Religion and Social Change in Protestantism and Liberation Theology

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  • 0:07 Religion and Social Change
  • 0:44 Protestant Ethic and…
  • 2:38 Liberation Theology
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
Religion can, at times, be a powerful agent for social change. In this lesson, we discuss two examples of the dichotomy between religion and the secular world, including Max Weber's book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as well as the concept of liberation theology.

Note: For the purposes of this video, the instructor is using the American pronunciation of Max Weber's name.

Religion and Social Change

Max Weber wrote about the connection between religious ideals and social change
Max Weber Photo

We tend to think of religion as a relatively conservative force that has the most impact on its own followers. However, religion is not a social institution that is completely separate from the rest of our society. In fact, at some points in history, religion has promoted dramatic social change. There are many examples of the interplay between religion and the secular world. Two examples that are relevant to Introductory Sociology are Max Weber's theory of the Protestant work ethic and liberation theology.

Protestant Ethic and Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a book written by Max Weber about the role of Protestantism in social change. He argued that certain religious ideas set into motion a chain of events that brought about the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe. He saw a strong relationship between the work ethics of Protestants and the emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism.

Weber focused on one particular branch of Protestantism known as Calvinism. John Calvin was a leader in the Protestant Reformation who preached that God had selected some people for salvation but condemned most to eternal damnation before they were even born. Calvinists came to see prosperity as a sign of God's favor and a promise for salvation, so they worked all the time to achieve success. This became known as the 'Protestant ethic.' Although they made great profit, they were also frugal in order to stockpile their earnings and amass great wealth. As part of that frugality, they drove up the demand for cheaper, mass-produced goods that came out of the new factories.

In time, the religious fervor that motivated Calvinists faded, leaving a more rational motivation for economic gain that spread through even non-religious groups. Weber believed that this new attitude broke down the traditional economic system and paved the way for modern capitalism.

John Calvin was a Protestant Reformation leader
John Calvin

This theory has been debated since Weber first proposed it over eighty years ago. Critics have argued that religious reform followed capitalist development rather than paving the way for it. Nevertheless, this theory is a good example of the interchange between religion and secular change.

Liberation Theology

Many people believe that oppression runs counter to Christian morality and that Christians must promote greater social equality. Liberation theology is a combination of Christian principles with political activism. It is a political movement based on the idea that Christians should promote liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. There are many stories in the Bible about the liberation of people who are struggling for freedom and economic justice. Today, Christian activists continue to help people in poor nations liberate themselves from poverty.

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