The Lutheran Ethic and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy*
Robert H. Nelson
Forthcoming in Roderick Flout, Santhi Hejeebu, and David Mitch, eds. Humanism Confronts Materialism (University of Chicago Press). Adapted from a paper presented at a Festschrift conference on “Humanism Challenges Materialism: The Work of D.N. McCloskey,” at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, March 20-22, 2015.
From mid nineteenth century thinkers such as Karl Marx through much of the twentieth century, the dominant way of explaining events in the historical and social sciences was in material -- in economic -- terms. It was thus a large intellectual surprise when attention in the last few decades of the twentieth century began to shift to the explanatory power of ideas and culture. More recently, the central role played by religion in shaping society has been rediscovered, The importance of religion has been further magnified by a growing recognition that the scope of “religion” extends well beyond traditional forms of faith -- most importantly, now incorporating a developing scholarly understanding that “secular religion” is an actual form of religion. Marxism can then be understood -- as is now widely accepted -- to have been an actual religion that imaginatively transformed key Christian themes to outwardly secular -- economic -- disguises. Indeed, Marxism was only one of a much wider category of all “economic religion” -- the diverse set of modern belief systems offering the hope and expectation that continuing rapid economic progress will lead to heaven on earth and thus save the world.1 In recognizing and contributing to this major intellectual shift of the late twentieth century, and now continuing into the early twenty first century, Deirdre McCloskey has been a leading figure.
I first became aware of the work of McCloskey when she published a 1983 article in the Journal of Economic Literature on “The Rhetoric of Economics.”2 The theme of the article was that economics is not what it seems. It pretends to be doing a version of science but it is actually engaged in making disguised philosophical arguments that involve deep value judgments, fundamental worldviews and other large nonscientific elements. By claiming the mantle of science, however, economists were engaged in an imperialistic claim for special authority for their own value judgments and worldviews, as against more honest presenters of normative beliefs who did not try to dress their arguments in false scientific clothing.
It was not difficult for McCloskey to convince me in 1983 that this was an accurate description of much of the activity occurring within the economics profession. I had already become skeptical about formal economics as a result of my graduate school experiences in economics at Princeton University in the late 1960s. McCloskey, however, organized and stated my concerns more clearly. I was impressed at the time that the Journal of Economic Literature would give so much space to such heretical thinking. It encouraged me to publish my own small piece of heresy, “The Economics Profession and the Making of Public Policy” in 1987, also in the Journal of Economic Literature.3 I argued there, similar to McCloskey, that the most important role of economists in the public policy arena was as strong advocates for the powerful values of a shared ideology, derived originally in the American case from the progressive-era “gospel of efficiency,” restated in more scientific sounding language in post-World War II economics.
McCloskey followed with a 1985 book of the same title, The Rhetoric of Economics, in which she further developed the view that economics was a form of philosophical argument masquerading rhetorically as science. As the author now of her own book, she was freer to make stronger criticisms and to use more colorful language. It was of special interest to me that a number of the metaphors she used to describe economics portrayed it in religious terms. McCloskey wrote, for example, that economics was a leading branch of the modern “church of science.” Its rise could be understood as part of a general social trend whereby “as religious faith retreated among the intelligentsia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a modernist faith flowed in” as a secular substitute. Economics, McCloskey observed, also had its “Ten Commandments and Golden Rule.” Its rituals included “modernist chanting, supported by hooded choruses” that can be “good for the soul.” Indeed, at the core of modern professional economic belief was a “trinity of fact, definition and holy value.” The history of economics since the 1930s showed it passing through three stages, from a young and vigorous “crusading faith” that with time “hardened into ceremony” and had now reached an institutional status with its own officially recognized “nuns, bishops, and cathedrals” of the economics profession.4
Again, it was not difficult for McCloskey to persuade me that such religious elements were in fact present in professional economics. She used more colorful language but I had already been thinking along similar lines in my daily work as an economist in the Office of Policy Analysis within the Office of the Secretary of the Interior (where I worked from 1975 to 1993 before coming to the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland).5 I was struck there in particular by the strong sense that the public land and environmental policy conflicts that were being waged all around me had a deeply religious character. I had already concluded during my first few years in the Interior Department that the environmental movement was grounded in a fundamentally religious -- if nominally secular -- belief system. It took me somewhat longer to reach the same conclusion with respect to economics. This recognition began with the empirical observation that economists and environmentalists around me often talked past one another in mutual incomprehension; the worldviews of each were so far different, and they held to them so fervently, not showing much introspective awareness of their own powerful value assumptions, that they had little basis even to begin a rational discussion. Since I had already concluded that environmentalism was a secular religion, it gradually dawned on me – an understanding that I was coming to recognize more explicitly by the time of McCloskey’s 1985 book-- that the same must be true of economics. Simply put, it takes a religion to engage in a fierce clash of values with another religion.6
I was further encouraged in this direction of thought by the recognition that McCloskey and other scholars that I was increasingly encountering were characterizing economics as having the behavioral features and performing the social functions of a religion. I then took a further radical step that would not find many followers in the economics profession -- even to the present day. I decided to analyze economics as not only a religion in a metaphorical and functional sense but in a literal sense; in other words, I would examine economics from a lens of “secular theology,” a novel concept then that for most contemporary economists is still unfamiliar. McCloskey had said that economics offered actual philosophy in the scientific rhetoric of economics; I now extended this critique to argue that economics also offered actual theology in a scientific rhetoric.
This required me to begin reading in theological literature where I was especially interested to discover that many theologians regarded the term “religion” more broadly than economists normally understand it. Of particular importance to me, Paul Tillich had famously defined a religion as a deeply held belief system that dealt with matters of “ultimate concern” – and thus did not have to have a god.7 With this understanding as expressed by one of the leading theologians of the twentieth century, and by many other scholars of religion I was increasingly encountering, I felt more confident in my decision to examine economics as literally a secular form of actual religion -- as was characteristic of many of the most influential belief systems of the modern age.
It took some time but in 1991 I published Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics.8 As the title suggests, I argued in the book that there was an implicit transcendent message underlying economics. Indeed, while few professional economists thought in these terms, economics was a central part of the modern discussion of the sources of “immoral” behavior -- of “sin” – in the world,. Christianity had traditionally attributed the presence of sin to the fall in the Garden of Eden but this belief was fading in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, increasingly regarded as mythological. Rather, from the Enlightenment onward, a much different explanation for the widespread presence of socially reprehensible actions --of sin -- was increasingly advanced, the features of the environment in which a person grew up and then lived as an adult. In other words, as increasing numbers of people were coming to believe, it is actually bad environments that made people do bad things. In many of the most widely held modern versions of this understanding, the most important thing about the environment is its economic character – dire poverty became for many in the modern age the true source of the most sinful behavior in the world. The logical corollary was that abolishing poverty – and in the end all economic scarcity – held out the prospect of ending evil in the world and thus arriving at a new earthly paradise. Economics, in other words, had the critical knowledge to bring about the salvation of the world, and economists as the holders of this knowledge would become the new leading priesthood in modern society.
As I argued in Reaching for Heaven on Earth, American progressivism from 1890 to 1920, the early years in which the American economics profession was conceived and took shape in the progressive spirit, had been one important form of a wider rise of such economic modernism in western civilization since the Enlightenment. The core assumptions -- the central elements of faith -- were that the world was advancing rapidly on a path of economic progress; that society would be capable of maintaining and even increasing the rate of progress by effective governmental actions; that rational social and economic planning would provide the necessary expert guidance for such actions; and that this continuing process of economic advance would in the long run transform -- save -- the world. As I increasingly wrote in publications continuing up to the present, this was the dominant believe system not only of professional economics but it provided much of the wider social legitimacy for the development of the American welfare and regulatory state in the twentieth century. Many working economists in the government, and some in academia as well, made basic practical contributions but a significant number of the professional economists in the university world (along with some inside government) mostly added to the economic religious grace notes. McCloskey tried but mostly failed to embarrass them.
I devoted one chapter in the book to American economic progressivism, covering as leading examples the early American economist Richard Ely who was a founder of the American Economic Association in 1885; Torstein Veblen; the prominent New Dealer Thurman Arnold, and John Kenneth Galbraith, all of whom I characterized as twentieth century apostles of the American progressive gospel of efficiency. The next chapter, however, was devoted to the rise of a strong “post-modernist” strain of thinking among a minority of American economists after World War II that rejected main elements of the progressive vision. The five leading apostles of such economic post-modernism that I chose for illustrative purposes were Charles Lindblom (best known as a political scientist but also a professor emeritus of economics at Yale), Mancur Olson, Deirdre McCloskey, James Buchanan and Kenneth Boulding. As I wrote in 1991 of McCloskey’s writings about economics and rhetoric up to then, in rejecting progressive economic scientism and instead advocating a new pluralism of true economic belief:
Theologically, McCloskey is moving in the direction of a shift potentially as momentous as the shift from the medieval Roman Catholic church, possessed of the one truth and the one priesthood, to the conversations within and among the denominations of the Protestant Reformation, each of the Protestant faithful now possessing freedom of individual religious conscience. If each Protestant still believed in principle that there was a single divine message, in actuality there was a pluralism of faiths, often disagreeing sharply in the answers given to basic questions of the divine purpose and the rules for living on earth. The consequences were hardly limited to debates among theologians. In the modern era it has been economic theology that has served for many men as the guide to salvation, the valid revealer of a path to heaven on earth. The conflicts among communist, fascist, socialist, and other gospels of economic theology have yielded consequences for the world no less momentous than those experienced in the Reformation era [and its violent aftermath].9
I had trouble finding a publisher for a book with such an ambitious scope that went so far beyond the subject matter of the mainstream economics in which I had been trained and had achieved some professional recognition as at least a sound policy analyst (the manuscript was initially rejected by about 15 publishers). Here again, McCloskey played a significant role in my professional life. Late in the process, she was asked to provide a review for Indiana University Press. The review was positive but I had already signed a contract by then with another publisher, Rowman & Littlefield (whose commitment to the book was heightened when I promptly sent them the favorable McCloskey review). Rowman & Littlefield then recruited McCloskey to write the Foreword to Reaching for Heaven on Earth to which she agreed, helping significantly to boost the book’s prospects.
I can think of few other economists who would have done the same, given the actual theological character (not of course in a biblical sense) of much of the book’s analysis and the challenge it posed to the typical self-image of economists. McCloskey continued to be supportive with blurbs and other ways in my continuing efforts as I went on to write two sequels, in 2001 publishing Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond and in 2010 The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America.10 The help she has given me with these and other related projects is testimony to her willingness to think about fundamental economic questions that fall well outside the conventional boundaries of mainstream economic discussion and also of her personal generosity in offering strong support for the work of other heretical economists.
By the twenty first century, McCloskey was writing less about the rhetorical meaning of economics and had returned to her original deep interest in the study of economic history. She now approached the subject, however, from the broader perspective of an economic philosopher. In this respect, she was following in the spirit of an Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, or Karl Marx – and also in the footsteps of Max Weber in that she was now examining the normative roots in western civilization for the rise of capitalism. In bringing together a vast array of information and incorporating large normative elements, she has done this with a depth of insight virtually unique among the economists of her generation. Again, I found myself following a few years after her. McCloskey’s writings helped to encourage me to pursue a growing interest on my own part in broader historical analysis of economic and policy history, informed by philosophy and religion.
In 2010, I published an essay on “Max Weber Revisited” in which I argued that, despite the many criticisms of Weber in the twentieth century, his basic conclusion that the Protestant Reformation played a key role in the rise of capitalism had held up well, even as the exact reasons may not have been the ones that Weber emphasized (the Protestant encouragement of literacy in order to read the bible, for example, was probably among the strongest contributing factors).11 In 2012, I published another essay on “Is Max Weber Newly Relevant? The Protestant-Catholic Divide in Europe Today” in the Finnish Journal of Theology, concluding that the widely noted “north-south” divide in Europe at that time might be better understood as a historically Protestant-Catholic divide (a controversial interpretation, admittedly).12 Most recently, while spending seven months of my 2013-2014 sabbatical year at the Collegium for Advanced Study of the University of Helsinki, I began work on a new book manuscript on The Lutheran Roots of Social Democracy in the Nordic Countries: With a Special Emphasis on Finland, and then finished a full draft in the fall of 2014, after I had returned to the University of Maryland. I will be discussing some of my main findings in this Chapter.
Max Weber wrote famously about The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism but he really meant a “Calvinist ethic” that he saw as providing strong encouragement for capitalism. It has received less attention among economic historians but there was also a “Lutheran ethic” with its own Lutheran view of an appropriate calling, one that differed in significant ways from the Calvinist viewpoint. The Lutheran ethic, for example, had a much more negative view of the role of commerce and market transactions based on self-interest. Instead of worldly success, the Lutheran ethic emphasized social solidarity, fulfilled through a calling serving the biblical golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and thereby the whole community.
Weber was on the whole less impressed by Lutheranism, writing of the “relative moral helplessness of Lutheranism” in contrast to Calvinism and that “the differences of conduct, which are very striking, have clearly originated in the lesser degree of ascetic penetration of life in Lutheranism as distinguished from Calvinism” -- and thus resulted in a significantly lesser contribution to the rise of capitalism by Lutheranism.13 In this chapter, I will argue that Weber, however, did not do Lutheranism full justice. A “Lutheran ethic,” largely neglected by Weber, also played a large part in European social and economic history. This Lutheran ethic, grounded in a distinct Lutheran concept of a calling, and then reinforced by institutional features of the Lutheran state churches established after the Reformation, contributed decisively to the origins of the welfare states of Germany and especially the Nordic countries. By the twentieth century, a secularized Lutheranism provided a critical value foundation and other cultural supports to shape and sustain the development of the five Nordic social democracies of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.
Indeed, the Lutheran ethic has had as large an impact on the history and economic systems of the Nordic world as the Calvinist ethic had on the history and economic systems of England, Scotland, Holland, Switzerland, the United States, and other countries with Protestant Anglo-American roots in which Calvinism played a major role. Although the number of people living in historically Nordic and Lutheran countries has been relatively small, the worldwide impact of Nordic social democracy has been greater than the total size of the Lutheran populations of these countries (today about 25 million) would suggest. In recent years, the Nordic countries, as shaped by their Lutheran origins, have often been leading players in defining the collective moral principles and other values of the evolving world social and economic order.
If dealing here with a different part of the European Protestant world outside the Calvinist orbit (I might note that my own heritage traces to Finnish and Swedish immigrants more than 100 years ago), I again find myself following in the path of McCloskey’s much more extensive and grander exploration of the normative background of capitalism in The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce and its sequel Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.14
The Lutheran Ethic and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy1
Although having a much smaller historic place in Roman Catholicism, the idea of having a “calling” to some type of activity in this world is central to Protestantism in general, including
both Lutheranism and Calvinism. Finnish social historian Pirjo Markkola writes, for example, that in the late nineteenth century in Finland the application of the Lutheran “concept of
‘woman’s calling’ became central in women’s organizations and new female occupations.” For Cecilia Bloomquist, “her work was vocation, a calling given by God, and she repeatedly reflected on her insufficiency as God’s servant. … However weak she might have felt herself, the calling led her to a remarkable career in the service not only of Christian social work but also health care in Finland.” For Lutherans as well as other Protestants, the importance of pursuing a religious calling extends to all the members of society, another radical implication of the Protestant emphasis on a “priesthood of all believers.” As Markkola puts it, in Finland and elsewhere in the Nordic world, “according to the Lutheran concept of calling everybody was called to serve in his or her daily life”15
A Contrasting Calvinist Ethic
The distinctive character of the Lutheran ethic is revealed in part by its contrast with the Calvinist ethic. Calvin had suggested that only a minority of people could expect to be saved (even among the outwardly Christian faithful), a matter predestined by an all-powerful God and therefore outside any human ability to influence by individual actions (such as “good works”) in this world. God’s thinking in matters of salvation, Calvin had emphasized, must remain a great and inscrutable mystery, known only to God Himself. Weber argued, however, that such a view, whatever its theological merits in emphasizing the total omnipotence of God, was psychologically untenable for many ordinary members of the human species. If literally believed, if nothing whatsoever within human control mattered in matters of salvation, if all eternal fates were already predestined even before a person was born, it might easily lead to a deep fatalism, a lack of moral commitment, or a withdrawal from the world – or perhaps instead to a selfish hedonism in unrestrained pursuit of worldly pleasures.
The later Calvinist response in practice (if not that of Calvin himself), as Weber argued, was to regard success in a calling as a good “sign” of God’s favor. For the Calvinist devout, as they came to think, those who were actually among the saved would have an inner peace of mind and grace that would manifest itself in worldly accomplishments in the pursuit of a calling -- even as this could have no true long run significance for salvation. In a great paradox, the actual religious impact of Calvinism as perceived by its later followers may have lain significantly in the fact that its popular reinterpretation brought back a new form of salvation by good works -- including prominently in a business calling..
For Calvinists, achieving a high level of profit might therefore in practice serve as a promising indicator of a heavenly future. High profits, however, could also pose a grave new threat. If a successful businessman began to use his monetary gains to live a life of pleasure and luxury, the prospects for his eternal soul might be gravely endangered -- as had happened to many ex-Calvinists. It was not necessary, however, for the businessman to live in poverty. A devout Calvinist whose calling was in business could be as successful – could make as large a profit as possible -- within the bounds of living within modest pleasures and acting ethically in his personal relations with others.
As Weber emphasized, regarded from a modern utilitarian point of view of maximizing personal happiness and enjoyment – indeed, perhaps the outlook of most people in the history of the world – the Calvinist businessman was behaving “irrationally.” Calvinism produced, as one might say, a new kind of human “ascetic entrepreneur and businessman.” As Weber wrote of the “Protestant” (really Calvinist) ethic, it
… acted powerfully against the spontaneous enjoyment of possessions; it restricted consumption, especially of luxuries. On the other hand, it had the psychological effect of freeing the acquisition of goods from the inhibitions of traditionalist ethics. It broke the bonds of the impulse of acquisition in that it not only legalized it, but … looked upon it as directly willed by God. The campaign against the temptations of the flesh, and the dependence on external things, was … not a struggle against rational acquisition, but against the irrational use of wealth.16
The Calvinist drive to fulfill a worldly calling persisted even long after devotion to the original Christian faith of Calvin had waned. The American Benjamin Franklin in the second half of the eighteenth century was prominently mentioned by Weber as an example of the powerful motivating influence of a Calvinist calling, even though Franklin by then was skeptical about traditional Christianity. In the later nineteenth century, another person with skeptical tendencies, Andrew Carnegie, raised in Calvinist Scotland before emigrating to the United States, offered another such example. As he wrote in 1889 in “the gospel of wealth,”
It becomes the duty of the millionaire to increase his revenues. The struggle for more is completely freed from selfish or ambitious taint and becomes a noble pursuit. Then he labors not for self, but for others; not to hoard but to spend [his wealth for public benefit]. The more he makes, the more the public gets. His whole life is changed from the moment that he resolves to become a disciple of the gospel of wealth, and henceforth he labors to acquire that he may wisely administer for others’ good. His daily labor is a daily virtue.17
Carnegie actually did as he preached, eventually giving away almost the entirety of his vast accumulated fortune for a wide variety of public causes, including the establishment of many non-profit institutions (such as today Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute for International Peace in Washington), as well as the building of more than 2,000 community libraries across the United States, and the construction of 7,000 church organs, as well as Carnegie Hall in New York City, thus touching the lives of millions of ordinary Americans. As a good Calvinist, if now of a newly secular mold, Carnegie’s purpose was not charity for the poor but to make available education and other useful tools for them to empower their lives on their own.
Few American professional economists in the twentieth century studied Weber and the Protestant ethic; Weber was taken seriously only in the field of sociology and among intellectual historians. As an early indication of changing attitudes among American economists, however, a leading contemporary American macroeconomist, Bradford De Long, reported in 1988 that his statistical research into the causes historically of the relative economic progress of the more advanced nations of the world had shown little statistical support for the most commonly offered explanations. But to his surprise, there was “one striking ex ante association between growth over 1870-1979 and a pre-determined variable: a nation's dominant religious establishment.” Indeed, the historical presence in a nation of “a religious establishment that is Protestant” or even contained a significant mixture of Protestants and Catholics, as opposed to predominantly Catholic, “is significantly correlated with growth.”18
A growing number of such writings appeared over the next 25 years. A 2003 study of the economic impact of Calvinism describes it as having brought about a “disciplinary revolution” in early modern Europe. In comparing Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism, Philip Gorski notes that “while all three confessions advocated discipline – both religious and social – it was the Calvinists who did so with the greatest fervor and consequence.”19With their frequent involvement in worldly affairs and fierce commitment to the pursuit of their various callings, individual Calvinists and indeed whole Calvinist societies were more likely to prosper economically and otherwise – including in another area of religious importance to the Calvinist faithful, the early development of modern science as a way of understanding God’s plan for the structure of the universe.20
Indeed, by 2010 it was becoming increasingly common among American economic historians to conclude that Weber had been broadly correct, that there was a significant association of Protestantism with national economic success, but that many other things were at work besides the Calvinist way of thinking about a calling.21 By 2013, two economic researchers would find that “going beyond the ‘work ethic’ hypothesis, we show that Weber’s classic can be seen to argue that the different religions will also lead to different political preferences, and our empirical results [in Switzerland] confirm this” – and the existence of political differences inevitably leads to economic differences.22 Another 2013 article in the Journal of Economic Literature explains that, as seen in the 2000s economic historical writings of Deirdre McCloskey, for example, “the recent literature on economic growth and development has increasingly focused on very long-run effects of geographic, historical, and cultural factors on productivity and income per capita” – long run factors that, geography aside, historically have been much influenced by a nation’s historic religion such as Lutheranism in the Nordic countries.23 A historic Protestantism, whether in Calvinist, Lutheran or other forms, goes far to shape whole societies even today. In the most recent 2015 World Happiness Report, all of the top ten ranked nations in the world were historically Protestant, including all five of the Nordic countries among the ten.24 If the goal of an economic system is utility maximization, the citizens of historically Protestant nations, it would appear, have a special knack.
Lutheran Salvation by Good Works
As noted above, the idea of a calling from God was prominent in Lutheran as well as Calvinist theology. Like all Protestants, Luther taught that good works in a calling could themselves do nothing to advance an individual’s prospects for salvation – that this was a matter of “faith alone,” and the very existence of personal faith -- and thus salvation -- was ultimately in the hands of God alone. Luther taught, however, that those who had faith would also surely do good works -- even as it was not the good works themselves that produced the ultimate salvation, but necessarily the other way around. As he wrote, the “just have faith and every work will flow from you naturally.”25 As it says in the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530, “in the power of the Spirit, faith renews the heart, and the renewed heart is clothed with new affects which, in turn, enable good works.”26
In his understanding of the Ten Commandments, Luther emphasized that it was the first Commandment – “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods except me” – that stood before all the others, because the following of this Commandment would by itself mean that a person had a full faith in God and obedience to the remaining Commandments would follow directly as a matter of course. As Bernd Wannenwentsch explains, “Luther’s emphasis on the First Commandment is the strongest possible guard against the temptation that fulfilling the [other] commandments would be an achievement” expected to influence God’s judgments favorably. Rather, even if all the other commandments were obeyed, as God had revealed these laws to Moses at Mt. Sinai, it would not mean justification in the eyes of God for the believer. Once faith exists (the First Commandment is followed), however, “the very way in which the [remaining] individual commandments are followed, by individual acts of hand and mouth and body, is merely a mechanical and formal obedience to God.” For a true Christian their life must be “in the first place, a matter of the heart (i; e., of faith). This is why the Christian life does not fall apart into a ‘spiritual’ sphere on the one hand and a ‘worldly’ sphere on the other.”27 In contrast to so much modern thinking about religion, for the Lutheran faithful there can be no separate realms of the private religious conscience and the individual’s actions in the outside political and economic world.
Princeton Theological Seminary professor of Reformation History Scott Hendrix similarly explains that for Lutherans “good works were expected from believers because beneficial deeds always followed genuine faith.” He observes that “Luther wrote that faith was ‘a living, busy, active mighty thing’ that was incessantly doing works without asking whether they should be done or not. ‘It is impossible,’ he said, ‘to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.” For the devout, they understood Luther as saying that “’You are saved by faith alone and not by good works, but you should be doing good works nonetheless. They do not [assure] salvation but they are necessary for living as a Christian.’ That was the first nuance: good works were necessary [to right living], but not necessary [or sufficient] for salvation.”28
This way of thinking created, however, a difficult balancing act for a good Lutheran. If a person performed good works, it could well mean that this person first had had true faith, and thus was among the saved in the eyes of God and the good works then necessarily followed. It could also mean, however, that the person simply wanted to be convinced of his own faith and thus of his own salvation, the actual motive for performing the good works. But if the good works were done as an expedient meant to bring about a confident expectation of salvation (and not simply as a spontaneous personal expression of human love and friendship as the natural outcome of true faith), this would be turning back to the Roman Catholic falsehood that good works actually could contribute to salvation -- and that human actions thus can influence the actions of God, detracting from His total grandeur and omnipotence. If the very theological essence of the Reformation was to be upheld, faith therefore must come first and its existence for each person must remain in the hands of God alone, predestined prior to their birth. .
On closer logical inspection, however, it could not be this simple. A deep desire for personal salvation, even if first expressed in the performance of good works for this purpose, could in itself be taken as a good indication of a true faith in God (otherwise, why worry about salvation). From this perspective, the devoted Lutheran pursuit of good works might easily be taken to mean the prior existence of faith. But there is a virtual contradiction arising here: good works in themselves cannot assure salvation, but devoutly doing good works in itself can be taken to demonstrate the presence of genuine faith, and thus the good works can actually assure salvation, contradicting the original premise. It has often been said of Luther that he was a less logical and systematic thinker than Calvin. Much of his vast body of writings was for polemical purposes at the height of theological and political controversies. Diarmaid McCulloch, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, writes that “Luther was a passionate, impulsive man, who felt his theology rather than beginning with logical questions and answers about God, resulting in a theology full of paradoxes and even contradictions.”29
Lutherans were not exempt from the existential dread experienced by Calvinists with respect to their potentially slim prospects for salvation; Luther was equally committed to full predestination and to a doubt that the saved will be among the majority. For Lutherans as well as Calvinists, however, it was difficult for many people to live with the idea that they might simply have been predestined to eternal damnation independent of the lives they lived and for reasons of which they could have no knowledge. How could a loving God be so seemingly harsh and arbitrary? Luther himself had no good explanation, other than that God was all powerful and His ways were known to Himself alone. This must necessarily be true according to the longstanding Jewish and Christian understanding of God in the Book of Job and elsewhere -- but by emerging modern standards of thought it was difficult to accept.
Weber had conjectured that the devout Calvinist would therefore have found it psychologically necessary to look at least for signs that they were among the saved, as could be indicated by success in a worldly calling, even if such a sign could not offer any guarantees,. One might expect that a similar psychological dynamic would be at work in the lives of the Lutheran faithful as well. Luther had, after all, declared that the saved would be impelled naturally to perform good works. So, probabilistically, some percentage of those performing good works would in fact be among the Lutheran saved, even if this exact percentage and the ultimate fate of each specific individual in the hereafter remained known only to God. Equally important, and going in this respect beyond Calvinism, if a Lutheran did not perform good works, it logically followed from Luther’s teachings that they could not have true faith and thus could not be among the saved. So the psychological and religious imperative for a good Lutheran -- even greater than for a good Calvinist -- was overwhelmingly in favor of pursuing a calling that involved doing good works.
Despite this common element, there remained, however, a large area of difference between the Calvinist and Lutheran ethics and related concepts of a valid calling that might have large political and economic consequences. For Calvinists, they were encouraged to find their callings in worldly matters such as the conduct of business affairs – even as they should not immorally spend any large profits resulting from business success in the pursuit of their own luxurious living, Luther’s view of the world of business was much more fundamentally skeptical and even antagonistic. Indeed, Luther was often outwardly hostile to the commercial developments of his own times that were setting the stage for the rise of capitalism in Europe. As the Boston University professor of church history and Luther student Carter Lindberg writes, “Luther found the calculating entrepreneur extremely distasteful. He was convinced that the capitalist spirit divorced money from use for human needs and necessitated an economy of acquisition.” As a result, he routinely “preached and wrote against the expanding money economy as a great sin.”30 Success in business for a good Lutheran thus was unlikely to be seen as a promising sign for salvation; indeed, it might more likely portend the opposite.
As he describes Luther’s thinking, Lindberg comes close at times to finding an outlook characteristic of modern socialism with its past historic antagonism to capitalism. Lindberg finds that “Luther’s concern was not only about an individual’s use of money, but also the structural social damage inherent in the idolatry of the ‘laws’ of the market.” Any ideas of an “impersonal market” or of “autonomous laws of economics”" – such as long found at the heart of capitalist apologetics – would have been “abhorrent to Luther.” For Luther, long before the 2008 financial crisis, the community was “endangered by the rising power of a few great financial centers; their unregulated economic coercion would destroy the ethos of the community.” For Luther “early capitalism was doubly dangerous because it not only exploited people but also strove to conceal its voracious nature and to deceive people” behind various false claims of public benefit such as Adam Smith would later advance. Hence, governments should be wary of such claims that they should learn how to recognize, causing Luther to appeal “for government regulation of interest rates and business practices.”31
Luther rejected any basic assumption that self-interest could play a legitimate role as a main organizing force in society. He thus would have strongly objected to a main premise of the Wealth of Nations – the pursuit of self-interest as an “invisible hand” that, ironically in light of traditional Christian ethics, contemporary historians of economic thought today increasingly understand to have meant for Smith an implicit “hand of God.”32 By contrast, Sean Doherty writes concerning one of Luther’s early writings on commercial ethics that for Luther “self-interest is always wrong. Luther eschews all syntheses of self-love and neighbor-love,” even as this blending of the two remains at the heart of mainstream economics today. Doherty explains that Luther condemns “many economic practices” of his own day as masking “vested interests and avarice” that violate God’s commands. While there is no grand conspiracy, it is nevertheless the case that for Luther those who write about “financial matters tend to be deliberately obscure, and this opacity is a camouflage for duplicity” – not unlike McCloskey’s assessment of the scientifically camouflaged writings today of the economics profession, although she has a much more favorable assessment of the results of capitalism than Luther did.
The apologists for the private marketplace, Luther thought, follow a convoluted “logic which justifies greedy behavior,” all the while ignoring the contrary “commands of Jesus [that] are refreshingly clear.” As Luther thus considers, “trust in the gospel may appear naïve, but true naivety would be an uncritical acceptance of economic claims” as put forth by those who rationalize the economic system.33 It all sounds rather similar to public debates today (think of current economic policy differences within the Democratic Party in the United States) and to attitudes widely held in the Nordic world in the twentieth century.. The language has changed radically but the content may be surprisingly little altered over even 500 years, reflecting the fact that the core issues dealt with by contemporary economics are normative and religious that often do not change in their essential character, even as they have frequently been disguised implicitly in more recent times in scientific economic language. We encounter again what has been a familiar refrain in the career of Deirdre McCloskey.
A Lutheran Ethic of Social Welfare
What was most radical about Luther was thus not the importance of doing good works but his transformed concept of the character of good works. Good works not only differed among Lutherans and Calvinists but the good works of the Catholic church had typically focused on things that would serve the Church itself. In one extreme case that incurred Luther’s particular wrath, the payment of indulgences, one form of good works, was designed to fill the coffers of the Roman church. But more broadly the Catholic Church had long promised the faithful that their prospects of salvation could be enhanced (or perhaps even guaranteed) by making monetary donations, performing services and making contributions of many other kinds to the Church. Hendrix describes a range of such longstanding forms of Catholic good works including “collecting relics and depositing them in local shrines, promising miracles and indulgences to believers who made pilgrimages to those shrines, adding alters to specific saints that attracted more devoted worshippers than the main alter where Mass was celebrated, endowing fraternities in the name of saints and hiring priests to say special Masses for themselves and their relatives.”34 The practice of confession offered numerous avenues for encouraging the faithful to do acts of penance in ways that would be practically beneficial to the Church.
The Reformation, however, meant the abolition of most of this. For a good Lutheran, good works should be actively done by all people and should aim to serve all people, not performed especially for the benefit of the Church itself. Luther thus called for the faithful to devotedly serve the welfare of their fellow human beings, beginning with the villages and other communities where they actually lived. For the monastic orders of monks and nuns, they also showed their devotion to God – and contributed to their own prospects of salvation -- by building Church structures and living in ways that kept them separate from the main body of the community. Here again, Luther’s revolution in theology and church practice with its new emphasis on the priesthood of all believers swept this aside. Luther’s efforts were admittedly abetted by the possibility created for rulers such as Henry VIII in England and Gustaf Adolphus in Sweden to confiscate large amounts of church property -- the products of past Catholic acts of good works -- for their own use and benefit. In England, by some estimates a third of the land in the nation had been owned by the Catholic Church prior to Henry’s secession from Rome in 1534, this fact itself a testimony to centuries of lay donations and other historical offerings to the Church in fulfillment of the longstanding religious obligations expected of good Catholics.
For Luther in his time, as Hendrix explains, “the opposite of faith was idolatry; trust in other gods of any stripe – idols made with hands, other human beings, noble ideals, or material goods,” much as modern life today seems to offer in abundance. For those who had true faith in God, however, they would surely pursue “all the genuine good works that were directed outward toward the neighbor in obedience to the remaining [nine] commandments. These good works were not religious activities,” as was the common understanding in the Roman Catholic Church, but involved “the dedication of one’s public and private lives to charity, honesty, sympathy, encouragement, aid, and justice” to the benefit of the full community itself.35 Sean Doherty sums this up well: “Based on this theological account of [civil] authority, Luther argues that it has a pro-active role in actively assisting the needy. Government’s role is not construed minimally or solely negatively (to restrain wickedness). It also carries responsibility for doing and promoting good. Hence, care for the needy is not a private affair left at one’s personal discretion, but a public, collective responsibility” of civil government.36 This must not be achieved for Luther by any forceful or revolutionary means but by the continuing spread in society of faith in God to more and more people in each nation and in the end throughout the world.
A further important Catholic form of good works was charity – almsgiving -- to the poor. As Lindberg remarks, the many biblical messages declaring “God’s preferential option for the poor gave them a decided edge in the pilgrimage to salvation (the rich can no more squeeze through the eye of a needle into heaven than can a camel). On the other hand, the [Catholic] church had long emphasized that almsgiving atones for sin.” This form of good works created a symbiotic relationship as “almsgiving provided the poor with some charity, enabled the rich to atone for their sins, and blessed the rich with the intercessions of the poor.” It was said that “God could have made all men rich, but he wanted poor men in this world, so that the rich might have an opportunity to redeem their sins.”37
The Calvinist ethic, by contrast, encouraged the poor to escape poverty, to improve themselves by the pursuit of an individual calling that one could hope would frequently result in some form of worldly success. In one respect, the Lutheran ethic was closer to the Catholic understanding in that it encouraged direct support for the poor, but this assistance should be the responsibility of the entire community, not a special responsibility of the rich themselves. For Luther, being poor was not a desirable state in and of itself; indeed, it was a condition to be overcome with hard work. The differing Catholic expectation, of charity from the rich to benefit a permanent class of the poor, has led in many Catholic nations to a lasting greater social stratification of rich and poor.38 It was in Protestant nations that general public education was first introduced in the nineteenth century; even today the nations of Catholic Latin America lag well behind in the quality of public education provided for the broad masses of the people.
In Argentina, Juan Peron built a lasting political movement based in significant part on pursuing policies of public charity and other government assistance for the masses. In the Lutheran welfare states of the North, by contrast, there was an emphasis placed on education, good health care, job training, and other means of improving the future prospects of the poor. While the Nordic countries achieved some of the lowest levels of income inequality in the world in the twentieth century, Latin American countries had some of the highest.39
Luther himself not only preached a message of communal care for the needy but was involved locally in its practical application. In Wittenberg beginning in 1522, he helped to establish a “common chest” for welfare work. Lindberg writes that it “was a new creation of the Reformation that transformed theology into social praxis,” including the assumption in Wittenberg of responsibilities for “care of the sick and elderly in hospitals, a medical office for the poor whose doctor, Melchior Fendt, established prophylactic measures in times of hunger and inflation, and support of communal schools.”40 Such ideas and methods soon spread beyond Wittenberg to other Reformation cities. While Luther preached a religious ethic of greater concern for others than oneself, he was also well aware that trust could not be unlimited and that helping others required disciplined efforts to ensure that poverty did not become a permanent condition. As Doherty explains,
It is worth noting the effective practical implications of this aspect of Luther’s thought in the common chest arrangements which he supervised. These reflect his so-called realism. Contributions were personal but mandatory. Recipients of disbursements were vetted to ensure that they were genuinely impoverished. Money from the chest was usually given to alleviate short term need, for example, if crops had been poor. Newcomers were given money to launch themselves in trade, or to tide them over while seeking employment. Recipients could not become perpetually dependent, unless they could not work for a strong reason such as age or illness. The intention was to foster a culture of local accountability, preventing abuses.41 Luther himself, as Doherty elaborates, does not press for the actual “enactment of the Sermon on the Mount” by means of the public measures of the civil authorities. Nevertheless, “his vision of the integrity of earthly justice yields far broader and higher standards than his disapproval” in other contexts of the German princes “ruling the world with the gospel” might have suggested. For civil rulers, as Luther sees it, their “purpose and calling are to govern in accordance with God’s will, to secure justice, and to provide for the needy.”42 Although many German princes and their subjects failed to live up to such ideals, following after Luther’s teachings and example, this would become at least in concept a guiding principle of the Lutheran state churches of the Nordic countries that followed the Reformation -- and thus a future guiding principle for all of Nordic society.
As Pirjo Markkola and Ingela Naumann explain, “for many centuries, the Lutheran churches had a hegemonic status and the clergy represented both the state and the church in local communities” – local Nordic theocracies in effect in which the normative values of the Lutheran clergy were the values of the state as locally present.43 Five hundred years later, Luther’s original teaching of using the state to advance the interests of one’s neighbors, not of oneself, remained a prominent feature of the culture of the Nordic social democracies with their unusually powerful sense of the social solidarity of all the people of the nation.
In 1998, Harvard University sociologist Aage Sorensen thus found that in the twentieth century the Nordic social democratic ethic could be traced to Lutheran influences centuries earlier. As he wrote, “the generosity of the welfare state system” in the Nordic countries depended in the twentieth century on “the prevalence of beliefs in the efficacy of rules and intentions.” In many other non-Nordic societies, they were characterized by higher levels of “opportunism,” “rule-violation,” and “rent-seeking.” If such ways of thinking had prevailed in the Nordic countries, the unusually generous Nordic welfare state would have rapidly broken down under the pressure of a growing popular tendency to exploit it for individual private gain (something Sorensen fears may now actually be a growing danger even within the Nordic world itself).44
Seeking to trace the origins of Nordic social solidarity, Sorensen examines how “basic elements were created in 18th century absolutism and its spiritual support system Lutheran Pietism.” It was the “conflation of autocratic and militaristic regimes with Pietism that created an emphasis on education, and support for the poor, orphaned and infirm that is quite consistent with the objectives and concerns of the modern welfare state.” Pietism in the Nordic countries typically saw itself as a new reformation -- amounting to a “Second Reformation” -- within the Lutheran church itself, a revival of the true message of Luther that had been frequently lost in the intervening centuries to be replaced by an increasingly arid – indeed often a scholastic -- version of Lutheranism. As Sorensen writes, it was the newly Pietistic eighteenth- century Lutheran state church “model for the relationship between king and subject that was to become the model for the relationship between state and citizen in the modern Scandinavian welfare state. It is a relationship of obedience and respect for the good intentions of the ruler and his agents, who want to help and support those in need.”45
Unlike the Calvinist ethic of individual worldly success, the Lutheran ethic thus substitutes adherence to the Golden Rule in the daily affairs of life. This Lutheran ethic was still alive and well in the reformed Lutheranism of the eighteenth century Nordic world and continued to be influential throughout the nineteenth century in its explicitly religious forms. By the mid twentieth century, however, it had been transformed at least outwardly to become a secular belief system; the Lutheran ethic was still present and providing the requisite normative glue for Nordic society but it now was implicit. Officially, social science and especially economics guided the public and private course of Nordic social democracy, reflecting a Nordic climate of increasing skepticism and even antagonism towards traditional religious beliefs. But this popular distancing of Nordic culture from religion was an illusion; the powerful Lutheran values underlying Nordic social democracy had instead been camouflaged, disguised in various forms of ostensibly more “scientific” thinking. McCloskey had similarly argued in 1983 that economics offers powerful social values and a guiding social philosophy (a secular religion if you will) disguised as science.46
Recently, the continuing presence of a special Nordic ethic of trust and compassion towards others was illustrated in one specific case by a journalistic experiment in which 192 wallets containing money and identifying information were intentionally dropped in 2013 – as though they had been lost – in 16 cities around the world. In Helsinki (the only Nordic city studied), 11 out of the 12 dropped wallets were returned to the owners, the highest such rate in the world. In total, about half the dropped wallets were returned worldwide; when asked why they had done so, a common answer was a strong sense of personal sympathy for the individual wallet owner -- a modern application of the Golden Rule. In societies apparently not sharing that sentiment as widely, at the bottom of the list were such cities as Lisbon (1 of 12 wallets returned), Madrid (2 of 12), Prague (3 of 12), and Rio de Janeiro, Bucharest and Zurich (4 of 12) -- none in historically Lutheran countries.47 Some of the Finns returning the wallets expressed pride in serving a national culture of honesty and trustworthiness. It is a common view as recently expressed by the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his efforts to resolve international conflicts in Kosovo and elsewhere, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. He believes and preaches to his fellow citizens that “the Finnish attribute [that] is the most conducive to generating personal and professional success … is Finnish honesty and trustworthiness.”48
The Lutheran Roots of Nordic Social Democracy
In her more recent books The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce and Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, Deirdre McCloskey explores the normative foundations of capitalism. What she is examining in significant part are the “bourgeois virtues” and the “bourgeois dignity” associated with the evolution of the Calvinist ethic. Calvinism, however, had much less impact on the Nordic world than it had on much of the rest of the Protestant world. In the Nordic world, it was the Lutheran ethic that shaped the Nordic version of the modern world. It is equally true in this particular case that economics “can’t explain the Nordic world,” but the actually driving “virtues” and the actually driving sense of “dignity” of the Nordic world are Lutheran, not Calvinist.
Nordic scholars have been acknowledging more frequently in recent years that powerful normative forces were necessary to sustain the Nordic welfare state of the twentieth century. This partly reflects a new level of introspection in light of a perceived waning of Nordic public confidence in the long run future of its welfare states. As the normative foundation of the Nordic welfare state has been threatened, it has created a new awareness of its presence and core values -- previously simply taken for granted -- and of its vital importance for the healthy functioning of the welfare state. In 2005, for example, an edited book collection appeared on Normative Foundations of the Welfare State: The Nordic Experience. The Norwegian editors, Nanna Kildal and Stein Kuhnle, explain that “the current external and internal challenges to the moral structures of welfare states have given normative analyses and normative theory in welfare research a more important role than has so far been the case” in the mainstream scholarship of the Nordic welfare state. They recall that in the past “normative analyses did not swell the ranks of welfare research publications during the Nordic ‘golden age’ of public welfare expansion” from the 1940s to the 1970s. Over the past two decades, however, “publications on welfare issues have been increasingly raising questions about the norms and values that are embedded in welfare policies.” This is becoming more urgent in the twenty first century because in the “assessment of several minor and larger, more or less incremental or casual, welfare reforms during recent decades, studies of the more or less hidden governing values and principles in welfare policies are crucial for any interpretations, justifications or rejections of them.”49
Kildal and Kuhnle thus acknowledge that key values underlying Nordic social democracy and the welfare state have often been unacknowledged or “hidden.” As a result, as one might say, key welfare state values remained for the most part “implicit values.” It was in a way like Christianity in medieval Europe where there was little perceived medieval need to examine closely the relevance or applicability of Christianity to the great issues of the time; that was simply automatic. The most influential religions of the twentieth century -- the various forms of secular religion -- often had a similar character. With their core values taken as virtual givens, secular religions were not even recognized explicitly as religions, regarded simply as core modern truths requiring little further elaboration or justification. For many of these secular religions of the twentieth century, the central article of faith was that humanly guided scientific and economic progress -- not the Christian God of old -- will save the world.
Here again, times have been changing. The British Anglican vicar Edward Bailey launched a scholarly movement in the 1970s to study what he labeled as “implicit religion” – a term he preferred to the similar “secular religion” that he regarded, however, as an oxymoron. As interest spread in his efforts, he founded the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality in 1995, began publishing the journal Implicit Religion in 1998, and held annual meetings in England for many years where international scholars with related interests assembled (he died in 2015).50 Partly due to Bailey’s efforts, there is now a chair in implicit religion at Cambridge University. He writes in 2012 that “there is much to be gained if we recognize the presence of actual religions in modern life whose true religious tenets are mainly expressed in hidden and thus implicit ways.” Hence, we may advance significantly in our understanding of the workings of modern society if we “apply something of what we now know about [traditional] religious life, to [study] ordinary secular life” where actual religion is often still powerfully present in disguised forms. – as McCloskey would say, the real religious message is hidden in the rhetoric.
Yet, the strong tradition in the social sciences in the twentieth century of seeking to do “value-free” analysis has proven a large obstacle to doing careful research on the implicit religious values of the welfare state. When the driving historical role of values and culture are studied, these factors are typically regarded as important “inputs” (hence the term “social capital”) into social outcomes. But with a few exceptions -- almost none of them economists -- social scientists mostly have lacked experience in the study of how the core values of a society are actually formed. This would require inquiry into the internal dynamics of the creation and evolution of religions, a subject for economists seemingly fit mainly for a theologian.
For much of the twentieth century, moreover, social science did not take religion very seriously at all, believing that its role in society was fading and might well disappear altogether in the longer run. In the 2005 book noted above on the Normative Foundations of the Welfare State, except for a chapter by Bo Strath, the subject of the possible large importance of religion in sustaining the Nordic welfare state seldom comes up. It is mostly taken for granted that the key powerful values underlying the Nordic welfare state are secular values such as social “equality” and the “universalism” in the provision of benefits by the Nordic state. Remarkably in light of the central role of Lutheran religion in shaping the Nordic world for many centuries, the historical fact of this pervasive Lutheran presence is rarely discussed (again, with the Strath chapter excepted). There are no entries for “Martin Luther” or “Lutheranism” in what is generally a comprehensive index.
To give another example of the continuing blind spot of surprisingly many Nordic social scientists when it comes to religion, it was still possible in 2013 for three Norwegian political scientists, Nik Brandal, Oivind Bratberg, and Dag Einar Thorsen, to write an intellectual history of Nordic social democracy, beginning with developments in the nineteen century, and include only a brief mention of Nordic religion and essentially nothing about the large influence of Lutheranism itself. Ironically, their book The Nordic Model of Social Democracy is itself a strong implicit religious statement, in this case of the secularized Lutheranism that was the actual religion of twentieth century social democracy.51
As one might conjecture, the Nordic scholarly neglect of the large role of Lutheranism in the rise and functioning of social democracy in the twentieth century may well have been deliberate, an implicit way of effectively saying that social democracy is built on a newly modern foundation of objective scientific truth that has transcended the past ignorance and biases of traditional religion. Since the implicit religion of social democracy seeks the secular salvation of the world in “progress,” it is important to be able to assert that the forward march of progress extends to matters of religion as well – that the new social democratic understanding of society has left the old religions behind as it marches forward into a glorious new progressive future. To explicitly acknowledge the continuing powerful presence of the Lutheran heritage might be disconcerting if not distressing.
Brandal, et al. describe how in the early history of Nordic social democracy there was often a large element of “socialist utopianism” -- what Bailey would call a implicit religion.52 This was partly a reflection of the significant Marxist influence in the development of European social democracy in the first decades of the twentieth century. Many millions were attracted to the idea that the class struggle would lead to a perfect world under a state of true communism; it would be heaven on earth, a secularization of longstanding millennial hopes and expectations of Christianity. Indeed, Luther in his own time was firmly convinced that the last days with Christ finally returning to earth would be arriving soon. The millennial expectations among many of the communist -- and early social democratic -- faithful were almost as optimistic with respect to the near term prospects for a new heaven on earth.
As has happened to many previous millennial expectations, the bleak history of the first half of the twentieth century dashed any such hopes. Brandel et. al. thus warn that social democrats today should be careful to avoid their old mistake that in their earliest days they tended “to err on the side of naivete rather than cynicism.”53 But the underlying economic determinism of Marxism and other “economic religions” survived in less utopian forms, perhaps nowhere more so than in the social democracies of the Nordic world, outwardly among the most “secular” of societies. While cautioning against excessive optimism, in 2013 Brandel et al. write that for both left and right “ends of the political spectrum, it is imperative that the economy, by historical necessity, constitutes the driving force behind societal developments” towards a much better future. , Having shed their Marxist roots, Nordic social democrats believed from the 1930s onward that “democratically elected parliaments could and should regulate the economy, in order to create an improved society and a better world.”54 Political management of the economy, following the advice of economic experts, and including a large role for private enterprise under tight state oversight, would be the key to a continuing Nordic march of progress.
Instead of the old naïve utopianism, Brandal et al. now thus suggest that Nordic social democrats should present themselves to the world as “moderate optimists who – in spite of everything – believe that it is possible to work systematically for a better world in gradual steps, thinking through how the world works at the moment, and how it could be improved and better organized.” There should nevertheless be no abandoning of the fundamental “social democratic perception of the world [that it] is one of continuous progress,” even if no culminating end state to progress can be specified in any detail. Yet, since World War II, Brandel et.al. find that, as experience has shown, there is “no doubt that the world is a better place … as a result of systematic and consistent work for a better future.” We can expect continuing progress to further advance “basic values that point out the direction in which we ought to be headed. The pursuit of “democracy and decent living conditions for all regardless of status and background is perhaps the clearest example” of the social democratic values whose realization will – seemingly more slowly than once expected – in the long run triumph and transform the world.55
As Brandel et al. sum up such a social democratic vision for the future, “war, dictatorship, poverty and hunger are evils which will continue to be sources of human misery for the foreseeable future. But the struggle against these evils has merely just begun.” Here their language does come close to the moral judgements of Martin Luther who also saw the world filled with “evil” actions -- and for Luther as well we could expect a much better future in heaven if not on earth. As Brandel et al. write further, “progressive ideas have been met with fierce resistance and great obstacles before.” But there is no reason to abandon hope now; “the development of welfares states and democratic citizenship rights in Northern Europe in the years after the Second World War” – the years of Nordic social democratic political triumph – offer “indeed a powerful reminder that people can through peaceful [democratic] means change their own lives and the world for the better, even under quite unfavorable circumstances” such as the continuing tensions of the Cold War and the harsh northern climate.56
Brandal et al. proclaim that Nordic social democrats must today spread the progressive word of past Nordic successes as an example to other parts of the world. Indeed, the encouragement and support for such a global progressive faith will itself be a necessary element in the long run worldwide success of the progressive cause. Without this core faith, it will be impossible to sustain the national solidarity in other parts of the world that has been so essential to the Nordic model of social democracy. Indeed, at times Brandel et. al. come surprisingly close to suggesting that the progressive heaven on earth will be attained “by faith alone.” Without faith in its values and methods, the social democratic cause is hopeless; with faith, the future is assured. The Nordic progressive God of the twentieth century apparently still bears some important resemblances to the God of Martin Luther 500 years ago.
Brandel and his two fellow Norwegian political scientists thus write that social democracy is “an international movement because it believes that its most basic ideas and demands are of a universal nature.” As a result, its “values therefore ought to be equally appreciated across the globe.” This reflects the social democratic conviction “that solidarity across borders, and between different people and cultures, is a necessary precondition for the development of a better and more peaceful world.” Although the final goal is a true international solidarity of all peoples everywhere -- where national boundaries would be minimized or abolished -- the practical realities today have meant that social democrats have “accepted and adopted the nation state as a useful and indeed necessary arena for the exercise [and spread] of democracy in the modern world.” 57 The long run objective nevertheless remains “supranational and intergovernmental cooperation” among all nations. Modern history has shown that nationalism all too easily leads to large divisions and excesses among human beings that were among the leading causes of the many evils of the twentieth century.
Despite their disavowals, it is apparent that an implicit utopianism still lies behind the hopes of Brandal et. al. for a future perfection of human life on earth (like most earlier socialists and other progressives, they have little to say about nonhuman life). Here again, the actual roots of Nordic social democracy are to be found in the Lutheran heritage of the Nordic countries. Indeed, it is not only Lutheranism but all of Christianity that seeks to offer universal truths for all human beings. Christianity must transcend national aspirations to serve the community of the world. It shares this missionary zeal with Islam – another Abrahamic religion – but otherwise such a goal has not been typical of religions outside the West. China, for example, has never exhibited a powerful drive to perfect the rest of the world in a Chinese mold. Following the Enlightenment, however, the missionary tradition of Christianity would often be absorbed by new implicit forms of Christianity such as Marxism and socialism – and in the Nordic countries a new state church of social democracy in which Brandel, et al. are true believers.
Some “McCloskeys” of the Nordic World
As elsewhere, however, change is in the air in the Nordic world. They have not been as systematic in their efforts as Deirdre McCloskey but some students of Nordic history and society have been seeking to move beyond the disciplinary boundaries of the contemporary university, to include religion in its diverse forms as an important historical factor, and in general to escape the tight limitations of conventional secular modes of thought that dominated Nordic intellectual discourse for much of the twentieth century..
As recently as 2008, it was possible for the German sociologist of religion Michael Opielka to write that “little research exists reflecting the religious foundations of welfare states.” The usual view of students of the welfare state -- including the Nordic social democracies -- had long been “to avoid treating religion as an external variable of decision makers or national cultures, or even as an independent variable belonging at the centre of social policy analysis.” As a result, “cultural or religious factors have seldom played a role in comparative research on the welfare state.”58 This began to change, however, about 25 years ago, around the same time that McCloskey’s work began to receive growing attention..
In calling for change, Opielka argues, moreover, that the impact of religion on the welfare state goes well beyond that of traditional Catholic and Protestant religion, reflecting a “growing awareness of the complexity and plurality of religions in the sociology of religion and in the sciences of religion” that has expanded the concept of “religion” beyond “the traditional quintet or septet of world religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, plus Confucianism and Daoism.” Opielka agrees with the 1970s understanding of the American sociologist Talcott Parsons that “religion is the social subsystem which organizes, through ‘ultimate values,’ the society’s relations to an ‘ultimate reality.”59 This is partly because a closer analysis almost invariably shows that “behind elaborated [contemporary] political and ideological values one always finds a realm of religious values” of some kind or another -- often misleadingly described by twentieth century writers as “secular.”60
The appearance in 1997 of the The Cultural Construction of Norden was something of an intellectual breakthrough in Nordic history.61 A chapter by the Finnish historian Henrik Stenius was titled “The Good Life is a Life of Conformity: The Impact of Lutheran Tradition on Nordic Political Culture.”62 Opening up new avenues for social inquiry, the editors Oystein Sorensen and Bo Strath write that “it is not particularly difficult to imagine the social democrats as a secularized Lutheran movement;” indeed, as they summarized matters, a main conclusion of the book was that in the Nordic world of the twentieth century “social democracy [is] a continuation/transformation of Lutheranism.”63 In another chapter, the Norwegian theologian Dag Thorkildsen writes that “the two pillars of the welfare state have been full employment and social security. These two pillars correspond with two central ideas in Lutheranism: daily work as the fulfillment of God’s vocation, and a priesthood of all believers. The idea of full employment may be seen as [a Nordic] secularization of the [traditional Lutheran] emphasis on the importance of daily work, which was reinforced during the periods of Pietism and revivalism” in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.64
University of Helsinki sociologist Risto Alapuro wrote a year later in 1998 that “after the Reformation … there was no rivalry between the state and the church and no protest movement from below,” as all the Nordic nations ended up with top-down Lutheran state churches. This continued into the twentieth century to a surprising extent as “the role of the Lutheran tradition in the development of the welfare state” continued in new ways. As Alapuro writes, “a new ‘secularized Lutheranism’ in the form of the social democratic parties continued the Lutheran tradition in the construction of the welfare state.”65
The Nordic scholars Jon Kvist, Johan Fritzell, Bjorn Hvinden and Olli Kangas wrote in
2012 that two core social values were central to the functioning of the Nordic welfare states in the twentieth century. One is a “passion for equality” which lies behind the Nordic commitment “to provide uniform income protection and access to high-quality services and to a considerable extent, even for the system of [nationally conducted] collective bargaining about wages and occupational benefits.” A second core Nordic value has been “a passion for work” which “is broadly seen as a goal in itself. … Having a job is understood as being the key to achieving autonomy and emancipation.”66 These are not, to be sure, new values in the Nordic world. As the Norwegian student of religious history Dag Thorkildsen puts it, “two pillars of the welfare state … correspond to two central ideas in Lutheranism: daily work as the fulfillment of God’s vocation, and a priesthood of all believers.” The latter, he writes, “promoted a culture of equality, where obvious wealth and large social differences were not acceptable because fundamentally all individuals are equal and have the same worth” in society.67 The deep Nordic sense of social solidarity has its roots in the Lutheran ethic.
In a book appearing in 2009, Religion, Class Coalitions, and Welfare States, the Dutch political scientist Kees Van Kersbergen and the German political economist Philip Manow examine how the European welfare state has taken characteristically different forms, according to whether the historic religion of a nation is Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed Protestant.68 American political scientist Karen Anderson observes that “religion as an explanatory variable is conspicuously absent in most accounts of the historical development of the Scandinavian welfare states,” a gap she now seeks to help fill in a chapter on “The Church as Nation?: The Role of Religion in the Development of the Swedish Welfare State.”69 As Sigrun Kahl sums up matters in the concluding chapter, the different forms of historic religion of a nation in Europe have “generated political consensus and affected the emergence of different welfare states – through the institutionalization of [different] religious doctrines into countries poor relief systems, and the secularization of these institutions” in the development of national welfare states in correspondingly different ways according to the historic religion of a nation.70 In another 2009 book, Anders Backstrom and Grace Davie conclude that Lutheranism offers the strongest form of religious support for the establishment of an all-encompassing welfare state, as reflected in the fact that “the Lutheran countries of Northern Europe, including Germany, were the first to develop systems of welfare and social insurance” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.71
Roman Catholicism, by contrast, has often perceived the national welfare state as a secular challenge to its own longstanding history of church provision of social services, thus causing it to offer resistance and to seek to limit the process of welfare state expansion. If perhaps to a lesser degree, Calvinism has also been less congenial to the welfare state for similar reasons. This was much less of a factor in the Lutheran Nordic world, however, because the social democracies of the Nordic welfare state could easily step into the shoes of the former Lutheran state churches that date to the sixteenth century. All this lent support to the conclusion that “modernity does not necessarily entail the displacement of religion, but is more likely to mean a change in its form, function and content. ‘Religious change’ is therefore a more helpful label than ‘secularization’ when describing the position and role of religion and religious organizations in late modern European societies.”72
Finally, and most recently, an important collection of writings on “Lutheranism and the Nordic Welfare States” came from a surprising source, a 2014 special issue of the American Journal of Church and State (published at Baylor University in Texas), guest edited by Ingela Naumann from Edinburgh University in Scotland and Pirjo Markkola from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland. The various articles, they write, affirm that “the Lutheran inheritance” has provided a key “cultural backdrop of welfare state development” in the Nordic countries.73 This growing body of scholarship, however, has thus far been read mainly by a limited number of professional specialists. The central role of the Lutheran heritage in shaping Nordic social democracies has not penetrated widely into Nordic public discussion or even into mainstream Nordic intellectual life -- perhaps because it might have heretical implications for the religion of social democracy itself.
The new scholarship has also been long on descriptions of the mounting empirical evidence for a strong continuing Lutheran influence in the twentieth century and short on study of past and present Lutheran theology and the specific ways that the Lutheran theological heritage has been secularized in the twentieth century in forming Nordic social democratic thought and practice. In describing a “Lutheran ethic,” and showing how it contrasts with a “Calvinist ethic,” seeking to follow in the spirit of Max Weber, this chapter -- and my forthcoming book-- hope to move that discussion forward.
Even as a greater recognition of the historical social and economic importance of religion began to develop towards the end of the twentieth century, few (if any) American economics, sociology, or history departments introduced the routine study of Christian religion as a part of their curricula (a few individual students did of course enter into such studies for their own professional purposes). Indeed, there might not have been any faculty members in these areas with the knowledge to teach theological history as a basis for examining its past and continuing important consequences for all of society. Within theology schools, it is the opposite: they have mostly focused on the history and conceptual issues within religion itself, seldom seeking to explore the profound political and economic consequences for contemporary America and Europe of historic religious beliefs and events -- in earlier centuries and now continuing into our own time. Breaking down the artificial separations between the historical and social sciences and religious studies will be a large challenge to the strict disciplinary specializations – even theology has now become a “professional” field of its own -- that today characterize the university world.
Although she has not entered deeply into the study of theology as part of her own investigations into economic history, the research and writings of Deirdre McCloskey provide an exemplary case of transcending disciplinary boundaries. She has also sought vigorously to penetrate below surface appearances such as the pervasively overstated scientific claims (outside the area of the study of the natural world) of the modern era. McCloskey’s career offers us a model that should now be more widely followed among economists, sociologists, historians and others who wish to delve at the deepest level into modern political and economic history.
1 The remainder of this chapter is adapted from portions of Robert H. Nelson, The Lutheran Roots of Social Democracy in the Nordic Countries: With a Special Emphasis on Finland (unpublished book manuscript, 2015).