Another Obstacle to Elite Religion

Meritocratic values vs. the Gospel

Christ and the Rich Young Man (from wikipedia)

Ross Douthat offers a couple reasons that American elites are unlikely to get religion: first, they hold (irrational) anti-supernaturalist prejudices; second, “the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life.”

I’ll add a third reason: religion undermines the sense of mastery—the experience of earned and earn-able distinction—which is central to the identity of many American elites.

To the extent that America is meritocratic, elites are winners in a system that divides people up on the basis of real (though only quite partial) virtues: they're usually clever, ambitious, organized, competent. They find meaning and a sense of identity in doing interesting work, work that makes a difference, work that puts their faculties and training to use. Also, it's important to them that they're the people who "get it."

(To be clear, I think both these desires—the desire to do meaningful work and the desire to get it—are good and reasonable! But you should be willing to give up the first desire if necessary, and you should be careful that the second desire doesn't get in the way of actually perceiving the truth, that you want to really get it rather than just feeling like one of the people who “get it.")

It’s hard for such people to “get” a religion like Christianity, because it doesn't offer the sense of mastery which they're used to; in fact, it usually undermines it in a pretty shocking way. Most people who become Christian, who try to follow the commandments of the Church, find that it's really difficult, and not in the "good difficult" sense that elites love—the hard workout, the challenging job—but difficult because it involves repeated failures, failures which may continue for your entire earthly life. This is a “life project” where you don’t get to view yourself as the hero; instead, it requires that you accept you’re going to be the “difficult person” in the relationship, that, on net, you’ll be a recipient of forgiveness more than you get to be the person who generously offers it to those who are less fortunate/able/virtuous.

A couple of my friends—both educated at elite schools, both very capable—have explicitly cited this as a reason for rejecting Christianity. One friend—a very admirable person who has devoted their life to learning and service rather than to acquiring money or prestige—told me that they could never become a Christian because the inability to be “good enough” in the achievement department would make them depressed. Another friend converted to Catholicism as an adult, but became depressed after years of committing the same sins, confessing them, struggling against them, and then committing them again. They decided that it would be better for their mental health to categorize these things as “not sins” and move on.

But almost everyone who tries sincerely to live as a Christian will find themselves confessing the same sins over and over. And this is particularly hard for elites to handle: they're used to either being able to write something off as "not a problem, not something I need to work on" or being able to solve it decisively. But the idea that you need to keep struggling against something while also cultivating an attitude of peace and detachment about your own performance is... well, it's the opposite of meritocratic. Elites are just like everyone else in that they’re sinners, but unlike everyone else they're used to viewing themselves as special, and as especially virtuous.

To be clear, I’m not just blaming elites here; Christians sometimes fail to emphasize the extent to which Christianity is at war with the meritocratic prejudices of meritocratic elites. I suspect this is because Christians want to emphasize moral realism and the value of virtue, and to encourage people to grow in the virtues. But we need to emphasize both aspects of G-d’s love for us: not just that He calls us to radical transformation, but also that He loves us right now, just the way we are. The path to transformation might be messy, slow, and uncertain and most of us will need to rely on being loved—rather than relying on our prospects of success, prospects that might look dim most of the time—if we’re going to keep going.