvinism in Geneva was “largely accidental; there is no necessary historical or ideological connection between them,” in terms of causation. Yet one could make the argument that while Calvinism may not have caused capitalism, it certainly did much to restrain it and to make it more compassionate.

The chief example of this compassionate capitalism, if one could speak of such a thing, was the social welfare movement that Calvin promoted in Geneva. The outpouring of benevolence, directed through the churches, into a central “general hospital” for the care of the poor and sick, helped to soften the increasing displacement caused by population growth, war, plague, and famine. This hospital employed deacons directly in the disbursement of funds and in caring for the poor and sick, creating a “hospital” movement throughout Reformed countries. Eventually, these hospitals devoted themselves to caring for the sick alone, but they were part of Calvin’s vision of a word and deed ministry in Geneva. This care for the suffering was also part of Calvin’s rationale for encouraging the development of wealth. Riches were not to be spent on oneself in luxurious wastefulness, but distributed for the furtherance of God’s kingdom. In order to encourage this, the city-state of Geneva organized general collections, either to meet some especial crisis or to aid refugees within its borders. By caring for the poor compassionately, Calvin’s Geneva restrained some of the selfishness inherent in the capitalist economic system.

But imagine if there were no Reformation Geneva, or indeed any relevant church to check, channel, and challenge capitalist aspirations. The scenes of eighteenth century France or nineteenth century England, with the marked division between elites and the poor; the boiling ferment on the streets ready to explode at any moment in revolution; and the ever-ready possibility of a Napoleon or Bismarck to unite the nations under his nationalistic banner—all of these would have been present much earlier, without the charitable and compassionate works that Protestantism offered in Germany or England.

Indeed, it would not be too much to claim that the political structures of Europe, which emphasized the divine rights of kings and continuity of royal families, would crumble against the rising popular tide—as they actually did in seventeenth century England and more generally in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—only to be replaced with figures much worse than a Cromwell or Napoleon. At least, with Cromwell, he attempted to be regulated by Scripture and divine providence, though it sometimes led him in strange directions. No, the figures that would have emerged in a world without Protestantism would have looked much more like Mussolini, Stalin, or Kim Jong-Il—amoral dictators seeking to unite the populace in a pagan devotion to the state, financed by a rising upper class that received special favors.

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