Citizenship as a vocation: avoiding Christian arrogance

In a recent article on his blog Walter Russell Mead reflects on some of the dangers of meritocracy (rule by elites who have merited the right to rule by virtue of their expertise and achievements). Mead thinks that religion works to a significant degree to restrain some of the problems of human nature that are exacerbated among the elites by their success in life. Mead is certainly right at a certain level, but what happens when we use religion to feed our sinful tendencies rather than to curb them?

It is helpful to get at the heart of my concern by considering one of the problems Mead associates with meritocracy.

[M]meritocracy doesn’t promote democracy. The meritocrats may have won their positions through an open competition … but once they win — they’re an elite. And their perceptions about how hard they competed and how fair the competition was makes them more smug and more entitled than the old elites ever were.

The new elites don’t feel guilty about their power; they didn’t inherit it. They earned it. They are smarter than everybody else and they deserve to rule.

So what we have here is the assumption of a certain class of people that by virtue of their achievements or knowledge they have the right to tell everyone else what to do. What does this lead to?

Members of this elite can no longer see society easily from the perspective of ordinary people and so their decisions increasingly reflect their own interests rather than those of the people they are supposed to represent. They lose the ability and perhaps also the will to be impartial arbiters between the masses and power; they identify with power and start to use their own influence to tilt the system farther and farther away from the populists and toward the old power centers…. The first problem is arrogance.

Mead notes, however, that Christianity provides resources through which to overcome these tendencies.

A practicing and committed as opposed to a theoretical or a birth Christian … who succeeds in a meritocratic structure has all kinds of inner convictions and reflections that can keep his or her arrogance within limits. This doesn’t always work; the case of Woodrow Wilson is one that we should all study.

It is the problem of Woodrow Wilson, call it Exhibit A, that I am concerned about. Other versions of the problem might include John Brown, Jerry Falwell, or Jim Wallis. American history is chock-full of Christian figures who assumed that their reading of Scripture and their application of that Scripture to politics was nothing less than the will of God himself. One finds this repeatedly on both the left and the right today: Christians who simplistically quote some biblical proof text, assuming its implications for what Congress or the President should do are obvious, and authoritatively trying to ram that down the rest of our throats by divine right. There is no effort at careful exegesis of Scripture or at historical and social analysis of the actual problems facing our country. Even worse, there is little effort made at thoughtful persuasion. The person arguing assumes that they have discovered the truth, and by the authority of God we better accept that truth or we will be contending with God himself.

But what does Mead have in mind?

For a Christian, the belief in the equal value of all people in God’s eyes is a bedrock belief…. For the Christian, what matters about you isn’t, in the last analysis, your gifts or your talents. God uses our gifts, but he doesn’t need them….

The kind of arrogance, vanity and inflamed self-esteem that flatters the imagination and corrupts the spirit of the successful meritocrat needs to be checked and humbled. Being constantly reminded on the one hand of the infinite gap between ones own limited talents and vision and the perspective of Almighty God, and on the other of the radical equality with which God judges and loves the human race is a healthy counterweight to the flattery of the world and the smugness that comes with success.

Mead applies this point to the arrogance of the elites, but what about the arrogance of Christians? Paraphrasing Mead only slightly (changed words in italics),

And guess what: the reason God made you smart wasn’t to make you rich and to make you special … He made you smart so that you could serve — and the people he wants you to serve are exactly all those people you feel so arrogantly superior to. At the end of the day, they aren’t going to be judged on how much they deferred to you, respected you, and handed over to you all those political victories you worked so hard to achieve.

You are going to be judged on how much you did for the “ordinary folks.” … Were the poor better fed and better housed because of the use you made of the talents God trusted to your care? Did you use your power and the freedom that came with it to help others live freer and more dignified lives, or did you parade your superiority around like a pompous and egotistical ass, oppressing and alienating the world when you should have been enlightening it?

How might the doctrine of original sin restrain Christian arrogance?

Original Sin is the idea that human beings, despite all their talents and capacities, are deeply and hopelessly flawed. Like water flows downhill, we are constantly turning toward our own selfish goals. We are vain, jealous, petty, self-seeking. Our judgement twists away from what’s right to what benefits us and our side. We can’t keep our fingers off the scales.

It’s not just our moral choices that go awry. Our thinking isn’t straight. What we think is logic is often self interest. When our interests and our passions are engaged, we lose all mental clarity just when we need it most.

At the collective level, this explains why Christian readings of Scripture cannot in itself be an answer to the political problems of the human race. There are no Platonic philosopher kings, no unmoved movers, who will judge all things and all men clear and true. And the problem isn’t simply our ignorance and partial knowledge; it’s the flaw in our natures that means that our intellects are often the least dependable when we need them most.

These are wise words. Christians follow our Lord’s example (and testify to his kingship) by serving one another, not by lording it over each other.The political vocation to which we are called does not give us the right to march around spouting off our own interpretations of Scripture as God’s will for American politics. The vocation of citizenship does not give us the right to denounce those who disagree with our political conclusions as tyrants or pagans. The call of the Christian in politics, as in any other vocation, is lovingly to serve our neighbors, using all of our resources and faculties of persuasion to help them live lives marked by justice, peace, and human flourishing.

Perhaps most importantly, the call to serve demands that we learn to listen to others who may well understand the problems before us – and the potential solutions – better than we do. After all, when it comes to politics we are together in this, wherever we fall on the political spectrum. Living together in peace and order is our most fundamental objective, it is not a byproduct for which we hope once we have achieved our own agendas. We will be judged not on the basis of whether or not we won, but on the basis of whether or not we served.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 10, 2012, in Culture War, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Citizenship as a vocation: avoiding Christian arrogance.

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