Puritans and Ethics

Fred Smith outlines the contribution that the Puritan work ethic made to our free enterprise system.

By Fred Smith

The Puritans felt that it was our duty to be responsible citizens.

I speak at a great many Chamber of Commerce meetings and often hear them praise the free enterprise system. But it was not freedom that created our standard of living; it was our sense of responsibility that came out of our Puritan tradition. Freedom is the environment in which responsibility flourishes. In America personal responsibility and freedom came together for the first time. We should call it responsible enterprise before we call it free enterprise.

The Puritans also believed that every man had a gift and was to contribute to the common good — they referred to this as his "calling." We have changed from feeling that everyone has a calling to thinking of these as sacred only for the clergy not the laity. A third tenet the Puritans firmly held was that man was responsible to God for his actions and one day he would stand before Him and give account. Recently, I've been thinking about the multiple problems we have in America and whether there is a single change that could make a significant difference. It is not stricter laws or even stricter enforcement; it is not bigger jails, but a return to God-consciousness. In our country we have largely lost individual God-consciousness; we have lost the impact of believing in the hereafter. It is neurotic to think of nothing but heaven, but it is naïve to never think of it. I'm amazed how often I will do things as if God did not exist. We may still be theist in word, but are atheist in action. I see people doing things they would no more do, nor even think about doing, if they believed in the eventual and inevitable judgment of God. Young people buy into the idea " only going around once" and "grabbing the gusto."

Under the Puritan ethic the Bible was the moral dictionary. It wasn't a matter of whether or not you had a "Christian experience," but rather it was the Christian tradition to accept the Bible as the moral standard. It is difficult for people using different definitions of words to talk well together. Do I sound too theological for a business executive? The Atlanta Journal entitles its weekend section Religion/Ethics as a spiritual recognition for ethics.

Ted Koppel, the sophisticated news interviewer, surprised me in his commencement address at Duke in 1987. Hopefully you read it and I can simplify a statement or two: "In the place of truth, we have discovered facts. For moral absolutes, we have substituted moral ambiguity. We now communicate with everyone and say absolutely nothing. Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder, it's a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the ten suggestions. They are commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time."

From another, and very different, source we see Pierre Moussa, the premier French minister writing in The Financial World, "I don't trust entirely people who are not able to talk about politics and religion. They can be very good technicians but in the end they cannot be great financiers." I would also add, from my own experience they cannot be either great people or great leaders. On the radio recently someone commenting on our culture said, "In the past you could not be civilized without having studied Greek and Hebrew and at least read theology, but today we only require science."

I'm consciously spending time on the spiritual quotient. When Dr. Julian Gumperz, financier of New York City died his obituary read, "The awesome intellect of Dr. Gumperz is gone." He and I enjoyed breakfast together at the St. Regis for seventeen years up to his death. I remember one morning his saying to me, "You Protestants are going to ruin the economy of the world if you're wrong in having changed your beliefs from man is basically evil to basically good." He went on to say, "If man is basically good, then giving him financial aid, education and freedom will improve our world, but if he is not - then you have implemented our destruction." Personally I am convinced that the watershed of all human thinking is the perfectibility of man. It is the fulcrum on which the conservative/liberal thought turns. If man is perfectible, then the liberals are correct in theology, politics, philosophy, etc. But if he is not perfectible, then the Puritan position of restraint is the right one.