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Johann-Christian Põder: Lutheranism and the welfare society

Stained glass window in Wiesloch Church, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, featuring Martin Luther (L) and Jean Calvin (R)
Stained glass window in Wiesloch Church, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, featuring Martin Luther (L) and Jean Calvin (R) Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Estonian theologian Dr. Johann-Christian Põder, dynamic state reforms along individualist capitalist lines, which he sees as stemming from a more 'Calvinist' approach to society, need to be counter-balanced with the greater solidarity and mutual respect evinced by Lutheran societies.

Dr. Põder's comment comes in the light of calls for a reformation, not in religion but in the workings of the Estonian state and its organs, particularly with the emergence of a new think tank 'The Foundation for State Reform'. He writes also in response to an opinion piece by former Estonian ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Marten Kokk, who stated that Estonia did not need such wide-ranging reforms as the think tank were proposing. Marten Kokk pointed to the Nordic countries such as neighbouring Finland, all of whose public sectors are far larger and more costly than Estonia's without being detrimental to those countries' economies.

Dr Põder's opinion piece originally ran on ERR here (in Estonian) and is directly quoted as follows:

''Marten Kokk recently pointed out a number of factors behind the success of the Nordic countries. He highlighted a successful entrepreneurship, which is balanced adequately with the public sector, a reforming streak, high levels of public trust, an openness and egalitarianism, and an investment in people. Against this background, Kokk says, higher levels of government spending have not been an impediment to social progress.

Enter Weber and Calvin

In this article, I would like to further these points through one particular perspective, which sheds light on the importance of values and world view in explaining economic conditions. The most prominent proponent of this view was the economist and sociologist Max Weber, who complemented more materialistic theories (such as Marxism) with an emphasis on the role of ideas in economic progress.

But what was Weber's main observation here? He noticed that, statistically-speaking, nominally or culturally Protestant societies and states were often wealthier than nominally or culturally Roman Catholic ones (in Weber's own time). In seeking an explanation for why this was so, Weber noted in his classic work 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' (1905) the overlap between Protestant, or more specifically Calvinist ethics, and the propagation of capitalism.

Weber attempted to demonstrate how the teachings of Swiss reformer Jean Calvin (1509-1564) could engender a feeling of insecurity and even fear in believers in regions where Calvinism predominated, in particular the idea of predestination [actually double predestination – ed.] in which all people were foreordained either to go to either heaven or hell.

This fear in turn expressed itself in a rather harsh and ascetic approach to the work ethic. Efficiency, discipline and success in the workplace was supposedly confirmation of the fact that the individual believer was indeed predestined for bliss, and the more successful a business was, the greater the certainty of eternal salvation, in this mindset (it should be noted that such a viewpoint may not be a majority opinion amongst present-day Calvinists).

This puritanical work ethic was characterized by endless and rather joyless rationalizing processes and procedures interfering in employer-employee relations, for instance as found in the operations of the great 'Calvinist' business tycoon John D. Rockefeller.

For Weber, such a stance was essential to functioning capitalist development, though it shouldn't have been taken as an absolute dogma. Weber also noted toward the end of his great work on the topic, that he did not champion the wholesale replacement of materialist theories with his more 'spiritualist' approach.

Nonetheless, his ideas have sparked many subsequent discussions and social critiques on the relationship between culture and economics. Weber asked critically and pointedly what characterized contemporary (for him) 'iron-caged' capitalist societies and what differed from the religious core of earlier societies.

If there is any truth to Max Weber's analysis, then we in Estonia are also in some sense a part of the legacy of the 'Calvinist' work ethic.

The rational nature and systematic force of capitalism has spread worldwide and forms the basis of many societies. Moreover, whilst most of us cannot consciously equate work success with salvation or otherwise, many of us nonetheless seek satisfaction and fulfillment at work. Whilst Calvinism may at best be consigned to history for many people, we still reflect in an indirect and secular way the heart of Calvinism, according to Weber's view.

What of Estonia's Lutheran legacy?

But more than that, here in Estonia the question arises as to what effect our own Lutheran legacy has left us with. Has the idea of a 'Lutheran work ethic' any credence and if so has it made any impact? We could in fact couch the question in this way: is Calvinism to capitalism what Lutheranism is to the Nordic welfare society model?

This is actually the thesis of a recent book by American economist Robert H Nelson called 'Lutheranism and the Nordic Sprit of Social Democracy' (2017). Nelson isn't the first person to propound such a theory but the title of the book speaks for itself and helps it stand out from the pack.

Nelson underlines how a strong social welfare society has developed in those nations with a nominally Lutheran background. All of these countries, he says, are characterized by a strong work ethic, mutual public trust, equality and solidarity and experience low levels of corruption.

How, then, can Martin Luther (1483-1546), the guiding light of the German Reformation be seen in relation to today's welfare society and social democracy?

Generally speaking, the 'Lutheran work ethic' is particularly vigorous in relation to the well-being of one's companion. Luther had a clear picture of the workplace as a secular sphere where every believer can best live a life pleasing to God and loving and serving their companions.

Another important aspect of Lutheranism is with regard to church-state relations. Although the churches' union with the monarch or other secular ruler [Lutheranism spread in northern Europe mainly as a result of its being adopted by secular princes, monarchs etc. as opposed to being a more grass roots level phenomenon as Calvinism was – ed.] had some negative aspects, it was very important in emphasizing and shaping the social dimension of the state. Faith and politics, whilst different spheres, are inextricably linked.

Luther left no doubt about his support for rulers having their say in matters of social welfare - so, in his interpretation of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism, * he sees care of the poor and vulnerable as being the task of the ruler.

With the emergence of the modern welfare society the form of governance may have changed, but the general underlying attitude remained, however, much the same.

The well-formed and progressive nature of the Nordic mentality can thus be seen against a Lutheran backdrop even at a time when most people do not conflate the organization of societal welfare with religious beliefs. Hard-working, caring, generous people who respect the dignity and equality of others are also all distinct hallmarks of the Nordics; It's no surprise, then, that Nelson has also dubbed the Nordic welfare society 'a secular Lutheranism'.

If the ghosts of religious beliefs now largely dormant or deceased are still haunting us, we could at the very least try to be decent 'Lutherans' in addition to being decent 'Calvinists'. The 'Calvinistic' zeal of free-market inspired state reforms ought to be balanced out by a profound solidarity and mutual respect as idealised by Lutheran folk.

There is of course a natural tendency to be sceptical about the implementation of the Nordic model in countries where there is no deep-seated Lutheran tradition. In Estonia, however, we are in a different situation. We have had a capitalist boom in recent years, but our roots lie in a spiritual soil similar to those of the Nordic countries.

The problems that dog socially-democratic or welfare state-oriented societies today - a demographic shift and the so-called nanny state for instance - should not make us turn our backs on our Lutheran past nor away from the Nordic countries, but rather encourage the design of the best possible form of commonality''.


Johann-Christian Põder is an Estonian theologian, ethicist and clergyman in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK).

*Luther's Large Catechism (1529) is a document addressing primarily clergymen, where Luther gives instruction for the teaching of congregations.

The fourth (in the Lutheran understanding) of the ten commandments is: 'You shall honour your father and your mother that it may be well with you and you may live long upon the earth'. Luther considered the secular ruler as "father" of an entire state, and he was emphasising the "social duty" of this father.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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