Christianity’s Role in the Occupy Wall Street Movement

As the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests continue to grow, I have been asking myself what role religion should play or has played in this entire situation, particularly how we, as a society, got to such income inequalities and to a culture that values such high profits at the expense of the worker. Is religion to blame? Or, is the supposed secularization of society to blame? Can religion help to fix the glaring problem? Would it make it worse? Should the two topics even be considered in the same conversation?

The Occupy movement’s message, as I see it, is about morality. It is about the fact that despite the division of labor, we all deserve equal access and treatment that is indicative of our humanity. We, as a society, are in this together. We have to treat each other fairly and as we, ourselves, would like to be treated.

I have to begin by asking how did we get here, as a society? Ascetic Protestantism played a major role in the institution of modern capitalism. One could aver that the capitalistic system of economics was the progeny of an organized structure of religious ideals that originated in the writings of Martin Luther and the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and was further advanced into its current manifestation as a result of the pioneering ideas of the protestant scholar and theologian John Calvin and the pillars of the ascetic Protestant faith.

According to Max Weber, Protestants, due to doctrinal and ethical differences between themselves and other Christians, are more likely to ascend to the higher positions of administrative responsibility in order to gain more monetary privileges, whereas other Christian workers are simply inclined to remain complacent at the level of expert-laborer. The expert-laborers, typically Catholics, seek to only acquire enough means to feed their families; they feel as though they need nothing else. In fact, to accumulate massive quantities of goods is considered a grave sin in the Catholic mindset due to the emphasis on monasticism and personal sacrifice posited by St. Augustine.

This generalized distinction between two forms of Christianity has been elaborated upon so as to accentuate the fundamental difference between the Protestant and Catholic attitude towards manual labor. Establishing this fact serves to demonstrate that the Protestant approach to work is unique to Protestant beliefs and practices, or, more specifically, that the Protestants’ ethics and ideals heavily contributed to the institution of capitalism, as humanity experiences it today, and also fostered a dramatic change in the economic life of the present social order.

To further establish the peculiarity of this Protestant phenomenon, Weber details a thematic element in the writings of early Protestant American intellectuals, such as Benjamin Franklin, which he calls the ‘ethos’ of Protestant thinkers. In Franklin’s work, Weber sees certain categories of virtue that encapsulate modesty, resourcefulness, and morality, among other such merits. The presence of these virtues, which are manifestations of religious piety, set the stage for the changes that are to occur in the economic life of American society. These particular notions of virtue, exemplified in society and coupled with religious fervor, can do nothing else but ignite a change in the social system.

Weber specifically notes B. Franklin’s attempt to acquire profit through a rational means. This rationalist philosophy, incorporated into economic ideology embodies the qualities that are paradigmatic of the way in which the Protestant approach to life has altered the very foundation of the social structure and, in turn, has brought about a significant change in the economic order of society.

Martin Luther, the preeminent catalyst for the ensuing institution of modern capitalism, single-handedly inaugurated a cultural revolution, in more ways than one. Weber declares that Martin Luther’s impact on the future economic life of society was rooted in his articulation of the notion of ‘calling,’ which he defines as “… a life-task, a definite field in which to work.”

Weber further contends that the concept of a ‘calling’ has no historical existence in any civilization of Antiquity or within the tradition of Catholic Christendom. It is strictly a Protestant idea. This novel belief united the sense of obligations one has within society with the sacred establishment of religious accountability. In other words, the religious convictions of a group of believers produced a dramatic change in the way in which society understood economic structure.

Weber writes, “the only way of living acceptably to G-d was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfillment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That [is] his calling.”

It can be ascertained, by a perusal of their writings, that both Luther and Calvin would have agreed that fulfilling one’s calling in the world has a salvific effect upon the individual. Weber declares that this belief would enable subsequent Protestants to effectively use Luther’s pioneering teachings as the foundation upon which to build their own notions of ascetic moral behavior and its relationship to worldly participation. This relationship between religious convictions and the economic life of society, according to Weber, would transpire into what would eventually become modern capitalism.

Luther’s ideologies, however, would not provide a systematic explanation of the development of modern-day capitalism. In fact, Luther despised such conversations. There are numerous sects of ascetic Protestantism that have, in fact, played a part in changing the economic life of society. The most influential sect of Protestant Christianity that has contributed to this sociological occurrence is Calvinism. The most prominent doctrine of this sect was that of Predestination, which maintains that G-d’s grace of salvation was only allotted to a small minority of believers before the genesis of time and that there is no way of changing this predetermined divine mandate.

This doctrine of Predestination created in believers a desire to know that they were among those elected to salvation. Therefore, the believers began a quest for proof that their individual salvation had, in fact, been granted. According to Calvin’s teachings, the world was created solely for the purpose of maximizing the opportunity to glorify G-d. To accomplish this feat, the believer had to fulfill the commandments daily to the best of their ability.

For example, love amongst fellow people had to be exemplified genuinely in the service of G-d and not in the service of one’s own self-interest. Good works on behalf of humanity, along with other expressions of devotion, became the imprimatur of G-d on the believer’s status as a member of the elect. Weber states, “they are the technical means, not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation.”

Such an approach to humanity’s salvation and to relationship with G-d generated a unique code of conduct amongst Calvinistic Christendom. It constructed an ethical behavior that dominated the Calvinists’ entire approach to life, fashioning a methodical pursuit of union with G-d. This important element of Protestantism, for Weber, caused the practice of asceticism to shift from the solitary life of the darkened monastic cells to the illuminated, everyday, mundane existence of common Christians. Weber writes:

“[They] … had developed a systematic method of rational conduct with the purpose of overcoming the status naturœ, to free man from the power of irrational impulses and his dependence on the world and on nature. It attempted to subject man to the supremacy of a purposeful will, to bring his actions under constant self-control with a careful consideration of their ethical consequences.”

The incorporation of this ascetic attitude into the thoughts and conduct of everyday people was instrumental in furthering the Protestant faith’s social impact on economic life and the development of what Weber terms the ‘spirit of capitalism’; it became the ‘Protestant ethic.’

Weber also provides analysis on the Pietist movement that subsequently arose within the revivals of the Reformed Church. The fundamental contribution of Pietism, in Weber’s assertion of rational asceticism and later modern capitalism, was its constant suppression of emotion and its stringent adherence to a disciplined maturity of the believers’ calling in the world. The Pietists indefatigably struggled to keep the ascetic process of salvation present in the daily affairs of all those working within their own specific calling. Thus, Pietism’s influence on Christianity infiltrated many other various forms of non-Calvinistic Protestantism and furthered the agenda of salvation as manifested through a consistent life of good works.

This doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s activity eventually allowed the Quakers to formulate their own understanding of what it meant to have the Holy Spirit working in their midst; they expounded the notion of G-d’s revelation, which ultimately led to the “devaluation of all sacraments as means to salvation, and thus accomplished the religious rationalization of the world in its most extreme form.”

The Quakers believed that remaining silent and intuitively awaiting the presence of G-d was the only way for the Holy Spirit to work amongst them. This waiting in silence permitted them to deny the passions and submit to reason and rationality, “which was of the greatest significance for the development of the spirit of capitalism.”

Weber states that the genesis of modern capitalism was brought about by a religious conviction when he states, “this rationalization of conduct within this world, but for the sake of the world beyond, was the consequence of the concept of calling of ascetic Protestantism.” Weber masterfully articulates the social implication of a religious ethic and its powerful influence upon society’s ethical approach to the discipline of economics.

The religious discipline of Protestantism penetrated many areas of the economic sphere of civilization and also created many ethical standards for life. Protestants believed that rest and relaxation was indeed for the saints of G-d, but that they were only to be enacted in the other life. Moreover, misuse of time was considered to be one of the gravest sins of humanity. This ideology subsequently led to the belief that almost any form of recreation was tantamount to disobedience to G-d.

This left ascetic Protestants time for little else but working toward their salvation by laboring in their calling to G-d, often through their worldly occupations. Weber opines that the ascetics adhered to the attitude that the “impulsive enjoyment of life, which leads away both from work in a calling and from religion, was as such the enemy of rational asceticism…”

All the ideals and practices mentioned in relation to the religious communities of ascetic Protestantism empowered the individuals to live lives of strict adherence to a modest usage of the wealth they had accumulated by their constant laboring towards salvation. Weber states, “when the limitation of consumption is combined with this release of acquisitive activity, the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save.”

Since the ethical and moral choice, in the eyes of the Protestant G-d, was to avoid indulging in the luxuries afforded to people with an abundance of money, the ascetic Protestants continued to work, as G-d commands, and reinvest their capital earnings, thus giving birth to modern capitalism, and initiating a social change in the economic life of society.

The institution of religion can, at times, help to cultivate change within society; religion is one of the most powerful impetuses for societal change. There are instances when religion has had a particularly negative influence over society, especially during the 19th century in the Protestant South, where the institution of slavery flourished. There are, however, occasions when religion has contributed to the betterment of humanity. For example, American society was changed by the profound influence of the abolitionists.

There is no doubt that religion is powerful and influential; that it does both good and bad. So, what will it do here, now? Where/what is our “calling” with regards to the income inequalities that exist, the systematic suppression of the poor’s attempt at a better life, the ludicrous notion that G-d wants us to be wealthy? What is our ‘religious ethic’ now that our voice seems to be silent in matters of wealth?  Can Christianity’s message take us to a moral and ethical capitalistic system now that we know the perils of wealth and income gaps?

I think that there is no doubt that religion helped us get where we are, but it seems that we we lost our voice in the conversation. At least, we lost the element of our voice that calls for the responsible society. Religion’s role in modern capitalism and modern U.S. economic policy, I think, has yet to be determined with any certainty. Speaking from the Eastern Orthodox Christian perspective, I have to ask where is the voice of our faith in the conversation of modern wealth? I remember Jesus saying, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, a “media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content.” The photograph is of the Occupy Wall Street Movement by David Shankbone.

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4 thoughts on “Christianity’s Role in the Occupy Wall Street Movement

    1. Thanks. I read your article as well. It was really good! It is interesting to see how all the different faiths are coming together to have their voices heard. I am excited to see where it goes.

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