Albeit much maligned, the Protestant work ethic is preferable to the secular entitlement ethic.
If you are curious about the restoration of the Protestant work ethic with the focus on hard work and thrift – and without the theological claim that it is evidence of one’s eternal salvation – keep reading.
If not, skip it. EthicsDaily.com has a variety of other articles that might be of greater interest.
From my perspective, we need to challenge the entitlement mindset, not necessarily all “entitlement programs.”
But the attitude, the expectation, that must be challenged is that one is entitled to special status based on real or perceived grievances, rights of culture, or a heritage of affirmation.
Much of our cultural polarization is rooted in no small degree over those who favor work and those who think they are entitled.
Legendary Georgetown University college basketball coach John Thompson carried in his wallet a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”
Thompson had an abundance of challenges over which he had to overcome – low performance academically as a child, social ostracism due to physical size, prejudice against African-Americans as being qualified as college basketball coaches.
I arrived at Georgetown soon after Thompson had been hired as a head coach and had experienced little success. He even suffered the indignity of a sign hung in the gym that said, “the n—– flop must go.”
However, the Jesuit fathers stuck with him. And he and they achieved great success. He became the first African-American coach to win a national NCAA championship in 1984.
He worked hard. He always quickly credited the Georgetown fathers for his success.
He didn’t succumb to the myth of the American bootstrap that sees raw individualism as the sole determining factor for success. He knew community played a fundamental role in accomplishment.
For years, I carried the Longfellow quote in my wallet and cited it often to my children.
My own background was one of abundant challenges. Raised in one cultural ethos as a low-performing student, I was thrust unprepared to live in another cultural ethos at the end of high school with a family that had meager financial resources, significant health care challenges and few employment opportunities.
Moving from a lifetime in Nigeria to the fragmenting cultural society in America resulted in a whiplash of conflict and rootlessness.
My parents overcame their circumstance by delayed economic gratification, two-parent employment, sacrificial savings – and the assistance of a beloved community.
My mother – with five children – returned to the University of Florida, where she earned a doctor of education degree and began a college teaching career.
My father with multiple sclerosis held small church pastorates and invested in real estate. They earned and saved. They insured a college education for their children.
They had been raised in poverty. Both my mother’s parents worked outside the home in low-paying jobs and lived in a home with an outhouse.
My father was raised in a tiny “shotgun house” in a poor neighborhood in Jacksonville, Fla. His mother worked. His father had been raised by an uncle after his birth-parents self-destructed.
He achieved a fifth-grade education and held multiple low-income jobs for decades before finding success.
Of course, my parents, their parents and their grandparents experienced the Great Depression.
But the family persevered from generation to generation. Everyone worked. Everyone sacrificed. They slowly accumulated wealth. They benefited from Roosevelt’s Land Grant Colleges, FDR’s social programs, the GI bill, Eisenhower’s interstate system.
They never voiced the individualistic bootstrap myth.
During my own tenure at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I witnessed professors who taught full loads, worked overtime to nurture students, and then did weekend preaching opportunities to make up for the meager seminary paychecks.
They worked hard, denied themselves and sacrificed.
This Baptist tradition was following the Methodist teachings of John Wesley, who said earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can.
That moral tradition, that faith practice, reinforced the American work ethic, which is under much criticism from some quarters – the academy and political liberalism.
It is embedded in Republican families where parents have fostered the entitlement mindset in their own children.
One would be wrong to assign the entitlement mindset based on race or class.
One deeply respects the nation’s undocumented workers who risk and work hard, knowing that they and their American-born children will not benefit from many of society’s social benefits – from Social Security in retirement to health care services to in-state college tuition for their children.
They embody the best of the American work ethic.
On the other hand, are the middle and upper-middle income American children with college degrees who refuse to work because they think they are entitled to high-paying jobs with prestigious assignments that allow them to seek employment only when they feel like it.
They expect first-rate material items – cars, clothing, the latest technology. They are, after all, entitled.
We need faith leaders who advocate for the best of the American work ethic, despite many areas in the workplace that need reform.
Our country simply can’t count on many of our politicians, pundits, ideologues and academicians to critique the entitlement mindset – or entitlement programs – because they all seemingly benefit financially and politically from the status quo.
John Wesley got it right: earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.