God’s Work Ethic

by Howard Belkamp, March 3, 2010

Protestant guilt-work ethic? A cruel deception prom­ulgated by the rich, the bosses, the early versions of the corporate exec who sits on his ass collecting bonuses while cutting the pay of the poor schmucks who do the actual work.

Bringing God into it is only more despicable. One of my childhood friends was from a blue-collar Catho­lic family. Trade unionists. The father was a house painter. The sons, a plumber, a glazier, another painter… One exception was the music teacher, and of course there was the requisite son who dutifully entered the priesthood. A missionary, no less, out to turn the whole world Catholic.

The father, an alcoholic of course, would come home from work and complain bitterly about how you can't get ahead, or “get what you want in this world,” yet fully expected the sons to follow in his footsteps. The church gave them no comfort other than the promise of pie in the sky and license to feel righteous in belonging to the One True Church. Despite all this, the father clung furiously to the work ethic and never acknowledged the connection between his choices in life and his misery. The sons would mock his com­plaints even as they began the long walk in his shoes.

The daughters, three of them, were fully expected to marry men like their brothers, produce more Catholics and live the same harried, overworked life as their mother.

If there is a Protestant work ethic, it lacks the cru­elty of the Catholics. After all, Protestant ministers don't ritually flagellate themselves, or practice institu­tionalized child abuse. I don’t know the details of the various Protestant denominations, although I appreci­ate the origin of the term, “Protest.”

As a child I was sent to Presbyterian Sunday School by my Scottish mother, a woman with an acid wit and no dogmatic beliefs of any kind. It occurs to me that I may have been sent to Sunday School so she could see how I would react. All I can remember about it is the “teacher” passing out candy (little chocolate-mint pel­lets), and a painting on the wall of a blond Jesus kneel­ing in a perfectly manicured city park, talking to two happy white children, a boy and a girl. All dressed in shimmering white. No work ethic was mentioned at Sunday School, and when I stopped going my mother said nothing.

When she was diagnosed with cancer and sent to St. Francis hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, the nuns hovered around her as she was dying and called in a priest to convert her to Catholicism. No choice. No one who died there was given an option.

Garrison Keillor’s portrayal of Minnesota Luther­ans on his radio show suggests a dour bunch who would prefer that everyone work hard — and have no fun, although they don’t do much to actively prevent it.

But there need be no religion attached to the work ethic. One of my right wing antagonists on the internet is an avowed atheist, choosing instead to believe in the righteousness of hard work and the kind of “responsi­bility” that politicians love to see in their lower-class constituents, and corporate bosses depend on in their workforce: willing to spend their life toiling at a job they hate, and fully able to feel smug and self-satisfied about it.

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