Last week at Time, Charles Murray had a piece on elitism, which prompted a discussion about meritocracy. The REAL discussion is about resentment, and the fact that the unsuccessful seem to resent the successful. I would add the resentment comes regardless of how the successful gained their success – it’s about something deeper.
It is the deepest of the theological mysteries as to the role of merit in the receipt of God’s blessing. Not a mystery I want to even begin to untangle here. I simply want to note one simple fact – the blessings are God’s to bestow. Heck, even if you do not believe in a personal deity, the blessings are fate’s to bestow. There is something, apart from us, that acts in who succeeds and who fails. Unless, of course, we live in a totally areligious, fully materialistic reality. But most Americans still believe in some sort of higher power, so let’s stick with the presumption.
Because blessing comes from something other than ourselves, to some unknown extent, there are two effects that should occur. One, the successful cannot become too impressed with themselves because they know their success is not entirely of their own doing. Two, the unsuccessful should be at least a bit more content in their circumstance because they know there is something behind it other than just failure or exploitation. An egalitarian vision? Perhaps – but this is where religion comes into the picture.
If success is a matter of “dumb luck,” simply the fates, then the picture is truly egalitarian. But if success is in some part a matter of the will of a deity, well then the deity defines, on some scale we may never understand, “merit.” However, the effects of humility in the successful and contentment in the less successful holds evenly because of shared respect for the deity. Lordliness and resentment are a result of rejection of the deity.
Two consequences to this analysis. One, the reason there is a higher level of resentment today is because there is less acceptance of deific intervention. Simply put, people no longer take comfort in their God and their faith. This is a problem for the church to solve.
The other consequence lays in the lordliness we have seen, most especially from the current administration. In a system such as our democracy, it is incumbent on those in power to act in humility – humility that can only be born of faith given a nation as powerful as ours. This is where religion and politics MUST intersect.
And please note I have made this argument without reference to holy books or specific deities. This is heart of the American civil religion.
This is the subject of a book, not a blog post, so forgive me if the discussion is fragmented and incomplete.