Why I Hate the American Protestant Work Tradition

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, plenty of fingers have been pointed, crying out that enough wasn’t done. On the far left, we have people saying FEMA didn’t respond quickly enough, blaming Bush cronyism for appointing unqualified friends to high positions. The far right has chimed in, insisting that the people of New Orleans didn’t do enough. More than one radio talk-show host has insisted our abysmal welfare state has created laziness, and people sat around waiting to be helped instead of taking matters into their own hands.

Regardless of which side of the debate one might fall on, both sides seem to agree, people should have been doing something. A key part of Americanism is the Protestant work tradition — the idea that people shouldn’t be idle, lazy, or couch potatoes. Mormons seem to have joined this tradition of hard work and take great pride in their industry. Whenever I tell people I’m working on a history degree, one of two inevitable questions immediately follows: “What are you going to do with that,” or “Are you going to teach?” We associate what people do with what job they have, and as a result, I think the Protestant work ethic sucks.

This need to always be busy, always doing something, has usually worked well for the privileged classes in America. At the turn of the twentieth-century, affluent men went to work in important business or political jobs, while women took up the cause of betterment leagues or other moral crusades. They had nannies or other help, saw their children when they wanted, and went to parties and social events. Church leaders like Joseph F. Smith and Anthon H. Lund are examples of this privileged class, spending time at bank meetings, overseeing the construction of the Hotel Utah, going to Salt Lake social gatherings, and seeing their children when it pleased them.

But for the majority of working class Americans, this work tradition has been less kind. Workers often spent 12 hours at work in a factory job; their entertainment was the local bar or the nickelodeon on a busy street, if they were lucky. They had little time for family, and much of their life and time was dictated by their jobs.

This was hard on immigrants, especially since many European immigrants led very different lives in the Old World. Italian Catholics, or Greek Orthodox immigrants, for example, didn’t have this kind of work tradition. They worked just hard enough to buy a bottle of wine, get food together and spend time with family celebrating anything that came their way. In America, they lost a great deal of their freedom to maintain control over their lives and work to support their families, but have enough time to spend with them. It was the men and fathers of families who had the hardest time adjusting to the New World as they struggled to maintain some kind of control over their lives, fighting against a system that took them from their close-knit family and ethnic group.

Even though today we have labor laws that make life significantly better, I have to say, I sympathize. I struggle each and every day when I have to leave my family and travel to work. I’ve often found it ironic that Mormonism, for all its focus on family, seems to embrace a tradition that keeps people from their families, whether it’s through wage-paid work, volunteer work, Church work, etc. Folks who just sit around are not looked upon with great favor, yet there’s nothing I love more than playing with my kids, sitting and chatting with my wife, watching a movie with her, going out to eat as a family, or otherwise just acting like a lazy lay-about. I miss them every single day, and feel like I’m watching their young lives go by and I’m not there to enjoy it with them.

While I have a job that keeps me away from 1-10PM, while going to school in the morning, it’s hard not to feel the same lack of control that European immigrants felt. The goal of course, is to finish school and then perhaps I too can join the privileged class, gain the control I’m looking for, and be one of the few that gets to direct the many. But even if that happens, I can’t help but feel like I’d be happier following a different path, though the options are few, if any.


  1. I feel the same struggles.

    My sis & her husband have found their own “rhythm”. She tried to have a full-time job not long after they were married but she couldn’t understand why her employer wanted to show up the hours that she was scheduled and was upset when she would call in to randomly take the day off. After a few weeks she quit. Her husband’s largely been self-employed w/ different projects along the way. They love it. He goes to work when he pleases–takes a two hour lunch so that he can also take a yoga class–and goes home when he likes. He also has the opportunity to work with his best friend. Throughout the years they’ve struggled financially in between financial payoffs. But, they’ve found something that works for them and gives them the freedom to enjoy their life they way they choose.

    And yet, the family swings back in forth from being supportive of their lifestyle to criticizing their lack of a “real” job. Deep down, though, we’re all jealous as we slave away to the pressures we’ve caved into as our lives pass by.

  2. John,

    You should emigrate to a country where the work-ethic isn’t so deeply engrained. You would get to have more time with your family and avoid a lot of the societal pressures to get ahead we feel in America. If you go somewhere in Europe, (France has a 35-hour work week) you could travel much more cheaply and conveniently while experiencing a variety of different cultures and having relatively easy access to many of Western Civilization’s great treasures. Your children could master languages they have little chance of learning in the states and your wife could dine at some of the world’s great restaurants. In short, don’t be a hater, be a doer (but a laid-back doer).

  3. Wouldn’t that be nice. Now if I could find a company in Edinburgh (I’d settle for Aberdeen) or Dublin who would hire a website developer and pay to move my family over.

    Given the likelihood of that, I’ll plod along at my boring, predictable, dead-end job.

  4. Sorry, Kim, but said Protestant ethos is alive and well in Scotland too. Maybe not the in the Highlands, though. Or you could try the Outer Hebrides and give crofting a go.

  5. The Protestant Work Ethic has made sissies of us all. Whether we’re on welfare or not, the affluence that it has created rots our souls. All it takes is a broken water heater or vacuum cleaner or air conditioner or clothes washer to make us feel as though the world is beginning to fall down around us. (Heck, for Hugh Nibley, all it took was a book by Fawn Brodie.)

    Even so, the protestant work ethic wasn’t too easy on the cave men, either, John H. But you never heard them complaining.

  6. John (or anyone who knows),

    What’s a nickelodeon?


    Perhaps we should get back to our caveman roots. You’re right, I’ve never heard one complain, or even seen one with a disgruntled, whiny look on his face. You can learn a lot from a caveman; buckle down.

  7. Oh, I don’t care about that, Ronan. I just want to live in Scotland.

  8. APJ: Perhaps we should get back to our caveman roots.

    I’m glad that we basically agree, but I feel the need to clarify: We should get back to our protestant caveman roots. All the other cavemen were lazy.

  9. Good call, DKL,

    Only the cavemen who had found Jesus…not the barbaric ones

  10. DKL:

    re post #5

    Did Hugh Nibley have a hard time dealing with Fawn Brodie’s book?

  11. John,

    If you really like spending time with your family maybe you should spend less time blogging.

  12. “I’ve often found it ironic that Mormonism, for all its focus on family, seems to embrace a tradition that keeps people from their families, whether it’s through wage-paid work, volunteer work, Church work, etc.”

    This never really bothered me until I had a child. Then I really grew to resent it. Work, school and church all piling up and I was wondering why I saw my family less on Sunday than any other day of the week. Things seemed to have gotten better in the past few years, I’m not sure if it’s church-wide, or just my current ward.

  13. Guys, do not get dkl started on Fawn Brodie. It takes on a life of her/his own.

  14. Oh jeez, annegb. I have no intention of bringing that argument into this thread; if I’m going to goad John H., I have to pick a different topic entirely.

    John: Did Hugh Nibley have a hard time dealing with Fawn Brodie’s book?

    Actually, no. I was just making a joke about a recent thread at Millennial Star, where I repetitively asserted in increasingly derogatory terms my dislike for Nibley’s so-called “publications.”

  15. John H,

    It seems to me that you are conflating hard work with our love of money. We Mormons do firmly believe in hard work, it’s true. But we don’t insist that hard work must be in order to obtain money. (Hence the missionary program, temple work, serious scriptural study, and all sorts of other service in the church and community.) Much of that latter work can be done with our families. It seems to me that you are not complaining against work, but rather against our natural greed and desire to keep up with the Jones’s.

    (By the way — this concept is brilliantly expounded upon by one of the great thinkers of our time; Hugh Nibley.)

  16. After reading your post, John H, I now feel like I have an keen insight into why you are a Democrat.

  17. “we don’t insist that hard work must be in order to obtain money”

    Which explains all the MLM companies out of Utah.

  18. APJ: What’s a nickelodeon?

    Jukebox. An old pop song begins with the lyrics,

    “Put another nickel in,
    In the nickelodeon,
    Let that leader-man begin
    That ‘Music, Music, Music’.”

    ‘Music, Music, Music” being the title of the tune, if I’m not mistaken. I believe it was a big hit song for one Teresa (Theresa?) Brewer.

    If you ask me what a “jukebox” is, I shall simply throw up my hands and sigh.

  19. Here in New York City, it seems that most people are defined by their job or career title. Someone commented in Church on this, by describing it as a difference between Americans and Europeans. He said if you ask Americans what they do, they answer by saying “I am an attorney” or “I am a doctor.” If you ask Europeans what they do they might say “I like biking” or “I like mountain climbing.” He was making fun of the Europeans and at the same time wishing we could be a little more like them in defining ourselves by what we enjoy doing rather than by our jobs.

    I’m sure it’s a gross overgeneralization in many ways, but it still had us lauging in elders quorum. Maybe it was the silly fake European accent he was using in his characterization.

    Perhaps when someone asks “What do you do?” it would be more appropriate to say “I am a husband” or “I am a father” or some other family-related description. Maybe family relationships or more taken for granted though and people would feel that this type of thing does not distinguish one sufficiently.

  20. Brigham Young apparently used to be in favor of a 4 hour work-day, and then to fill up the rest of the day with study, preaching and recreation/family. That sounds like utopia to me.

  21. Daniel, is it?–what a wonderful post.

    I shall ponder my response in the future. I shall say, perhaps, “I blog.”

  22. “What’s a nickelodeon?”

    A nickelodeon was a machine you’d put a nickel in, then watch a short movie for a few minutes. The content varied wildly, and could include drama, comedy, or even titillating displays of women in leotards!

    Danithew, you said it so well, my friend. I don’t know enough about European culture today to know if this characterization is correct, but this is precisely what European immigrants struggled with in America. In the Old Country, they might toil in the fields for a living, or work in some kind of skilled trade. But when asked what they do, they might answer that they play an instrument, paint, cook, etc. Work was far more separate from their identity than it was expected to be in America.

    Again, I think this attitude has been taken up by Mormons for a long time with gusto. Look at Church press releases about appointments or official biographies of Church leaders (like those in the Church Almanac). Very little is said about family, hobbies, etc. Instead, it’s a virtual timeline of jobs – professional or Church – that leaders have had over the years. Most Church members interested in the lives of leaders could probably tell you what most, if not all the Twelve and First Presidency did before becoming GAs. But I bet they couldn’t tell you the names of too many spouses or children.

  23. Seth Rogers says:

    John, have you ever read “The Protestant Work Ethic” by Max Weber?

    Weber was a German philosopher who traced how Protestantism altered the Christian view of wealth and industry.

    Prior to the protestants, Christians typically viewed wealth and fortune as a result of chance, luck or God’s favor. Therefore, whenever someone had a moment of prosperity, the tendency was to splurge and throw a party (which promptly depleted any surplus). “Smoke em while you got em.” You still see this attitude in some predominantly Catholic societies today.

    Protestant views changed this in a myriad of ways I’m not going to get into.

    The end result was that now a good Christian’s duty was to accumulate wealth, but not spend or enjoy it. Here we get the Puritan view where even the richest men in society lived rather harsh and austere lifestyles. Dickens’ Ebeneezer Scrooge is a cariacature of this attitude and its full conclusion.

  24. Seth, Weber’s work The Protestant Work Ethic has been largely discredited. It’s no surprise that Weber was a protestant. If he’d have been a Catholic, I’m sure he would have come up with a different thesis.

  25. I think this also has something to do with the increasingly myopic focus of the American education system: school as the thing you have to do to get a job rather than the thing you do to learn how to have a full life. Not only has this churned out a couple of generations of people who consider their profession their main purpose of existence, but it has also created a cultural perception that “learned” pursuits that enrich one’s enjoyment of life, like literature, art, and music, aren’t meant for people who work in trades.

    I recently heard a horror story about a high school in which the english curriculum had been revamped to–get this–eliminate the teaching of novel reading. This change was instituted in reaction to the demands of standardized tests.

    I also think there’s a tendency in American culture to use the “protestant work ethic” as cover for feeding our egos. I mean, let’s face it, when someone says, in an exasperated voice, “I’m so BUSY,” what they’re really saying is “I’m so NEEDED. So many demands are made of someone as IMPORTANT as me!” We love being conspicuously busy.

  26. Worse yet, Jeremy, there are some people who quit posting on their much-loved blogs when they get a job they think is more important than maintaining a corner of the universe as delightful as Orson’s Telescope. Sheesh!!


  27. Steve Evans says:

    Kristine, or still worse, those that quit posting — on BCC! — when they get hoity-toity jobs.

  28. Aw, shucks. I bet you say that to all the less-actives…

  29. Kris,


  30. MPJ, who cares if Weber has been “discredited.” The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and can be expected to be subject to some revision, just as Freud, Darwin, Einstein, etc., and any academic work a century old might be a little out of date.

    It’s a hundred times more interesting and better written, even in translation, than most of the sociological drivel published today. I still remember with fondness reading it for a European History class as a junior in high school.

    Another example: Arnold Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, written in 1911, is full of aggressive martial metaphors, explaining the relations between tonalities as encroachments on each other’s territories. After the carnage of WWI, this type of rhetoric disappears from his theoretical writings. He said of his twelve-tone method that it would “guarantee the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years.” Of course, in 1933, he emigrated to the US and no longer made such statements.

    Most composers today don’t rank Schoenberg’s artistic and theoretical work as highly as it was once ranked. However, it remains a vital part of history that must be reckoned with, not dismissed out of hand. Similarly with Max Weber.

  31. Bill, Weber’s book is well written. That’s a one reason why it was influential. Another big factor was that its audience was basically protestant.

    Because Weber was influential, he’s destined for a spot in the history books alongside other repudiated theorists that proved influential for a short period of time. I just want to make sure that people are aware that his ideas don’t hold water.

    Weber’s is a book written by, for, and about protestants which is flattering to protestants at the expense of other religions. This makes it a political issue. I’m sensitive about this type of thing, because so many books are written by, for, and about men, and they flatter men at the expense of women.

  32. Seth Rogers says:

    Miranda, are we talking about the same book?

    I found the book to be not all that complimentary on Protestant culture. In fact, I found it rather damming.

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