This is the ninth entry of an extended series outlining capitalism, it's history, oppressive nature, and the fundamental problems with modern Western Christianity as its champion. This post explores the origin of the Christian/Capitalist ethic, specifically referencing Max Weber's works. Cited sources can be found here.
How then, did Christianity become the standard-bearer for capitalism? Weber suggests that this came about after the Protestant Reformation, during the rise of Calvinism. As Calvinism took hold and gained popularity in multiple Protestant sects, rational capitalism was also picking up speed (Weber, 1905). The core doctrine of Calvinism is predestination, which is the doctrine “that God eternally decreed the salvation of some and the damnation of others, not in view of the good or evil deeds they would do, but simply ‘because he willed it’” (Kilcullen, 1996). Salvation was not guaranteed based on strength of faith or on deeds performed. Rather, salvation was dependent upon the mystery of God’s will. This meant that “part of humanity is saved, the rest damned” (Weber, 1905, p. 742). This posed a crisis for Calvinists. How were they to know that they were predestined for salvation? For Christians, “God’s grace is, since His decrees cannot change, as impossible for those to whom He has granted it to lose as it is unattainable for those to whom He has denied it” (Weber, 1905, p. 751).
Since it is impossible to fully understand or know the will of God, Calvinists sought to alleviation from their “salvation anxiety.” A Calvinist cannot be “certain of his own election, he has at bottom only the answer that we should be content with the knowledge that God has chosen and depend further only… in Christ which is the result of true faith” (Weber, 1905, p. 827). There is no external difference between those predestined for salvation and those who are destined for eternal suffering. Therefore, Calvinists were forced to look for signs in their own existence as verification of salvation. The led Calvinists to “seek reassurance in… the belief that God signifies his favor by giving prosperity to the undertakings of the elect” (Kilcullen, 1996). According to Weber (1905), “In order to attain that self-confidence, intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means… it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace” (p. 850).
The Protestant faith was experiencing a debacle that had never quite been encountered before the Reformation. Members, especially those of the Calvinist persuasion, could not be reassured of their salvation by means of the priesthood. Instead, the only guarantee of salvation was through the divine will and foresight of God, which was unknown to the mortals. To alleviate this anxiety felt by believers for not knowing their eternal fate, they took cues from the world. It was deemed that material wealth was a sign of God’s good graces, a blessing bestowed upon the elect. Wealth became the measure of salvation, and spurred its accumulation. Thus, “In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves” (Weber, 1905, p. 867). By their warped thinking, the accumulation of material was a sign from the almighty that their salvation was assured (Weber, 1905).