Labor Day and Our Biblical Heritage Toward Work

Economic liberty does not just spring out of a vacuum.  As Michael Novak aptly portrays in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, the United States benefitted from the interrelationship of freedom and responsibility in three spheres: political, economic and moral.  Those three aspects functioned like a three-legged stool:  take one out or weaken it sufficiently and the whole stool would topple.

As we approach Labor Day it is right to give honor to men and women who provide the labor that continues to drive our economy.  As the Department of Labor explains, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

And as we approach Labor Day in 2018, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to be reminded of how our Judeo-Christian heritage, a strong foundation for that moral component addressed by Novak, provides a basis for an attitude that all work, work as mechanics, work in farming, work in a research laboratory, work in law enforcement, work cleaning toilets, indeed all work done honestly and ethically, is honorable.

That approach is not common historically.   It certainly was not the perspective of the ancient Greeks or ancient Romans in the Western world or among the Mandarins in China as Rodney Stark points out in The Victory of Reason:  How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.  Stark explains that across the board, whether in the privileged classes or common laborers, “[t]raditional societies celebrate consumption while holding work in contempt.”

He adds, “Notions such as the dignity of labor or the idea that work is a virtuous activity were incomprehensible in ancient Rome or in any other pre-capitalist society. . . .In China the Mandarins grew their fingernails as long as they could (even wearing silver sheaths to protect them from breaking) in order to make it evident that they did no labor.”

As a Colson Fellow with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, I have had the opportunity to sit under the teachings of historian, Glenn Sunshine, professor of History at Central Connecticut State University.  In, Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldview from Rome to Home, Professor Sunshine writes, “God worked in creating the world, and so should we. God gave humanity both intellectual and physical work to do in the garden of Eden, and thus we should view work as a positive good, not a necessary evil.”

Reflecting on Labor Day in one of my weekly “Heritage and Hope” opinion columns I wrote in 2010, in considering Professor Sunshine’s insights and others, I shared, “Perhaps we honor labor and Labor Day, in part, because our American culture has positively been influenced by that Biblical worldview.”

Having benefitted since then from Rodney Stark’s research and now assigning it to my online students in American Framework for Free Enterprise, a required course for graduate students in Oklahoma Wesleyan University’s business school, I can remove the “perhaps.”  Stark identifies cultural changes in attitude toward common labor stemming back to early Christianity, such as Saint Benedict in the 6th century and moving forward to a fourteenth century Augustinian, Walter Hilton.  Stark explains, “It is this commitment to manual labor that so distinguishes Christian ascetism from that found in other great religious cultures, where piety is associated with the rejection of the world and its activities.”

This Christian work ethic, as Stark identifies it, then carried over into the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century which further elevated an understanding that all work, including common labor, when done to the glory of God, is sacred.

While American business has not always reflected that attitude, and in fact, the roots of Labor Day in the 19th century stemmed out of protests against abusive business policies toward labor, we would do well to reflect on the elevated status of labor from a Biblical worldview.  As I concluded that column in 2010:

[W]e as laborers in the United States, whether as employees or employers, whether in our first week of employment or our fiftieth year ought to be thankful for our work and for the freedom we have in this nation to pursue our dreams and/or to contribute constructively to our society through productive labor. So, as we look back on Labor Day perhaps we could also look forward. We look forward to a commitment to put our best effort forward from the beginning of our day to the end or our day whether we are collecting trash, cleaning windows, teaching a college class or managing a multi-billion dollar global enterprise. Our work matters, work has dignity and we have the opportunity to reflect something greater than ourselves in how we carry it out.

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