A new book examines the work ethic in America.

Something is wrong.

Americans are not working much, and they are not working well. Our rate of production as a country is in trouble because of it. But that’s not all. Pollster Lou Harris found some years ago that 63 percent of American workers believed that people don’t work as hard as they did ten years ago: 78 percent said people are taking less pride in their work; 69 percent thought workmanship is inferior; and 73 percent believed workers are less motivated.

What has happened to the industry and productivity that made this country the marvel of the industrialized world?

Americans have largely forgotten the place of thrift, industry, diligence, and perseverance—ideals summed up by the words work ethic. From the sturdy Scottish Protestants to the Italian Catholics and enterprising Jewish immigrants, from the tiny country churches to the synagogues to the grand cathedrals of the cities, America was built by a religious people. And one of the basic beliefs they brought with them was that, in the words of writer Arthur Burns, “their work mattered to God.”

They understood that work is much more than just a need to keep busy or bring home a paycheck. Meaningful work is a fundamental dimension of human existence. Set within us from the beginning, this purposeful nature drives us to work hard, to be productive, to create, and to accumulate the results of our labor. Work is thus a moral imperative, which is the source of ethic in work ethic—probably one of the most misunderstood terms in the English language.

The work ethic—commonly called the Protestant work ethic—is largely credited by many with industrializing the West and fueling America’s incredible economic growth. For many people, however, it conjures up simple notions about hard work or images of black-robed Puritans who preached about God as the Great Taskmaster, cracking his whip over poor humanity. Not only is that picture a caricature, but the work ethic that originally made America strong traces its roots much further back than the Puritans. Looking back can help us understand what has gone wrong, and how it can be righted.

Scripture’S High View Of Labor

From the beginning of the world there was work, for at the beginning there was Creation—the work of God. When he rested on the seventh day, “he rested from all the work of creating he had done,” and God pronounced his work “good” (Gen. 1:31; 2:3; all Scripture references from the NIV).

God called the human race to cultivate the world and exercise dominion over it. This was a call to work, to perform both manual labor (pruning the trees and tilling the field) and intellectual labor (naming the animals). One was not set above the other as greater or more important—a mistake frequently made by subsequent civilizations.

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This high view of labor, with its just compensation resulting in private property, was subsequently enshrined in the Ten Commandments: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.… You shall not steal.… You shall not covet your neighbor’s house … his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20:8–11, 15, 17).

For the Jew, work was a gift from God: “It is good and proper for a man … to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun … to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God” (Eccles. 5:18–19).

Christianity carried the Old Testament view forward and enlarged it. In many ways, Christianity has always been a working person’s faith. As a carpenter in Nazareth, Jesus worked with his hands, and his followers were working people who rose before dawn to drag smelly fishing nets through the waters of Galilee to earn a living.

The early Christians were working-class folks who abhorred idleness and made work a requirement in the early church. “If a man will not work,” Paul said bluntly, “he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). And those who did work were to share the results of their labor with the needy. Many New Testament passages urge Christ’s followers to use their gifts for the service of others.

When the barbarian hordes overran Western civilization, this high view of work was preserved in the monastic communities. Carrying out the commandment to work, the monks built enclaves of industry, learning, scholarship, and beauty. They drained swamps, built bridges and roads, and invented labor-saving devices.

During the late Middle Ages, a form of voluntary association—the guild—grew up among the workers. Designed to promote the workers’ common interest, guilds also set standards for good workmanship, encouraged active participation in civic affairs, expected moral behavior, and often required faithful religious observance. The guilds maintained high ethical standards for approving weights and measures, and the members prided themselves that nothing would leave their shops that was not of the highest quality. Workers began taking satisfaction not only in the results of their own labor, but in their fellow guild members’ work as well.

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The true foundation of Europe’s magnificent cathedrals was not stone, but the understanding that work was a collaboration with God. That was why the builders stationed angels at the heights; they knew God saw what they were doing and cared.

Unfortunately, through these centuries a vestige of Greek dualism—which saw manual work as a curse—persisted. Monastic orders divided themselves into lay brothers, who did the manual labor, and those who pursued the “higher” or intellectual tasks.

Collaborating With God

Then one man with great determination and courage, Martin Luther, challenged the ethos of the Middle Ages. Most make the mistake of seeing the Reformation strictly in theological terms. But equally profound have been the consequences in the political, social, and economic realms.

Politically, the Reformation planted the seeds of democracy and the rule of law. Socially, the Reformation struck at society’s dualistic view of work. Just as they saw that the church comprised all the people of God, not just the clergy, so the Reformers saw all work—sacred and secular, intellectual and manual—as a way of serving God.

The works of monks and priests in God’s sight, wrote Luther, “are in no way whatever superior to the works of a farmer laboring in the field, or of a woman looking after her home.” The view that scrubbing floors held as much dignity as occupying the pulpit democratized the work ethic. It meant that what mattered was that each individual understood his or her calling or vocation; in that way all individuals collaborated with God in the grand design of the universe, working for his glory, the common good, and their own fulfillment.

This teaching about vocation also challenged existing social values by encouraging care for others. As Luther wrote: “Man does not live for himself alone … but he lives also for all men on earth.” In this vein, Calvin encouraged workers to produce more than they needed so they could give surpluses to those in need.

All this drastically affected the economic situation of the day. Until the Reformation, the church viewed most forms of trade carried on for profit as inherently immoral. But the Reformers maintained that all work, including that of the artisan or merchant, could be pleasing to God. Business was liberated, providing the essential incentives for the work ethic and thus fueling the great industrial revolution of the West.

Straighteners Of Crooked Places

The most precious cargo carried with the shiploads of immigrants who set sail for the New World seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity was their view of work. Primarily Puritans and Quakers, they came, as historian David Rodgers notes, “as laborers for their Lord, straighteners of crooked places, engaged in a task filled with hardship, deprivation and toil.”

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Contrary to what is often supposed, the much-maligned Puritans did not seek wealth as the ultimate reward; neither did they make the mistake of some moderns and worship work itself. They worshiped God through their work, which enabled them to treat success with equanimity and failure without regret.

The virtue of work thereby became as deeply ingrained in American culture as democracy. Over succeeding generations this ethic produced a thriving society and later fueled vast increases in invention, productivity, and wealth.

In the midnineteenth century, however, the ethic began to erode, partly because of the very society it helped to create. In the view of writer Sherwood Wirt, this loss was directly connected with the rise of a technical civilization: “The calling lost its vertical bearings in the incessant whirr of machinery and the grime of the mill town.… As the modern world awoke to its material strength and shook off the disciplines of the Puritan way of life, it found that the doctrine of the secular calling had become unnecessary.… Vocation became simply ‘occupation.’ ”

The result was a hollowed-out version of the work ethic. God was no longer the sacred object of human labors; instead, labor itself became the shrine. So deeply ingrained was the work ethic in the American psyche, however, that it continued to preserve the essential virtues of honest work, thrift, investment, savings, respect of property, and charity toward others.

However, challenges also came from the intellectual front. In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment, viewed as the dawn of human reason, radically reinterpreted the forces of nature, the organization of society, and the character of morality. Then, in the nineteenth century, Darwin dispensed with the need for God to understand human origins and the order of creation; Freud explained religion as a purely human construction; and Nietzsche and Marx argued that man was now free to be master of his own universe.

Although philosophers and intellectuals debated them, these ideas did not really penetrate the popular consciousness. That changed with the sixties. The right to “do your own thing” meant all barriers had to fall, and political radicalism burst forth on campuses all across America. These revolutionaries were not just trying to reform curricula or protest Vietnam; they were organizing a wholesale assault on all “bourgeois, middle-class values.” And nothing came under more intense assault than the work ethic. One writer of the 1960s spoke glowingly of the vision “of a practical culture in which man is free from labor, free to begin at last the historic task of constructing truly human relationships.”

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The popular culture and student radicalism succeeded in making work a dirty word—something one did only if one must pay for pleasure. Work was no longer ennobling; it was utilitarian—simply a means to an end.

Back To Our Roots

How do we get America back to our work-ethic roots?

There is no one answer, no simple solution. But the problem is not going to be cured by technological, psychological, or governmental solutions, important though some of these are. The death of the work ethic in America is a direct result of the loss of a spiritual center in our society.

This has implications, first of all, for the home. As Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan is fond of saying, the first department of education is the family. Parents need to instill in their children the values of hard work, doing one’s best, and knowing the value of a hard-earned dollar. If we are going to restore the work ethic, we must teach our children that there is virtue and dignity in work. They must learn the importance of individual responsibility.

Apart from the family, no institution can play a more vital and basic role in moral education and in restoring the work ethic than the church. All those characteristics we associate with the work ethic—dedication, excellence, thrift, pride in what we do, industry, and an ennobling view of work—find their deepest roots in Scripture and through the centuries have been defined and articulated by the church. Today the call to recover the traditional virtues of the work ethic should ring forth from our pulpits, but the church, along with the culture at large, needs to be re-educated in those virtues.

We should also work to change our schools. Nothing less than a massive overhaul of our educational system will do. We should start banging on the doors of our school boards, go to their meetings, maybe even run for the school board. We can examine the curriculum and ask about tests and standards and what values are being taught—or not being taught. The people who teach in our schools must be held to the same standard of excellence that we expect of our children.

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No matter how many structures we fix, however, restoring the work ethic in our society boils down to one thing: We must restore it in the hearts and minds of individuals. It is through the individual—the factory worker, the floor manager, the CEO, the secretary, the volunteer, the fast-food server—that the work ethic becomes a reality on the floor of the shop, at the desk in the office, or in the boardroom.

Based on interviews with business leaders and many others, we suggest six values Christians can strive for in the workplace that can make a difference in the productivity and morale of any enterprise:

First, the value of the worker. All who labor, no matter how menial their task, must be treated with respect.

Second, the value of leaders who walk and talk in the trenches. Managers need to lead their forces by going to the front lines themselves.

Third, the value of responsibility and the pursuit of excellence. No work that is less than best can be meaningful and rewarding—or profitable.

Fourth, the value of training. Developing the skills of employees not only is good for the individual, increasing loyalty and the sense of self-worth, it makes employees more valuable to the organization.

Fifth, the value of the profit motive. The greatest motivation for many comes from incentive pay and healthy competition.

Sixth, the value of working to serve. Effective leadership includes enabling others to meet goals.

These principles can affect the lives of those we come in contact with, whether we are a CEO, a homemaker, a supermarket bag boy, a secretary, an electrician—well, the list is endless.

Why doesn’t America work? Because for too long too many people have waited for someone else to do something. Change starts with us.

Can we make America work? Yes. Emphatically yes. The key is to restore a high and morally rooted view of work that once again inculcates in the American character those historic virtues of the work ethic: industry, thrift, respect for property, pride in craft, and concern for community.

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