The core beliefs at stake in America’s new culture war are not new at all, but trace back at least to the formative years of agricultural civilization. You cannot look at any one of these diverging assumptions without running into the rest, but let me try to trace the conflict in beliefs about work.
The conservative Christian view of work is essentially that of the ancient farmer. Work is toil. You have to work hard just to stay where you are. How hard should you work? You should stop short of working yourself to death, but beyond stipulating one day off per week, the conservative Christian tradition doesn’t have anything good to say about taking it easy. Quite the contrary: sloth, which literally means slowness or sluggishness, or working slower than the pace you are capable of, is one of the deadly sins. It is easy to see why the word deadly is applied when you look at the ancient farm in economic terms. If you are not diligent about tending to crops in spring, summer, and fall, you may starve to death before winter is over.
Yet civilization is not built merely on farming, and the institutional side of civilization offers a completely different view of work, which is still taken up by the commercial and institutional side of America’s culture war today. Civilization begins with collective constructions such as roads and buildings. In the institutional view of work, work is not about staying where you are, but about getting somewhere. It is no accident that the word progress is associated with this side of the culture war. But to build a road or anything else, you have to have a degree of freedom of action, time away from the toil of subsistence. Perhaps you might toil in the fields just 11 hours per day, so that you can spend the remaining hour of daylight building a road, or a storehouse, or looking around for something else to do that might improve the results from your work.
Whether you call it progress or capital formation, it depends on having some freedom of action, or free time, or surplus resources. You can’t look for ways to improve your life if you are spending every hour of the day working to survive. Even if you merely believe you must work constantly just to stay where you are, that will stop you from road-building and other forms of progress. Yet this is a basic conservative Christian belief. “The devil finds work for idle hands” is the well-known adage, suggesting that nonstop toil is not necessary merely for survival, but also as a protection against evil. In this view, building a road or a bridge or taking the time to read and write might just be the work of the devil, if it grows out of freedom of action, or leisure time, which is the devil’s domain.
What does freedom of action look like? The first visual sign of it is the relaxed, content stance of a person whose work for the day, or for the moment, is successfully completed. This is the look of leisure, or freedom of action: a person who has energy and is happily standing, but with muscles relaxed, not actively working on anything. And so you can see the different assumptions about the nature of work in the different reactions to a person who presents this way. Is this the look of success, a person who is going somewhere? Or, is this person lazy, a troublemaker, up to no good, perhaps even sexually provocative?
You can see this contrast posed more specifically in the contrast between two current presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. In objective terms, there is not much to separate the two. Both are cynical career politicians whose views years ago became too extreme for them to win reelection to Congress. Neither has a convincing claim to a history of hard work. Both are quick to show anger. They are similar in other ways. But their posture is completely different. Rick Santorum is perpetually tense, more so than any presidential candidate in recent memory. He does not smile easily, and when he does, it is not the look of contentment. Newt Gingrich, by contrast, smiles broadly most of the time, stands loosely, and speaks and moves slowly. Within the assumptions of the conservative Christian view of work, these are the markers, respectively, of diligence and sloth. But the commercial and institutional side of the culture war sees Santorum’s non-stop muscle tension, strained voice, and unease as a sign of failure, rather than diligence. Likewise, it sees Gingrich’s comfortable manner as a sign of success, rather than sloth. If these two candidates’ support is coming from opposite sides of the cultural dividing lines, the reasons may not be much more complicated than that.
In reality, hard work and leisure are both necessary. Diligence is not the result of failure or desperation, and freedom of action is not the work of the devil. It is only a cultural leaning that raises one side above the other. This particular cultural dispute is especially strained now, having been formulated in a period when most of us were farmers. It is a period that few of us alive today can remember, yet the argument goes on.