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What if Max Weber could make a return visit to America in 2021?

Hint: The 1918 influenza epidemic (Spanish flu).

Max Weber
Max Weber had every reason to look grumpy in 1918 — vaccines against the Spanish flu that would have saved his life hadn’t been invented yet.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1904, the sociologist Max Weber traveled across the United States, loved what he saw and wrote about it. In return, America became a fan of Max Weber’s writings long before his homeland Germany. His most famous book? “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” a product of his American field trip, in which he comes to the conclusion that Lutherans and Calvinists are better entrepreneurs than Catholics. The latter, according to Weber, were stubbornly resisting modernity and mired in medieval traditions and rituals. And yes, you guessed right, Weber wasn’t Catholic. But half of Germany was and that’s probably why his book didn’t fly off the shelves over there.

Weber praised the progressive dynamics of America’s many “voluntaristic sects” and saw them operating as social and economic networks, which, due to their members’ Protestant work ethic, were thriving in a capitalist society. There was nothing voluntary or progressive about the Protestant Church in Imperial Germany where he came from. It was a quasi-governmental agency that supported the Kaiser’s agenda and was just as authoritarian and top-down as the Prussian military.

Despite all his enthusiasm for the New World, there were a few things that struck Weber as odd — “Christian Science” being one of them, still new at the time and preaching that sickness was a mental error curable by reading the right books. Always the self-assured German professor, Weber wasn’t fazed by outliers and predicted that these pockets of superstition would be swept away by cultural rationalization, secularization and bureaucratization. This, after all, was based on his theory of modern Western society, where scientific understanding would inevitably replace belief systems and mythical explanations.

Henning Schroeder
Henning Schroeder
Fast forward to 2021 and Weber would be blown away by the antiscience attitude of so many Americans who prefer to stay in their “enchanted garden full of magic and wonders.” Earlier this year in a study by the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19, making them one of the least likely demographic groups to do so. In their view, the righteous will receive immunity from God and only infidels or godless communists need vaccines. This form of Christian science fiction was on full display during recent interviews at Trump events and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Interestingly, in the same Pew study, opposition against vaccination was only 22 percent among Catholics, who Weber in 1904 considered to be stuck in the past and opposed to modernity. Something must have changed since then or, in other words, who is in the Middle Ages now?

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Weber never made it to Minnesota when he crisscrossed the Midwest and the East Coast by train. If he visited today, he’d probably end up in a car on Interstate Hwy. 35 or Hwy. 52 staring with disbelief at those giant roadside billboards. He might still be OK with the many signs insisting in huge letters that Jesus is alive “beyond reasonable doubt” and view them as clever attempts by his beloved Protestant sects to network with the legal community. But I bet somewhere down the road he would give up and throw his claim out the window that Enlightenment in Western societies is unstoppable. That would likely happen when driving by the billboards that spew antiscience propaganda — against evolution, which was already widely accepted at his time, or against vaccines, which would have saved his life. Max Weber was one of 50 million victims who died during the 1918 influenza epidemic, also known as Spanish flu. He was only 56 years old — most likely with many famous books still in him.

Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is schro601@umn.edu and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.

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