Meritocracy and Its Challenge to Christians

Walter Russell Meade has a thoughtful essay inspired by Christopher Hayes’ book Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. America has in many ways become a Jeffersonian natural aristocracy. Meade sees two streams that flowed together to bring us to where we are, the Populist Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Techno-Progressive Movement of the 20th century. The first group was formed around agrarian and labor groups, the “little people. The second was formed around upper middle class and upper class professionals. For the first group, think of Williams Jennings Bryant. For the other group, think of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The Techno-Progressives co-opted the Populists by selling them on the idea that they could make things work. But the Populists are interested in equality, and the Techno-Progressives are interested in being in charge. They know better. They are the best and the brightest.

I write they. Perhaps I should write we. Those of us on the right side of the bell curve haven’t always used our gifts responsibly. The best and the brightest gave society the War on Poverty and the war in Viet Nam, neither of which was successful. The best and the brightest gave the country the market reforms of the 1990s that led to the market bubbles of the early 21st century. And we’ve done all this while not promoting real democracy. We’re entitled to our perks and power; we earned all of it by being better and brighter. We deserve to be in charge.

Do we?

Serious Christians have to struggle continually against the temptation to view “merit” uncritically. To begin with, any gifts that you have are just that — gifts. Your ability to score 800 on the math section of the SAT is something for which you can personally take no credit whatever. It’s like a pretty face or perfect pitch: it’s very nice to have, but it’s God’s sovereign choice, not your sublime inner nature, that is responsible for this. And of course, he doesn’t give his gifts without a purpose.

Those of us who have technocratic leadership positions (as I do) are often too full of ourselves (as I sometimes am). My 800 score on the math section of the SAT was a gift from God that I need to remember with humility. Mr. Meade’s essay is a serious challenge to folks like me.

In any case, a serious Christian commitment serves as a moral and psychological anchor for members of an elite. Your life circumstances may be different from those of hoi polloi, you may have power and freedom that most people don’t, but if you are a serious Christian wrestling daily with your inadequacies before God and your need for God’s grace, you are living an inner life that is very similar to the lives of millions of your fellow citizens. The spiritual life is the ultimate democracy: every human being approaches God on the same terms. A Nobel economic laureate or a Fortune 500 CEO who spends time on his or her knees in honest prayer and honest spiritual struggle every day is keeping it green; for those few minutes that person isn’t a successful meritocrat whose meteoric career streaks across the sky.

I recommend that you read the whole thing.

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