Work and the American Character

Tue, Sep 3, 2013
Greg Forster

Over the Labor Day weekend, columnist Peggy Noonan wrote about “Work and the American Character.” Her column points to the critical connection between the spiritual value of work and the moral strength of our culture. Unfortunately, in her search for a beacon of hope that can point us back toward the dignity of work, she neglects the church in favor of less promising possibilities.

Noonan begins by highlighting the meaningfulness of work as the critical foundation of culture:

A job isn't only a means to a paycheck, it's more. "To work is to pray," the old priests used to say. God made us as many things, including as workers. When you work you serve and take part. To work is to be integrated into the daily life of the nation. There is pride and satisfaction in doing work well, in working with others and learning a discipline or a craft or an art. To work is to grow and to find out who you are.

In return for performing your duties, whatever they are, you receive money that you can use freely and in accordance with your highest desire. A job allows you the satisfaction of supporting yourself or your family, or starting a family. Work allows you to renew your life, which is part of the renewing of civilization.

Work gives us purpose, stability, integration, shared mission. And so to be unable to work—unable to find or hold a job—is a kind of catastrophe for a human being…This is the real reason jobs and employment are the No. 1 issue in America's domestic life.

In the rest of her column, she connects the economic crisis to the American people’s sense of anxiety about declining moral character. What kind of people are we? People who find meaning in our lives as we “serve and take part,” or people who think the good life is found in narcissistic self-expression and indulgence?

It’s no coincidence that the culture has increased its celebration of immorality at the same time it has decreased its emphasis on the intrinsic dignity and meaning of work. In two lectures he gave in January on “economic wisdom” and the role of the pastor, Dallas Willard outlined in detail the common thread between these two developments: we value work less and we value immorality more because, increasingly, we have lost the ability to “say no to our desires” when moral goodness requires it (c.f. Titus 2:12).

God didn’t create us just to sit back and think good thoughts. He made us to go out and love our neighbors – to love our neighbors in action, not just with cheap talk (c.f. I John 3:18). That means rolling up our sleeves and getting to work! Our work is how we serve others and shape ourselves into the kind of people God wants us to be.

Also notice the seamless connection Noonan draws between our obedience to God through our work and our participation in the life of the civil community. Work isn’t an isolated experience. It takes place in community and it is designed for community. As Noonan says, “to work is to be integrated into the daily life of the nation” – and of the state, county, city, town, and neighborhood.

That’s why work is not just central to each individual’s life; it’s central to the life of society. A jobs crisis is a spiritual crisis. To lack the opportunity to work isn’t simply a financial hardship, it’s a “catastrophe for a human being.” That is, it strikes a blow to the heart of our humanity.

Economic systems are part of a nation’s shared spiritual life. As Willard argued in his lectures, there is a seamless connection between the values embodied in an economic system and the character of individuals within that system. The system and the individual are two sides of the same coin. An economic system embodying the cultural belief that all people can and should support themselves and make a contribution to society through their work will be associated with people who have dignity, honesty, self-control, diligence, social solidarity, concern for the needs of others, and generosity – because those are the qualities of fruitful workers. Meanwhile, an economic system embodying the cultural belief that happiness comes from satisfying your natural desires will be associated with individuals who are greedy, slothful, self-indulgent, cynical, and resentful.

Willard also argued that an economic system focused on satisfying our desires instead of on productive work inevitably leads to catastrophic political conflict. This is why the role of the pastor is so critical. Pastors have a prophetic mission to speak to us as citizens about the guiding moral values, principles, and practices of our civil community, yet at the same time it is not the calling of pastors to participate in electoral politics. This positions them – almost alone – as people who are able to equip and empower our culture to turn back from the rising tide of materialism and narcissism.

Here Noonan could learn something from Willard. In her column, she argues that to restore dignity and hope to our culture, we need politicians who celebrate – sincerely, not as a focus-group-tested messaging gimmick – the extraordinary possibilities of work, enterprise, and entrepreneurship to transform our lives and our culture for the better. I think she’s right that politicians who did that would be a positive cultural force. However, turning to politicians as our primary cultural hope is a mistake.

As Willard pointed out, the very fact that we mostly turn to politicians to tell us what the good life is – and to provide it for us – is itself a sign that we’ve turned away from God. We will never get away from catastrophic political conflict as long as people turn mainly to politicians when they seek hope. Government has an important social role to play, of course, and not just in forbidding force and fraud – libertarianism is as much a false hope as socialism. But “the American character” will never recover until we look to pastors as our primary guides and teachers in building a culture (which includes the economic system) that provides hope, dignity, and flourishing.

Noonan herself laments that “the old priests used to say” that “to work is to pray.” Why then does she now look only for politicians to say it? Are there no more pastors? Are today’s pastors incapable of saying it, mired in a truncated vision of their role in our lives, permanently stricken with prophetic laryngitis? Or is it that we no longer believe pastors matter?

Supermajorities of Americans say they don’t have a sense that their work is meaningful. How would Christianity be positioned to influence the culture if Christians became known as the people who know why work is meaningful, and who have wisdom on how businesses and economic systems should run? Pastors have the power to equip them with that knowledge. It’s a big job, but that’s all the more reason to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

EVENTS View All