Putting Max Weber to the test on the Protestant ethic

Community development ministries have expanded throughout the Christian (and non-Christian) world, but until recently there have been few attempts to find out how effective they are in lifting their clients out of poverty. Christianity Today magazine (July/August) reports that a body of research has developed in recent years that goes beyond drawing the usual correlations between community development, religious faith, and poverty relief that have existed since Max Weber’s study on the Protestant ethic to look at the causative factors in this relationship. Economists Lincoln Lau and Bruce Wydick write that a recent randomized controlled experiment involving 320 villages and 6,276 low-income families in the Philippines “appears to confirm that the Protestant ethic causes economic change.” Participants in the study were randomly selected for a curriculum teaching Christian values as well as health and wellness advice for four months. These families were then studied along with a control group for increases in their household income six months after finishing the curriculum program. Those who received the evangelical Protestant training showed a 9.2 percent increase in household income compared to the control group.

The evangelical group also showed changes in hygiene and “grit,” which may have been due to the value lessons. But other results were not as clear. “The workers who received religious training may have consumed more goods and had fewer family members going to bed hungry, but the results were not statistically significant,” Lau and Wydick write. One negative outcome of the study was that major arguments with relatives increased by 2.2 percent for those who received the values training. Despite the increase in household income, some participants also viewed themselves as poorer compared to the rest of the community than when they first started the program. Lau and Wydick also report on other recent studies on the causal relationship between Christian discipleship and economic development. A 2013 study of the faith-based program of Compassion International found that it increased secondary school completion by 40 percent and the probability of white-collar adult employment by 35 percent among formerly sponsored children.

The writers also cite a forthcoming study, in a book to be published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, of an evangelical church curriculum in Mexico promoting hopefulness and aspiration that was randomly distributed among 732 indigenous women receiving microfinance loans from 52 community banks. The majority of the borrowers were Catholic and about a quarter were Protestant. After a month of using the four-week curriculum, early results suggested “positive impacts on both measures of hopefulness and microenterprise finance performance.” Interestingly, it was Catholic women who showed the most beneficial results, suggesting that they may have been hearing the evangelical message for the first time, whereas the Protestants may have heard it all before. Lau and Wydick conclude by noting that the link between economic development and religious faith is finding a new receptivity—from the World Bank and the United Nations to Max Weber’s home country’s Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation.

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