Elites and Christianity in Theory and Practice

Is the meritocracy irreligious for intellectual or sociological reasons?

Consider this a follow-up to a post I wrote here, on the cul-de-sacs facing Christian intellectuals, and a column I wrote for my day job, on the reasons why the meritocracy isn’t Christian or religious. In the latter piece I divided the impediments to religious belief among American elites into two categories, both primarily intellectual. First, an emancipationist view of human flourishing that’s difficult to reconcile with traditional religion’s strictures, on sexuality especially, seasoned with a dose of disgust at specific religious hypocrisies and sins. Second, a scientistic bias against any kind of strong or specific supernatural belief.

On her own Substack, Audrey Pollnow suggests a third impediment: “Religion undermines the sense of mastery—the experience of earned and earn-able distinction—which is central to the identity of many American elites.”

She goes on:

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."

… 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.

This account seems very plausible to me, especially the “good difficult” versus “bad difficult” distinction. At the same time I wonder about how it applies to the elites of more Christian eras, including America’s more religious past, who weren’t meritocrats in the current style but who were certainly still involved in various forms of mastery, or the pursuit of mastery, that sit uncomfortably with Christian practice and belief.

Should we speculate that a more explicitly-hereditary elite encouraged, even mildly, a sense of accident and grace around accumulated power, so that the person of high rank could take themselves a little bit less seriously, and see themselves more easily as a boring ordinary sinner, than someone bred to believe that all merit and success is earned? Or alternatively — and more cynically — should we suspect that past elites could be more comfortable with the humbling aspects of Christianity, more willing to rank themselves with sinners, because they deployed an Augustinian realism about human imperfection to justify a certain complacency around the abuse and waste of power, the irrationality and cruelty of the hierarchies that their families bestrode? (If today’s secular elites may manifest the spiritual vices of Pelagianism, in other words, the Augustianian framework carries temptations of its own.)

In either case, it’s also worth stressing that there’s a negative feedback loop for the ambitious as religion and religious institutions decline. It’s not just that meritocrats don’t want to submit to biblical religion’s humbling and somewhat depressing view of human sinfulness. It’s also that the waning or weakening of religious institutions closes off some of the religious paths that the ambitious used to follow, carrying a version of of the achiever’s mentality that Pollnow describes while also submitting at least somewhat to the church.

Meaning, in a world where Christian offices and Christian institutions still had a certain kind of elite status, you could take your elite ambitions and bind them to the ministry, the priesthood, the episcopate; you could be “clever, ambitious, organized, competent” on behalf of a mission society or a church-building project; you could aspire to a certain cultural prominence as a theologian or religious scholar. But now, even though important religious offices and opportunities for churchly ambition still exist, they’re no longer really connected to the cursus honorum of the contemporary upper class, so you have to give up certain upper-class ambitions completely in order to pursue them.

Obviously having too much worldliness woven into Christian motivations is problematic and, in strong doses, corrosive, setting the church up for precisely the kind of scandals that feed a cycle of decline. So there are ways in which it’s spiritually beneficial for the person who is both religious and ambitious to be forced to take those ambitions somewhat outside the elite realm, to labor in non-elite vineyards and win rewards that still leave you an outsider to the meritocratic caste.

But as anyone familiar with recent evangelical scandals can attest, being a kind of outsider-leader carries temptations of its own. And the recent experience of Catholicism offers considerable evidence that the smaller, purified, starting-afresh church famously prophecied by Joseph Ratzinger doesn’t emerge automatically just because the old church of worldly power has declined. Instead you can get a mix of outsider-leaders and outsider-movements that seem particularly prone to scandal, and a core ecclesiastical structure that sometimes resembled the secular meritocracy but with more more misgovernment and mediocrity, as ambitious creeps compete for a declining institution’s spoils.

All of this is a way of saying that Christians shouldn’t over-sentimentalize their loss of elite sway. No doubt there is a strong element of the rich young man going away unhappy, because this time Jesus asked him to give up his ambitions and his resume, in the meritocracy’s irreligion. But the church itself does not yet seem purified by its slow exile, occupying instead an unhappy middle place — neither powerful enough to really shape the dominant culture anymore, nor vigorous and self-sufficient enough as yet to be a salt-and-light counterculture of the sort that the rich young man might, with whatever doubts and reservations, ask to join.

But now let’s step back and ask a larger question: What kind of problem for Christian belief are the meritocratic habits Pollnow describes? Because the intelligentsia prides itself on its traffic in ideas, it tends to think of itself as rejecting religion for primarily intellectual reasons: I just can’t believe in metaphysical belief X or moral rule Y, sorry, I used to sort-of believe in God but I’ve done the reading and now I’ve changed my mind. And because I started out writing about intellectuals under decadence, I’ve been stressing theoretical impediments to religious beliefs, or intellectual cul-de-sacs that those impediments create.

But really a lot of the impediments to Christian practice and belief among elites are better understood as sociological problems. You can convince people that all manner of things are true, but at the end of the day you need a way for them to live those truths in a sustainable way: Otherwise your faith will go the way of the Shakers. And the sociology of meritocracy creates practical obstacles to traditional religion that are at least as important as the theoretical ones.

So in Pollnow’s example, what’s being described is not, primarily, a situation where Augustinian accounts of human nature are less intellectually convincing than Pelagian ones. Instead you have a sociological system whose structures and rigors are set up to reward Pelagian psychology, which really does “work” if your goals are normal meritocratic ones … and so even you convince yourself to become Augustinian in theory you will find yourself constantly pulled back toward Pelagius in practice.

Likewise with all the post-Sexual Revolution issues where traditional religion and modern mores find themselves in tension. There is an intellectual component here, clearly — an emancipationist ideal tangled up with political liberalism, with elements of gnosticism and transcendentalism and epicureanism all woven in. But the ideas have triumphed so fully since the 1960s in part because they match the emergent sociology of elite life: The sequence of first sex, then cohabitation, then marriage, with divorce as an option and contraception and pornography and occasionally abortion as important stabilizers, just seems to fit with the elite-education ladder, the professional expectations for a meritocratic adulthood, more than the starker Christian options of celibacy or (relatively) early marriage and family formation.

To be clear, there is no absolute sociological rule that says “you can’t have a society where people go to school till they’re twenty-six and get married at twenty-nine but take Christian ideas about sex seriously.” (Ages of first marriage have varied pretty widely over the last two thousand years.) But to the extent that current professional-class life is potentially compatible with Christian ideas about marriage and chastity, or could be made compatible, that’s something that has to proven empirically as much as something to be debated intellectually. It’s at least as important to establish a pattern of life as it is to win an argument.

And on certain specific issues, divorce-and-remarriage (for Catholics) and same-sex marriage above all, it seems especially wrong to think that conservative Christians are primarily in need of a better argument or intellectual framework to justify and vindicate the traditional ethic.

You might say that of more progressive Christians — that they’re looking for an intellectual or theological breakthrough, one that saves the core of Christian doctrine but allows churches to encompass and bless the new social realities. But of course many liberal Christians think they already have that breakthrough, and that their conservative brethren just need a little more time to be convinced. So maybe they need somewhat better arguments to convince the conservatives … but in terms of what they’re offering to elite communities, to secular meritocrats, the problem is much more about practice, about how best to embody the new progressive form of Christianity so that it becomes an imaginable destination for people who associate the faith with bigotry or sexism or homophobia. So again, a question of community and sociology, not intellect or certainly not intellect alone.

And then from the conservative perspective the problem of practice looms even larger. You could come up with the most airtight argument for the traditional Christian sexual ethic, you could find it vindicated in a lost Einstein proof or inscribed in Sanskrit in our DNA, and you’d still be offering it to people who have gay friends or divorced-and-remarried friends or relatives, or who are gay or remarried themselves, and who are being asked to choose an abstract moral argument over the already-extant social reality of their family or friends or households. (To be clear his challenge is hardly confined to elite spaces; it’s just sharpened by their default secularism, their denizens’ confidence that Christianity can be safely left behind.)

So alongside any kind of argument, you need a story about what becoming a Christian means for living relationally, in community with people whose lives and loves are not conformed nor likely to be conformed to your religion’s ethic. How do you stand in relationship to them — or, in the event that your own loves are at issue, to your very self? Is it possible to live with integrity in this kind of society, so that your Christianity is made manifest, not just privatized, but you aren’t just seen as the weird bigot over there? What would be the sociological model, if one is even possible, for a more influential but still conservative Christianity in an elite culture whose sexual ethic will fundamentally diverge, for any foreseeable future, from its own?

In the posts on intellectual life I cited Father James Martin as one of the more influential religious intellectuals of our time: I think of him as the most prominent and popular exponent of a liberalizing Catholicism in the age of a (sometimes, maybe) liberalizing pope. But Father Martin might well say that in his books and talks and workshops about homosexuality and Catholicism, he’s offering precisely what I’m suggesting is needed: Not a new theory of How Catholics Should Think About the Nature of the Conjugal Act, but a form of practice, a model of mutual respect and dialogue, in which certain essential Christian virtues can be modeled even as the nature of sexual virtue is held open for debate. And likewise that this is what Pope Francis has in mind as well in his efforts to be more welcoming to remarried Catholics: A practice, not a teaching; a sociological rather than a theological message; a new model for Christian life, not just belief, in a post-Sexual Revolution world.

My argument with Martin (and, God help me, the Holy Father), carried on at perhaps-tedious length, has to do with the way that a practice can effectively change or empty out a teaching, to the point where the model of “being Christian” seems to diverge dangerously from the words of Christ himself. But their idea that what you might call a way-of-being-Christian project, practical and sociological, is as essential as any intellectual or theological debate — that seems essentially correct.

Which is not to say the intellectual debates don’t matter, or that sociology and ideology are ever fully separable. But more on the meritocracy’s mistaken ideas another time.