Why the Poor are Just Plain Lazy: Newt Gingrich and the Calvinist Roots of the American Work Ethic

By James Dennis LoRusso, Emory University  

With all of the talk about the need for jobs and income inequality, the latest figure sitting in the front car of that roller coaster otherwise known as the Republican presidential race, Newt Gingrich, once again has invited the ire of Progressives with his remarks about the poor.  At a campaign stop in Des Moines, he made the following claim:

 Really poor children,” he claims, “in really poor neighborhoods, have no habits of working.  And have nobody around them who works.  So, they literally have no habit of showing up on Mondays.  They have no habit of staying all day.  They have no habit of ‘I do this, and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.

Besides citing the implicit racism here that paints poor inner-city youth as lazy or being driven to criminal lifestyles, Newt’s critics have charged him predictably with ignoring sociological data painting a very different picture.  Even I can attest to the fact that in my previous career as a retail manager, the working poor, particularly single mothers, comprised a significant portion of my staff.  Some of these held down more than one part-time job to support their children, and they may work seven days per week, putting in nearly eighty hours of labor.  To me, these mothers spend more time on the job than many of my middle class colleagues.

Still, my casual browsing of blogs and internet comment boards suggests that a substantial number of Americans agree with him.  Why, I wondered, is this the case?  Undoubtedly, most people in this country understand hard work to be a virtue, but in Newt’s statement resides a subtle assumption: Being poor is a sign of moral failure on the part of the individual and the poor community.  The mass appeal of this belief, that poverty itself is a sign of moral deficiency, results from the particular way the so-called “Protestant work ethic” is situated in American culture.  The root of this ethic comes out of the strict Calvinist tendencies of colonial New England. 

The Dissenting Puritans that settled Massachusetts in the seventeenth century held a view that hard work signified virtue.  Earlier thinkers of the Reformation like Martin Luther and John Calvin turned Catholic notions of work as penance for sin on their head and painted every individual’s “vocation” or “calling” as a contribution to God’s creation.  Throughout the modern period, America, West Europe, and now the world has embraced the idea that work, “getting your hands dirty,” is good for you, me, and the world.

Simply pointing out how American culture appreciates hard work doesn’t really move us any closer to understanding Newt’s portrayal of the poor.  As I have already suggested, the abundant literature reveals that the poor work quite diligently when opportunity permits.  Despite this evidence, Gingrich still maintains that the poor lack this ethic.  He can say this, I suggest, because his statements tap into a deeply seeded belief in American society that work should be an end in itself, not merely a way of meeting wants and desires.   Although we do work so that we can live comfortably, we also build our character when we punch the clock.  Work, thus, is a fundamentally moral project. 

A further look at the way Calvinism frames the work ethic within a larger system of belief reveals why American’s historically explain work as a moral practice.  First of all, in the strict Calvinist universe of the New England Puritans, moral authority rests privately within each individual.  When Luther and his successors urged Christians to take up the Bible and read it for themselves, they essentially removed the site of religious authority from the priesthood and placed it directly in the hands of the layperson.  Now, in the hands of each individual lay a responsibility to acquire and embody Biblical teachings.  Consequently, a prevailing Protestant notion persists that if you fail in some way, there’s no one to blame but yourself. 

Second, Calvinism teaches that “grace” comes freely from God, who decides every person’s fate at the dawn of creation.  Moreover, no series of actions will influence this fate; all a believer can do is look for evidence that he or she is among the elect.  Believers in colonial New England assessed their own spiritual state and that of their peers in a variety of ways.  For instance, full church membership was open only to those who could publically testify to a proper conversion.  Similarly, virtuous living, including hard work, could indicate a person’s place among the elect.  Of course, even upright living was no guarantee of salvation.  But, as colonial theologian, Jonathan Edwards, clamed in his piece, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, worldly prosperity, when not ostentatious, surely implied the grace of God at work.  With this, the Puritan moral system ties the virtue of work to outward signs of grace in the form of worldly success. 

By erecting a culture that looked kindly upon hard work and the accumulation of wealth, these early American Protestants simultaneously prepared future generations to understand idleness, immodesty, and poverty as signs of low moral character.  Gingrich’s remarks resonate with the conservative base because they invoke this moral legacy.  Through the lens of these basic American values, poor children reflect a lack of moral strength.  Precisely because they live in poverty, this ethical deficit suggests an unwillingness to embrace hard work.  In short, the culture of poverty stems from indolence, itself evidence of individual moral failure. 

Moreover, even when Newt’s critics criticize him for ignoring evidence to the contrary, his supporters will continue to stand by his perspective.  Americans have inherited a belief that work must be done with the correct intentions, as an end, as a good in and of itself. Gingrich implies here that the poor only work as a means to an end, as a way of assuaging an insatiable appetite of desires.  Their penchant to resort to criminal activity illustrates what Gingrich’s poor truly care about.  They desire opulence and will stop at nothing to attain it.  According to this logic, hard work for its own sake remains an unknown ideal among the poor, because they are caught in a vicious cycle of immorality for which they can only blame themselves.   Such views cannot be overturned unless their specific histories are exposed.  Only when we acknowledge distinctively religious roots of the American work ethic do we get a better picture of why some conservative political views resonate so powerfully with the base.

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James Dennis LoRusso is currently a PhD student of American Religious Cultures at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  His work focuses broadly on the Religious Origins of American Capitalism, specifically on Spirituality in the Workplace and the intersection of advertising theory and the study of myth.

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