Is Meritocracy A Sham?
Published on: July 1, 2012
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  • Marcus V

    There is more than a small dose of the No True Christian fallacy in your arguments, here. I have met more than my fair of Christians who rank themselves as inherently more valuable people than atheists, or other brands of theists, solely on the grounds of their religious choices. And even a brief perusal of Western History will show the devastating consequences to life and liberty when Christians of that stripe have their hands on the levers of power.

    Your conception of Christian humility as an innoculant against the arrogance of power is a lovely thought, but does not hold in practice.

    Were I to commit the same error, I might point out that a “serious” atheist, with no comforting received wisdom or dogma, floating mostly in profound ignorance in a vast an uncaring universe will develop the same caution and respect for others as you claim for Christians. But of course, it is not always so.

    One’s attitude toward humility, and one’s own humble nature, say more about the person than the group to which he or she belongs.

  • Kenny

    One of your best postings, Mr. Mead

  • ms

    Amen. I would only add that those who do not undertand the fallible nature of humanity tend to think in their arrogance that society can be perfected. Think Soviet communists, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, and utopian schemes in general–in short the most disastrous political experiments of the 20th century. By contrast, religious folk tend to understand that human nature will lead us astray and that, short of the second coming, perfection will not be achieved on this earth. They generally favor checks and balances to rein in arrogant humans who think they can control human nature, have too much faith in their own wisdom, and thereby make everything infinitely worse.

  • Excellent post. A good Sunday sermon if there ever was one.
    One point I’d like to add. For sure, the middle-class, upper-middle class meritocrats may be less explicitly religious and even more agnostic in basic philosophical outlook (no transcendant God, etc.). However, I think there is a gradual process, a gradation from belief to non-belief. Rather than there being outright atheism, many are caught in between, in some sort of theosophical no-man’s-land where the old explicit language is gone but some of the old tropes remain. The end result being that there are a lot of ambitious & wealthy people who are confused and feel caught in a double-bind since they’re unable to articulate the basis upon which their mores are grounded.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @James C Brown: I think you are right and hope we will see ministries rise to help bring these folks home.

  • I have met more than my fair of Christians who rank themselves as inherently more valuable people than atheists, or other brands of theists, solely on the grounds of their religious choices. And even a brief perusal of Western History will show the devastating consequences to life and liberty when Christians of that stripe have their hands on the levers of power.

    Just out of curiosity, where? In more than 25 years of regular churchgoing, I have found that laymen simply do not discuss social or religious topics much at all anywhere in the vicinity of the church building. I did know one exception to this rule, but he was a liberal Anglican given to unorthodox sexual practices and also given to the sort of conceits I see in my (secular) liberal relations. I have been active in the Catholic blogosphere for a decade and have been a subscriber to a half-dozen Catholic or ecumenical publications. While you see harsh rebukes of the prevailing strands in the secular culture, self-aggrandizing commentary of the sort to which you refer is rare.

  • Tom K

    The argument hinges on how we judge merit. That people with high SAT scores helped to engineer the financial crisis does not make believers the better candidates for positions of responsibility. The nuggets of wisdom contained in the world’s religions are embedded in so much mythological thinking that it takes a fine mind and strong character indeed to emerge from a religious education with well developed judgement rather than as an ignorant instrument of blind faith.

    People of merit come from all walks of life. We need people in positions of responsibility who are outstanding at what they do, who can reference a lifetime of learning and experience in their area of expertise, who care, and have a record of good judgement. All of these criteria are independent of religion (without excluding a religious background). We should have had enough by now of people whose claim to fame is that they are as ignorant as he next guy but somehow good because of their faith.

  • Well I’m not so sure about Christianity in America. How can Christians persecute people who prefer a certain seed bearing plant and leave alone those who prefer the fruit of the vine – fermented.

    But when I vote, I vote for
    The Beer Party. At least now that Alcohol Prohibition is finally over.

  • hitnrun

    @Marcus V: As a logical argument, you’re certainly right and Mead is certainly in fallacy. But as a practical point, his thesis of atheism/agnosticism more accurately describes the observable universe as it relates to the people under discussion.

    Which is not to say that the religious can’t be arrogant and self-regarding. In fact, I would argue that MORE Christians are so insufferable. But for the relevant dynamic at hand with regards to the elite of the Church of State and its holy orders of Media and Nobly Subsidized Important Work, there is a certain kind of solipsism and vanity at play in the world views of these people in which atheism plays a big part.

    Note that the actual existence or non-existence of God is beside the point in this dynamic. It’s the conclusions that people tend to draw from their beliefs that creates the situation.

  • Things whet bad for Christians when they followed the siren song of Teddy Roosevelt. – With the right laws and government guns man is perfectible. – Gee. That sounds so Progressive. And it is.

  • Creid

    I’ve been reading Hayes’ book and I’m very happy to get your perspective on it! Although when it comes to atheism I find myself having to trudge through your writing- it’s something like putting up with a grandfather’s innocent racism at the dinner table. It doesn’t upset me so much as embarrass me a tad. I read through it anyway to try to understand you.

    I don’t see any reason to believe that religiosity has anything to do with the cultural zeitgeist (although I think causation sometimes goes the other way around- economic or social factors will affect religiosity).

  • J. H. Colter

    The premise of the “best and the brightest” theory ultimately devolves into the idea that 545 Americans (and their staffs) have greater collective intelligence than 310M Americans (or 7B humans).

  • Jeffersonian

    Brilliant column, spot on.

  • Regan

    Nicely said.

  • dawnfire

    You’re correct, Mr. Mead. The critical failing of our ruling class is humility. They know best. They always know best. And when they fail, it’s someone or something else’s fault.

  • Andreia

    I agree, but there are other problems in today´s “meritocracy”:
    1. Even by SAT standards, today´s Ivy league graduates are not “creme de la creme”. Too many are admitted for sole purpose of enhancing diversity without regard to their ability.
    2. Education they get there is, to put it mildly, inadequate. Remember graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School who thinks that in Austria people speak Austrian? He is surely not an exception.
    And even if they have high SAT score(or high IQ) and acquire some knowledge, do they have any wisdom? Which brings us back to your argument.

  • JD

    Excellent post. May God grant you the time for more pleasure reading. (Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris is awaiting a free day when I can properly savor it.)

  • jvermeer

    There is one test of whether one has made the world better for others that the left views as invalid and Mr Mead doesn’t mention either. Have you done something for which someone else is willing to take his own dollar out of his own pocket and pay? A meritocratic CEO in a competitive industry must face that test daily. Bloomberg telling you what kind of soda to buy doesn’t.
    Second, given the rise recently of leftist evangelicals, why should we expect atheist statists and evangelical statists to act differently. They both want to force everyone to live in their vision of virtue.

  • WG

    You’ll notice that #1 of the “100 reasons NOT to go to grad school” is: “The smart people are somewhere else.”

    Traditional routes into the meritocracy are so crowded that merit is no longer enough to get you in.

  • Kevin

    Well. sir, you nailed it in that paragraph “Now before all the atheists out there..” as you first commentator tried. Honestly, I’ve never meant an atheist as opposed to agnostic who can hold a rational discussion with the possibility he’s wrong. Merit becomes virtue in their eyes: one gets asked how God could allow Hawkins to suffer so when he is so smart rather than why God allows evil. Of course, evil is defined as whatever they dislike as without God, all morality is but taste.

    One should note that an “Original Sin” to one degree or another is found in many faiths and that the differences between Protestant and Orthodox might be bigger than between one of those and an non-Christian faith. It’s the the fatal flaw in man that is unique to the Cross.

    A very interesting piece. Thank you.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    I might have, at one time, been considered one of the best and the brightest. I was for many years a member of Mensa, graduated with honors in Mathematics and could’ve gone on to grad school but decided I would rather have money in my pocket instead. But one thing I have learned over the years is that everyone knows something but nobody knows everything. And I think whatever advantage there is to being “smart” is far outweighed by the things the smart don’t know and the experiences they don’t receive that others do. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from people who didn’t do as well at Calculus as I did (maybe even didn’t know what Calculus is) but nevertheless had insights I’d never dreamed of. The things that really count are the things that one learns after leaving the academy, but the arrogance many acquire from academic success often precludes that.

    I would suggest that we don’t really have a meritocracy, at least as I define it. A real meritocracy would reward the people who produce real things – companies, products, scientific advances – not those who succeed at pleasing tenured academics and passing exams. A real meritocracy is not a sham, but what we have now is.

  • asdf

    I have to agree with Marcus V here. While these are good ideals to have, every tradition –religious or not– pays lip service to them. And that’s the problem: there seems to be no ethical tradition that can stop people with disproportionate power from becoming corrupt. Hand people social dominance, and atheists and theists of every stripe immediately cash in. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy kicks in here, as well. It’s not that secular humanists are less moral than the population at large, it’s that the ones who climb to the top of the greasy pole are the ones most focused on their self-interest. The selfless inevitably make career-limiting decisions in the name of their ideals. The selfish are much more focused on advancement.

    I want to draw attention to a couple minor things here. The first is the concentration versus distribution of decision-making. The really limited resource here is ATTENTION. The brightest aren’t actually all that much brighter than everyone else, but even if they were, concentrating all those choices into a small number of elites means that the choices made are slipshod, cursory, and so not all that smart. Distributing them outwards may leave decisions in the hands of the not-quite-so-brilliant ordinary man, but at least he gives the choice his full attention.

    In our public policy, elites perplexed by their continuing failures simply don’t accept that we’re long past the point where our social systems are TOO hierarchical for good decisions to happen.

    Evidence for this comes from the modern firm. Coase’s Nobel prize comes from a version of this logic: why do we have companies at all? Why isn’t everything and everyone a free agent whose time and work are bought on the market? Coase invokes the logic of information and attention to explain why hierarchies (and therefore elites) emerge in free markets, but the logic works in reverse, too. And in fact, we’re seeing just that in what’s left of the free market: as information overload makes large hierarchical companies go bankrupt, smaller and more ad-hoc start-ups rack up impressive victories.

    Just as Toffler predicted.

    One last thought. You mention bringing down the Rockefellers and other robber baron capitalist families. But in return, they’ve created the robber baron politician families: the Clintons and Bushes and Kennedys. In fact, the Rockefellers have the distinction of having gone from robber baron capitalists to robber baron Republicans, to robber baron Democrats. Power begets wealth even more easily than wealth begets power. Democrats who rail against Big Business miss the fact that Big Government is functionally identical– driven at the top by elites who live similar lifestyles, enjoy similar privileges, and bequeath their advantages to their children. Except for one thing: for all his money, Bill Gates can’t order someone into prison, or use absolute immunity to quash a lawsuit.

  • esr

    Mr. Mead:
    You are a brilliant and insightful writer, and thankfully, this statement can be without putting you at risk of becoming “arrogant.” In the end this is not about an angry-ole-God’s judgments about our sins, both collective and individual. It is about a belief system that nudges us into humility. Only with that can we avoid the smugness you describe so well and remain connected to the rest of humanity.

  • Orthodoc

    I have met more than my fair of secular humanists who rank themselves as inherently more valuable people than Christians, or other brands of theists, solely on the grounds of their religious choices. And even a brief perusal of Western History will show the devastating consequences to life and liberty when people of that stripe have their hands on the levers of power.


  • Mr. Mead,

    I started reading this entry with growing interest until i arrived at the crux of your piece.

    I find myself aligned strongly with Marcus V’s view that a person without religion is absolutely NOT at a disadvantage when trying to deal with their successes however they are measured.

    Living in southern orange county, California, i am surrounded almost entirely by emphatically self-identified Good Christians. I need only engage one of my neighbors in conversation, which actually means only to listen to them, to be reassured that my last interaction did not allow me to mistakenly infer the common belief that Christians are the only ones with a legitimate belief system and thus legitimate ideas inherently more correct than ‘others’ ideas.

    Wrapping yourself in the warm blanket of belief in the ‘only’ God appears to those wrapped in another more inclusive blanket of belief to be an act without much humility.

  • section9

    Now before Wig Wag shows up and declares that Jesus would have voted with Roberts for the Mandate, even as a tax, I’d like to say that this is one of your better efforts at describing the collapse of elite authority in the United States.

    The writer echoed a lot of what Anthony Codevilla wrote about in his article, The Ruling Class, published in The American Spectator back in the summer of 2010. I think Mead’s “get” is the lack of restraining moderation that Faith provided for the Old Elites. I’m not sure that Codevilla went there, and I’m not sure that the author of the book that Mead reviewed did either.

  • Rearden

    Mr Mead,

    Thank you for you thoughts on this subject, I very much appreciate your articulating a concept I have found near and dear to my heart for many years.

    I would add a remark that I hear synthesized well in a sermon a year ago that relates tangentially. That was, to paraphrase, that when the Church begins to leverage anything but love as a means to advance the gospel, that it begins to undermine its own message. I am so often distressed by the fact that Christians have so much power and wealth in this country because we attempt to use those things to advance the gospel, especially through the law. I am specifically thinking of imposing a Christian moral code via legislation. I wish that more Christians were able to use this lesson, that our only leverage should be love and not Pharisaical laws.

    I agree that humility is a critical component of any leader’s character. I only wish it were more evident in the character of those of our leader’s who claim to espouse Christian beliefs.

  • James Jones

    Some of the deepest results in science and math are the ones that show our limits:

    There’s no closed-form solution for polynomial equations of degree five or higher.

    In a closed system you will run out of usable energy eventually.

    You can’t know exactly both where the subatomic particle is and which way it’s going.

    The speed of light; it’s not just a good idea–it’s the law.

    You can’t prove every true proposition in consistent deductive systems sufficient to deal with the counting numbers.

    You can’t come up with a way to tell whether an arbitrary computer program will always halt.

    The list goes on. A god isn’t necessary for humility–not if you are familiar with this kind of result.

    We’re not perfectible, but we’re improvable. To give up on that is to be less than human.

  • Why Mentalities Embarrass Themselves, In That Day
    By Robert Winkler Burke 6/29/12

    Mentalities publically embarrassed,
    Note at this time, In That Day,
    Double-minded deeds can’t be erased,
    Statures blown up and away.

    And most everyone, of course,
    Pretends not to dare notice!
    Mental ships bad off-course,
    From POTUS to SCOTUS.

    Let your yeas be yeas,
    Who was it that said that?
    And your nays be nays,
    Double minds fall flat!

    Forbearance, we who can still think, forbearance our practice,
    With precious mentalities intact!
    From deep wells we drain drink, though world give us malice,
    We wait… for right time to act!

    We, who think straight,
    Who have the “Tragic View,” which gives us excellence,
    Are met with hate,
    By the conflicted-of-thought, who’ve lost common sense.

    So then is all of this,
    Somehow: the simple, sweeping, great hand of God?
    Those with pretense,
    With hubris-wrong thoughts: self-make brains odd?

    They do it to themselves?
    Each brain made foggier, dumber by core wrong beliefs!
    Putting brains on shelves?
    While opposite happens to those God: strong relieves!

    Forbearance, we who can still think, forbearance our practice,
    With precious mentalities intact!
    From deep wells we drain drink, though world give us malice,
    We wait… for right time to act!

    “You see, not only is there the Divine,
    There is a twisted sense of humor!”
    In That Day Teachings are good find!
    More to Christ’s mind than rumor.

    Gene Roddenberry’s ugly, hideous Magog creature, Rev Bem,
    In the Andromeda (Ascendant) TV series,
    Said the above first two lines in jocose, parabolic wisdom,
    Is it God’s answer to our ancient queries?

    So, can In That Day Teachings, amazingly then,
    Actually take the double-minded out of inane, puerile parked orbit?
    And remove deep-thought, mind-disabling sin?
    Factually, the world ignores it! Who would then, daren’t absorb it?

    Forbearance, we who can still think, forbearance our practice,
    With precious mentalities intact!
    From deep wells we drain drink, though world give us malice,
    We wait… for right time to act!

  • “A fool has said in his heart: There is no God,” and indeed, this thought limits all progress because it denies Divine Inspiration. I think our Creator is pretty funny because He gives great ideas to “fools” just to see what they do with them and just to see if they get the genesis of the idea.

    I have personally seen that if I get a great idea it grows out of a question I asked of Him, and He uses the foolish to confound the wise.

    All credit is shared credit. If we are smart, we give the bulk of said credit to the One Who gives it freely and without reproach. If we are dumb, we take all the credit and lose relationship.

    Grace is a throughway, not a dead end street, and it moves in both directions.

    Merit, you bet. Merit shared is merit doubled or even squared. A lot more fun.

  • wm13

    The Puritans did not burn witches. (They hanged some.) It’s best to get your facts right before telling other people how to live.

  • silia

    “It’s fun to talk about test prep as ‘affirmative action for rich white people,’ but the test prep freight train is being driven by Asians (who have been test prepping for over a thousand years, by the way), which is a fact that the media ought to get around to acknowledging.”

  • silia

    “So, unsurprisingly, East Asians try the hardest at and get the most benefit from test prep, while whites, who are more likely to have heard and believed ETS’s propaganda that test prepping is insignificant, try the least hard and get the least benefit. In the middle, blacks and Hispanics benefit from all the racial uplift programs for them.”

  • Allan Ripley

    Though Mead has focused largely on the religious aspect, this very excellent post dovetails very nicely with Charles Murray’s latest book “Coming Apart” in which Murray posits that Reliousity, along with Industriousness, Marriage, and Honesty, are the four Founding Virtues that supported the development of the greatness of early America.
    I’m not sure that anyone has all the answers but Mead and Murray both present powerful arguments.

  • thomas

    I enjoyed the article… but I’d add; I never consented to be ruled by an elite. ‘Meritocratic’ or other.
    The social contract I agreed to said I should mostly be left alone by the state.
    It has always been clear to me that experts in one area are often idiots in other areas. Letting them choose my soda size or my medical plan is only going to end in disaster.

  • Anthony

    “I do say that the fading of serious Christian commitment in the sleek and successful ranks of America’s meritocracy plays a significant and damaging role in our national life.”

    Where to begin? WRM, you start by examining meritocracy but this essay is much much more tham an examination of elite results of modern meritocracy – you’re plumbing souls with sublime confidence.

    WRM, this essay attempts to strike at current end of American cultural apparatus (spiritual negation/soulless wandering) as examined from American Protestant framework; you bring to mind aims of a free people: freedom and obligation joined with liberty and duty anchored by Christian practice and commitment.

    Your implication (one of several) that American culture (survival) lies in the disciplined virtues recognized by Christianity (and all but dismissed by many of our leaders) appears to asks for both reaffirmation and commitment to our Christian heritage – “the kind of balance that, classically, comes from a theologically grounded sense both of original sin and God’s transcendence of all human history and thought.”

    To turn a Christian phrase: you are arguing that we have lost ourselves and have yet to find our way back (our national purpose hangs in the balance) but by renewing our religious tradition our liberty, prosperity, and democracy remains…

  • If America were a meritocracy, top universities would have many more Asian-Americans and fewer Blacks and Hispanics.
    Everybody knows it. Only the resolutely ignorant deny it.

  • jim z

    Mr. Mead,

    That is the best sermon I’ve ever heard. It is one of your best postings. Thank you!

  • Paul

    I am reminded of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”, where the ghost of Christmas Present rebukes Scrooge, saying “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

  • Kris

    Twitter version: What good “merit” without virtue?

    “God thinks Trig Palin is just as marvelous and wonderful and adorable as Paul Krugman.”

    Jesus loves the little children, Mead. Why then do you insult an innocent one so?

    (Oh dear. That wasn’t very christian of me.)

  • teapartydoc

    Yes. We got our ideas of equality from Christians and Stoics. But an atheist of no less notoriety than Hobbes said that in his estimation people tended to covet the things of others that were obvious in difference, and that he never saw a man covet another man’s mind, so he figured that intelligence was basically equivalent in all. Another thing to keep in mind is the Meno in which Socrates gets an uneducated slave to prove the Pythagorean theorem. He thought he was proving that the slave remembered it from a previous life. What he really did was prove that uneducated people are basically as smart as educated ones.

  • Marty

    For those not swayed by Christian humility, which group unfortunately includes many self-righteous Christians, maybe understanding Hayek’s “knowledge problem” in all its ramifications would do…

  • WigWag

    With all due respect, Professor Mead, it’s hard to catalog all of the wrongheaded ideas that you express in this post.

    1) American liberalism may have its roots in social populism and technocratic progressivism but the American meritocracy has roots that go far deeper than that. The idea of a meritocracy is baked into America’s genes; it developed as an antidote to the class bound English system.

    America’s founding fathers were the original “best and the brightest.” They were members of relatively small intellectual elite who believed fervently in a meritocracy. To the extent that they were religious at all, they had a concept of religion that was tempered by the Enlightenment. In fact, the founding of the United States was the European Enlightenment made real.

    Let’s remember that the form of Government that the founders created was not a democracy as we understand it today. They had carefully studied Cicero and they were practically obsessed with insuring that the United States Government was not subject to the whims of what you call the Jacksonian masses. Our founding fathers would have hated the idea of populism and they would have detested the contemporary Tea Party.

    The Constitution that they crafted was designed to constrain democracy; the goal of our founding meritocrats was to severely limit the amount of democracy that would be available to the great unwashed. They limited the franchise to property holders; they created the electoral college to prevent the popular election of the President; they empowered the state legislatures to elect United States Senators and they required hard to obtain supermajorities before the Constitution they wrote could be amended. Clearly the founders hoped that our nation would evolve as a meritocracy; their goal has been achieved.

    2) You say, “there are certain consequences of success in a meritocracy that put people, and especially American people, without a strong religious faith at great risk.” You go on to say, “I think we can see today in American life some of the consequences that come when a powerful but to some degree godless social elite lacks the spiritual resources and vocabulary that would better equip it for its role.”

    I would argue that for the most part contemporary American meritocratic elites are more religious not less religious than the meritocratic elites of America’s founding generation. As you have admitted yourself, America’s founders were for the most part deists; they were hardly what we would consider devout by today’s standards. Is Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama really so much less devout than the author of the Jefferson Bible or Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton or Benjamin Franklin? Or maybe you think that Jefferson, Paine, Hamilton and Franklin were just ill equipped for their roles.

    Surely our founding fathers believed in original sin; that is if you use the pop version of original sin that you mention in your post. Do you truly mean to suggest that contemporary secular elites don’t believe that “human beings, despite all their talents and capacities, are deeply and hopelessly flawed?” It seems to me that all intelligent people believe this whether they are devout or not. Secular contemporary elites may not believe in the biblical story of the fall of man but surely they believe that humans are imperfect. What evidence do you have that atheists are any less likely to believe this than devout people are?

    You say that “God loves and values the child with Downs’ syndrome as much as he loves and values the Nobel-prize winning economist.” What you fail to mention is that the prospect for children with Downs’ Syndrome, Fragile X, autism and other intellectual and physical disabilities only began to improve as society became more secular. Those who championed educational and vocational interventions that dramatically improved the prospects for these children were the very meritocratic elites who you claim are apt to be arrogantly indifferent to the plight of ordinary people.

    If these children still had to rely on the devout or on Jacksonian populists, their prospects would be what they were for centuries; bleak. Those Downs’ syndrome kids might not be better off because of the way meritocratic elites use their gifts of mathematical reasoning, but they are better off because those meritocratic elites, whether religious or not, tend to be more generous, caring and competent than the rest of society.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have dramatically improved the prospects for disabled children. Kids with Downs’ Syndrome and Fragile X now routinely achieve high school diplomas; something that was once unthinkable. Not only are the ADA and IDEA ideas that were championed by secular elites, they are major recent success stories of what you call the “blue model.” Of course it’s a model that you do nothing but disparage. Would these children really be better off if all they could rely on was charity from the Roman Catholic Church or the Episcopal Church of America. Guess what? Been there; tried that. It didn’t work.

    It is also worth pointing out that if Charles Murray is to be believed it’s not the meritocracy that is losing its religion, its values and its sense of what America is all about; it’s the populist masses. Your post and presumably Hayes’ book (which I haven’t read) suggests that it’s the meritocracy that is at risk of losing its soul; Murray’s book (which I have read) suggests that you and Hayes are looking in all the wrong places for what ails America.

    3) You also ask, “What is the Pharisee but the meritocrat of an earlier day?” Actually it was the Sadducees (the priestly class) who were the meritocrats of an earlier today; the Pharisees were the people’s party. As you’ve suggested, that’s not the way the Gospels present it but then the Gospels were written decades after Jesus lived with the deliberate goal of supporting the ideology of what was then the Jesus-cult. As you surely know, much of the contents of the Sermon on the Mount had its genesis in the doctrine of the Pharisees. Jesus may very well have been a Pharisee himself.

    4) As long as I am mentioning some major quibbles with your post, let me mention one minor quibble as well. 200 word book reviews are a waste of time and effort. I hope you are paid well for them and I think you do as good a job with them as anyone could, but the idea that a reader can obtain anything worthwhile from a review so absurdly short is just silly. Foreign Affairs should give up on these reviews; they don’t work and despite your best efforts and the best efforts of the other reviewers, the format insures that they do nothing but insult the readers intelligence.

  • MarkE

    Republics can last a long time and usually pay homage to democracy. When democracy gets the upper hand it rarely lasts long and often devolves into tyranny. It seems that a meritocratic republic with strong elements of democracy is our best bet. Because of the limits of expertise, honesty and integrity are essential to effective meritocrats. Humility is required but maybe not too much. Religions based on the “golden rule” but usually laced with a portion of hypocrisy may be the right moral and spiritual preparation for effective meritocrats.

  • We don’t have that many meritocrats any more. What we have is people pretending to be meritocrats. They combine claims of brains with opposition to any objective method of testing those claims. That is not the mark of the arrogant but the mark of bluffers.

  • Eric from Texas


    Great column. A few thoughts and a personal perspective.

    While I understand why you are concerned about the impacts of atheism in public life, atheism in itself is not the problem. It’s the mindless narcissism of the Pharisee (for the religious) or the “Fatal Conceit” of Adam Smith’s “Man of System” (for the secular) that is the problem.

    An atheist that truly understands the implications of complexity science can develop a comparable view of the distance between one’s knowledge and God’s (or ultimate) knowledge, as you’ve expressed in this column. Others come to the same conclusion by understanding the implications of the economic writings of Hayek and Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”. The result can lead to be the same humility about one’s role in the world, leading him or her to strongly advocating equality of opportunity to run one’s own affairs as the most committed Christian is about the dignity of the most lowly person in town.

    Some libertarians, with strong Tea Party sympathies, such as Glenn Reynolds, who don’t seem to be religious (or aren’t openly religious), seem to take a very similar thoughtful view of the vainglories and failures of meritocrats and the need for living free in a decentralized, complex world. And, as shown in the writing of your splendid book,”God and Gold”, your secular and religious sides reinforce each other in that view.

    In complexity I see the face of God. I don’t see the Christian Bible as the Truth but, as I get older and read the stories to my children, I see the Bible as a book filled with truths that have much to teach all of us, both those who live in faith and those who don’t. Living one’s life in modestly in faith or in awe of the overlapping levels of complex systems in which we swim would make this a better world indeed.

  • Iustus Peccator

    Oh dear, did Dr. Mead just yell “God!” in a crowded theatre? And. Shall I address any of the deep substance of what Dr. Mead just said, or should I simply say that Christians are hypocrites and aren’t so moral after all?
    (Not so by the way, one ought to try confessing their own hypocrisy first, before complaining about someone else’s]

    I lived the first quarter century of my life in Swarthmore, Evanston and New Haven. In such places there is a certain blindness and fierce political rectitude that would rival the dogmatism of any baptist backwater. It is as much based on hardness of heart, dehumanizing and belittling opinions as any religious creed.

    Although it has transmogrified through the years, it still carries the vestigial struggle of the First Great Awakening: Through whom does God speak? The Harvale educated pastor/professional or the Spirit tinged slave or yeo(wo)man? One had credentialed, rational rectitude. The other a touch of Divine insanity that challenged the brilliance of the order.

    And so it goes, that while believers and non believers alike have embraced both sides, as well as worker and management, the template remains:

    The plebians are the interlopers, dangerously unstable and woefully ignorant.
    They must be beaten back. For the good of all.

    And the age old question asked by outraged authority is always the same: By what authority do you do these things; who gave you this authority?

    Somewhere I read those in authority asked that of another man.

  • Herb

    This was very good, Mr Mead. Too many of the elites in Washington and Wall Street are arrogant in the way you describe. There is simply no doubt about it.
    We have souls, not just bodies, and it is the souls that are equal. Some come to this earth imprisoned perhaps in a Downs’ syndrome body, but they bring a gift to those who know them, and that gift may be greater than any Paul Krugman has ever given with his NY Times columns. We might consider the possibility that we exist before our birth on earth and will exist after our death in another form. We may even return. As in Franklin’s epitaph:
    The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.

  • Michael S

    I think that Marcus V, bret m, et al are arguing a different point than that presented by Mr. Mead. The point (as I understand it, at least) is *not* that Christians are inherently more capable of humble, other-serving pursuits; rather, their philosophical/theological foundations serve to encourage/cajole/command them to move in that direction.

    Now, whether the average Christian can/does live up to that standard is a separate question. (In fact, it feels like cheating, but one of Mead’s latter points — the un-fixably flawed nature of all humanity — addresses the objections. Despite what many in and outside the faith say, Christianity isn’t a formula for guaranteeing right behavior. That is because our problem isn’t bad behavior, but the flawed nature that leads to bad behavior. Right behavior is a goal, perhaps even an expectation, but it isn’t a guarantee.)

    I think Mead’s basic point is that leaders and social institutions that succeed have taken into account the discussed traits/truths of humanity (e.g., all people, regardless of wealth, ability or past actions are equally valuable; those with resources/gifts are to use those to help others; and all people are flawed — un-fixably so). For example, the American Constitution was deliberately crafted to restrict the ways that any individual or group could amass power and turn that power to oppress another group. The Constitution is put together with the assumption that flawed humans will always slip into tyranny.

    I don’t believe that an atheist is less capable of moral behavior (or that Christians have a monopoly on moral behavior). But I do think that an atheist politician/leader starts at a disadvantage, because their philosophy/worldview may not lead/cajole/command them into the truths discussed above.

    Put another way: I have infinitely greater faith in the ability of the wealthy and powerful to learn humble charity, than I have faith in our ability to construct & maintain responsible and just government systems.

  • Arjun

    Just like the blue model is failing, so is the model of organized religion as can be seen by the increasing believers in atheism and agnosticism. I truly love your blog because you arrive at the same policies as I believe in but from a different angle. Regardless you trying to preserve and call for more religion is like Hayes asking for more of the blue model, irrational and impossible. We wouldn’t even need more religious elites if we turn to classical liberalism and the belief that each individual should be making his own decisions. Once again, your posts are always enlightening, even this one and I cannot wait for more.

  • Just got this link from Insty.

    Maybe we do have a candidate who is a real “Christian”.

  • Eric from Texas

    Wig Wag @ 43,

    With regards to our elites and Down’s Syndrome, you would dispute that some of the vitrol that Sarah Palin received from our “meritocrats” in 2008 was because she brought Trig into the world? Sure seemed that way to many of us.

    I also would point out that the contempt that many of the “meritocrats” have shown to the people “who bitterly cling to their guns and religion” would have horrified both Hubert Humphrey and LBJ, who not only tried to do right by the less fortunate, but actually tried to work in a bipartisan fashion on important social legislation. I think WRM is on target.

  • Poppabob

    I am definitely secular and consider myself to be an agnostic. I cannot accept religious dogma, but neither can I accept aristocratic, intellectual or meritocratic dogma. Humility does not require religiosity. People have it or do not have it.. In my lifetime I have met many people with elementary school educations with more wisdom and ability to analyze situations than many I have met with advanced degrees.
    A group of letters after one’s name does not necessarily denote wisdom or judgement and the lack of these does not necessarily denote stupidity.

  • Jim.

    Beware materialism, Professor.

    You can feed someone who is hungry. You can give money to someone who is poor. You can heal someone who is sick. You can give clothing to someone who is cold.

    But if in the process you take away their faith in God, you have damned them, and all your other gifts to them are worse than meaningless.

  • Where is thibaud?

    The Hebraic idea of God is what anchors the Western liberal idea which is at the heart of our civilization: a just judge of the earth who judges all men equally (by a single standard) according to their deeds not their words, and who champions economic and political freedom. You may not believe in that God but you should know that belief is enough to establish these values and that it was in fact the belief of our ancestors that established these values in law and in our founding documents (Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address).

  • chase

    I think your attack on Krugman was a cheap shot. If you think his economic analysis is shoddy, I say fire away. But I don’t see how you can infer that Krugman is the kind of cold elitist that hates babies with down syndrome.

    Here is a quote from a recent Krugman column praising the Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare.

    These are hardly the words of an evil man.

    “There will, no doubt, be many headlines declaring this a big victory for President Obama, which it is. But the real winners are ordinary Americans — people like you.

    How many people are we talking about? You might say 30 million, the number of additional people the Congressional Budget Office says will have health insurance thanks to Obamacare. But that vastly understates the true number of winners because millions of other Americans — including many who oppose the act — would have been at risk of being one of those 30 million.”

    Also, everyone reading the blog should remember that there are a lot of elitist conservatives too. The big difference is that whereas elitist liberals openly object to popular beliefs – and thereby alienate people – elitist conservatives don’t care about what the masses think and do, provided that their taxes aren’t increased.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Chase: not sure why you saw a personal attack on Paul Krugman in the piece. Certainly none was intended. When and if I attack him, you’ll know.

  • thibaud

    Post # 43 is a tour de force.

    Mead’s [deleted] canard – seasoned with an unhealthy layer of anti-secular and anti-progressive catnip for his surly Jacksonian readership – has never been so silly, so full of self-rcontradictions and ludicrous exaggerations, as in this post.

    Mead takes the Jacksonian’s resentment of his betters and distorts it into a bizarre defense of the disabled – never mind that it was federal laws pushed through by secular liberals that gave legal protection and support to the disabled.

    Mead’s ignorance of history and his Jacksonian resentment of intellectuals leads him to distort the ideas of an 18c intellectual elite that, as Gordon Wood and others have shown, were in reality die-hard defenders of meritocracy and elitist politics.

    Mead goes on and on about Christian charity, ignoring the fact that his libertarian allies could not care less about _caritas_ and have no allegiance to anything beyond their precocious twelve year-old’s fantasies about the magic of the marketplace.

  • thibaud

    # 52 – “With regards to our elites and Down’s Syndrome, you would dispute that some of the vitrol that Sarah Palin received from our “meritocrats” in 2008 was because she brought Trig into the world?”

    If “some equals <1%, no argument at all.

    99% of the disgust with Sarah Palin in 2008 stemmed from her clownish and degrading performance as a candidate to be second-in-line for the leadership of the free world.

    Most of the disgust with Sarah Palin since 2008 has been with her clownish and degrading performance as a media entrepreneur and matriarch in a running family soap opera one notch above the Kardashians'.

    But hey, if it makes you feel better, keep right on dreaming that this is all about hostility to religion and 'mericanism.

  • Russell Snow

    I think the problem is more basic. The atheists commenting here assert that they can be (and are) more moral (in their own context) than Christians. I take exception to the very idea. A an atheist believes he is a blob of chemicals fizzing to completion. There is no argument with that assertion I assume. He feels a responsibility to keep fizzing himself, but why should he care if anyone else does? I mean really?

    The point I am inarticulately trying to make, is that atheists appropriate morality and humility from Christians but have no reasonable basis to do so. Morality becomes what is useful and it is useful for people to behave morally (or humbly in this case) but when restraints are removed in the case of the elites it becomes more useful to just take all you can get away with. Belief in God is the only permanent restraint because a morality you talked yourself into you can talk yourself out of.
    For the Christian, morality is what God says it is, and that is what it will always be. For the atheist, morality is what he talks himself into today. Tomorrow is another day.

  • The Puritans did not burn witches. (They hanged some.) It’s best to get your facts right before telling other people how to live.

    Ah. The new and improved Puritans.

    I fail to see how error in one minor fact eliminates the truth of a moral investigation.

  • that he never saw a man covet another man’s mind, so he figured that intelligence was basically equivalent in all.

    A very smart man who is well above his peers in smartness doesn’t inspire greed. He inspires hate.

    Look at the union rule – everyone must perform the same because if you do better you make the rest of us look bad.

  • Dick Pickett

    Your comments on Original Sin reminded me of Jeremiah.

    Young’s Literal Translation
    Crooked is the heart above all things, And it is incurable — who doth know it?

    I thought about Jeremiah 17:9 earlier this afternoon while attending the memorial service for a man in his mid-thirties. He was a healthy, lumberjack size fellow that ended his own life with a deer rifle. The service was conducted by a couple of his hunting buddies.

    The theological take-away from the service was the refrain to the concluding song:
    God is great;
    Beer is good;
    People are crazy.

    The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

    This old man and me, were at the bar and we…
    Were having us some beers and swappin’ I-don’t-cares
    Talking politics, blonde and redhead chicks
    Old dogs and new tricks, and habits we ain’t kicked
    We talked about God’s grace, and all the hell we raised
    Then I heard the ol’ man say
    God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy

    He said I fought two wars, been married and divorced
    What brings you to Ohio, he said damned if I know
    We talked an hour or two, ’bout every girl we knew
    What all we put them through, like two old boys will do
    We pondered life and death, he lit a cigarette
    Said these damn things will kill me yet
    But God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy

    Last call was 2 a.m., I said goodbye to him
    I never talked to him again

    Then one sunny day, I saw the old man’s face
    Front page obituary, he was a millionaire
    He left his fortune to some guy he barely knew
    His kids were mad as hell, but me…I’m doing well
    And I dropped by today, to just say thanks and pray
    And I left a six-pack right there on his grave
    And I said, God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy

    God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy

    God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy

  • Aron Matskin

    Hermann Hesse, Das Glasperlenspiel

  • James22

    George Orwell said it best in his essay “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution”:

    “If one examines the people who, having some idea of what the Russian régime is like, are strongly russophile, one finds that, on the whole, they belong to the “managerial” class of which Burnham writes.
    That is, they are not managers in the narrow sense, but scientists, technicians, teachers, journalists, broadcasters, bureaucrats, professional politicians: in general, middling people who feel themselves
    cramped by a system that is still partly aristocratic, and are hungry for more power and more prestige.
    These people look towards the USSR and see in it, or think they see, a system which eliminates the upper class, keeps the working class in its place, and hands unlimited power to people very similar to themselves. It was only AFTER the Soviet régime became unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers, began to show an interest in it. Burnham, although the English russophile
    intelligentsia would repudiate him, is really voicing their secret wish: the wish to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip.”

  • Jim.

    @59 Russel Snow-

    Brilliantly said.

    Additional point:

    The two major strains of Leftist thought are also directly opposed to each other. The technocrats, if successful (and they have been too successful of late), turn government into yet another monolithic enemy power that cannot be opposed by “the little guy”, except by political means.

    Hence 2010. And hopefully, 2012.

  • Pat Narcisi

    Thank you Mr. Mead for an inspired & inspiring column this morning.

  • chase

    @65 WRM

    This was what I was referring to.

    “That’s right. God thinks Trig Palin is just as marvelous and wonderful and adorable as Paul Krugman.” You could just as well have said “trig Palin is just as adorable as say, Paul Krugman or Jack Welch.” (or some other super rich plutocrat who is worshiped on wall street) It just seems like you are constantly associating snobbery and the meritocracy with center left intellectuals and bureaucrats. I think this might have a lot to do with the fact that you live and work in the nyc metro area. If you get out of NYC more often, you’ll see that there are tons of red state snobs too, who tend to gravitate toward places like elite country clubs. The crucial difference between red snobs and blue snobs is that red snobs don’t care what the rest of society does. This is probably sound strategic thinking on their part, as telling others what to do is not the best way to make friends. I think that snobbery, sadly, is probably endemic to the human condition. Indeed, the persistence of this vice fits well with your analysis in this essay.

    In hindsight, I see your point. This really isn’t a personal attack on Krugman. I apologize. (Seriously not joking) I also appreciate the fact that you read the critique and responded.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Chase: And I do say that God thinks Paul is wonderful and adorable — which I actually believe to be true.

  • 99% of the disgust with Sarah Palin in 2008 stemmed from her clownish and degrading performance as a candidate to be second-in-line for the leadership of the free world.

    Um, no, since the bizarre personal attacks were precisely contemporary with her nomination and have no analogue in any previous campaign. Vice Presidential candidates in my lifetime have included Curtis LeMay, George H.W. Bush, J.D. Quayle, James Stockdale, John Edwards, and Joseph Biden. All of them had the capacity to look clownish on the public stage (though three of them were quite accomplished outside the realm of electoral politics). There was also Spiro Agnew, who was generally fairly dignified but did not give a rip who he offended.

    Of the last dozen or so (unsuccessful) vice presidential candidates, three were raked over the coals by investigatory authorities or the news media in subsequent years. No explanation is required of why this happened to the sociopathic John Edwards or to Geraldine Ferraro (a long list of unsavory associations and hinky-though-lawful business deals on the part of her and her husband, if you’ve forgotten). With regard to Gov. Palin, an explanation is required.

  • David Davies

    Just a little correction of fact. The Puritans did not burn any ‘witches’. They hanged them.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @David Davies: An intern is being escorted to the House of Pain as I write. Thanks for the tip.

  • Eric from Texas

    Thibaud @58 and Art Deco @ 69,

    Art Deco, definitely, I agree. I’ll give you my perspective on it, if you will. Like WRM, I grew up in a time and place where unselfcconsious bigotry against African-American, gays, among others, was commonplace among even the best and brightest in our communities. These people viewed themselves to be decent, honorable members of the communities, and despite these “blind spots”, many of them were.

    Fortunately, that has changed. I remember, however, in the 2008 campaign that there was something very familiar in the frenzied vitriol hurled at Sarah Palin, which seemed all out of proportion. (The charge of inexperience was valid, as was the same charge against Barack Obama)

    Towards the end of the campaign, it dawned on me. Palin and working class whites were being subject to the same mindless bigotry that African Americans were during my childhood. And like the elite of my childhood, today’s elite would give you a strenous denial that they were prejudiced or bigoted. They were just stating how things were.

    My father taught me as a child that working class whites in the South in the 1960s used Jim Crow as a means to make them feel better about themselves – they had legal sanction to ridicule and look down upon people that “everyone knew were not as good as us.” Sarah Palin served a comparable function for many of her liberal critics in the 2008 campaign.

    WRM points out beautifully that we are all subject to vainity and bigotry. Christianity, at its best, tries to overcome it by having a Eucharist that is a table set for all.

    Thibaud, please tone it down.

  • Tom K

    @59 Russel, it seems more likely that religious morality codifies evolutionary achivements like empathic attunement and reciprocity than that it originates them through a revelation. Our increasing knowledge of our biologically social nature makes revelation not superfluous, but one more facinating and valuable if somewhat dated expression of our nature. We have a loving God because we are by nature moral, not moral because of a God.
    @ 63 exactly …:-)

  • The phrase “the best and the brightest” irritates me — as if the best are always the brightest and the brightest are always the best.

    To choose just one counterexample, Edmund Wilson would never have been admitted to Princeton under that standard. He was a mediocre student in high school.

    The world “brilliant” is another pet peeve. By definition brilliance dazzles but does not illuminate. You get things like Noam Chomsky’s theory of grammar, Stephen Jay Gould’s sophistries on statistics, to say nothing of the two most influential intellectuals of the last century, Messrs Marx and Freud. Paul Samuelson was brilliant but he misled his country (on free trade) and inaugurated an era of high decadence in the field of economics.

    I prefer the more sober thought of thinkers like Adam Smith and Charles Murray, Milton Friedman or Karl Popper, William James or even Paul Krugman though I don’t always agree with him (he was also dishonest on trade). How can you beat a Lincoln or a Franklin — or even our humble host, or Steve Sailer for that matter.

    How to identify the truly best I do not know, though clear common sense is one of its traits. A knowledge of history is another, including the founding documents of our civilization (the collected writings of Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln). We need to resurrect the Canon and reform the universities.

    As for those who truly are brilliant? Let them be brilliant. Verbal pyrotechnics can be entertaining. Saul Bellow is fun. And for the more disciplined and the truly exceptional there is always theoretical physics:

    Or for something more advanced, try to read this:

    I am told there are roughly 10,000 people alive today who understand string theory. (I’m not one of them.) Better that they entertain each other than govern us mere mortas.

  • Meritocracy doesn’t promote democracy and neither apparently does multiculturalism.

    What’s more, the first produced the second: it was the first generation of our new meritocratic elite, ushered in under the auspices of James Bryant Conant, who foisted upon the American people multiculturalism, open borders, free trade, deregulation of Wall St., the cult of diversity, affirmative action (but only for a few), the thought control technique of political correctness and,just for the hell of it, deconstructionism and global warming hysteria.

  • Irish Mike

    My 2 cents (in brief form):

    I am doubtful of anyone speaking of God in human terms. I don’t believe God wants, wishes or prefers, nor does God “love”. But I deeply believe God exists, and God gave us 2 things: Order, and Free Will. And science and religion are our attempts to understand and give meaning to the Order.

    Morality and ethics represent our efforts to utilize our Free Will consistent with the Order established by God. We may disagree whether developing a new hospital may jeopardize the survival of the local snail darter, but each side, at its core, believes that saving the snail darter, or developing the hospital, is consistent with the natural Order. The problem for atheists is, in denying any existence of God, there is no Order, so what’s the point?

    As Christian (and Catholic), I believe that the teachings of Jesus Christ are mankind’s best effort to fairly represent our role within the Order, but it is the lesson, not the teacher/high priests/church, that is paramount.

    Finally – regarding WigWam’s asserting that the Founders would oppose the Tea Party, I heartily disagree. More than anything else, the Founders opposed governance by a distant group of monarchists in London, who imposed rules and taxes on them without their consent. Switch Congress and bureaucrats in DC (like the IPAB, as intended by ACHA) for the monarchists, and the Tea Party is exactly analogous to the objections expressed by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence.

  • Michael S

    While the atheist/agnostic & where-do-our-cherished-ideas-come from debates are taking up most of the space, I’m intrigued by the lack of debate among the Christians. Mead has thrown down a big gauntlet, to several rousing “Amens” from the choir, but not a single “hold on one second!” Has Mr Mead discovered one of those rarest of elements: an ecumenical kernel?

    Choosing one of the stronger statements, do the Christian readers of all stripes truly believe this: “You are going to be judged on how much you did for the ‘ordinary folks.'”? If so, we have all have a lot of lost ground to make up.

  • thibaud

    It’s amusing to see otherwise smart people turn themselves into pretzels in order to stand up for the likes of Sarah Palin. If you want so see “tactless” and “smug” behavior, get an eyeful of the winking wonder from Wasilla.

    Many of those rushing to the defense of know-nothings like SP are leading the fight to condemn old-school GOP gentlemen – lions, really – such as Richard Lugar and John Danforth.

    Far from being “smug” or “entitled,” these men have served the nation for decades – quietly, patiently, respectfully. They don’t appear on “Dancing with the Stars.” They don’t slam their enemies with sarcastic tweets. They don’t go off half-cocked, or demonize their opponents as unpatriotic or immoral.

    Oddly enough, these leaders, the ones whom the TPers loathe with such intensity, are drawn from that same elite that Mr Mead tells us is a breeding ground of smug hatred and bad manners.

    Whose behavior shows more respect for ordinary Americans and for American norms: Sarah Palin, or that Princeton- and Yale-educated corporate lawyer, Ralston Purina scion and ordained Episcopalian priest who served his country with distinction as Senator from Missouri and Ambassador to the UN?

    When the TPers show some respect for the likes of Lugar, Danforth and Hatch, I’ll take your arguments a bit more seriously.

  • Boritz

    The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge
    Prov 1:7

    “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”
    ― Herman Melville, Moby Dick

    They are both right. Not everybody who professes to be a Christian is actually trying very hard to follow Christ. A common theme in some of the posts here is “I know some Christians and they aren’t so great”. No doubt, but there is a spectrum of devotion. Mead’s description of devotion is pretty darn good. When he refers to Christians he isn’t including anyone and everyone who claims the title but only those who exhibit a real and a humble devotion.

  • Jarett DeAngelis

    Much of this was well-said, but even as a Catholic I have to point out that the kind of humility and perspective you describe as being vitally necessary for the success of the US is not at all inimical to theists. It really isn’t. I don’t even think it’s more likely to be found among theists than atheists.

  • Richard Treitel

    Speaking as an atheist, I need no reminder that all humans are fallible all of the time. I need only a nodding acquaintance with recent history to remind me that all benevolent dictators end up changing their spots, and rarely do they change by becoming less dictatorial.

    As for the humility you attribute to religious people, I think it inheres mostly in those who have been fortunate enough not to achieve, or modest enough not to seek, any substantial degree of power over their fellow believers:

  • I could take issue with the two best writers among the regular commentators — WigWag and thibaud — but I won’t. Instead I want to reiterate my point that it is not a lack of religious belief but rather a lack of secular knowledge of the history and content of the ideas and beliefs which motivated our ancestors to establish the foundations of our liberal democracy.

    Ultimately it is about the Hebraic concept of God, an appreciation of the historical and sociological context of its origins in pre-Mosaic times and of what was unique about it, which distinguished it from all other religious ideas in the past, whether in Greece or Rome, India or China or Persia, and why it was this particular idea that subsequently “hopped over” to non-Jewish people, first in West Asia, then Europe, most recently in Africa and now China. There are a lot of religious ideas out there. What is so special about God? Why can we say it is the central idea in Western intellectual history?

    Let me emphasize this is an issue in secular history. Nor can it be summed up in the phrase “ethical monotheism” as if it were as simple as that.


  • It’s amusing to see otherwise smart people turn themselves into pretzels in order to stand up for the likes of Sarah Palin. If you want so see “tactless” and “smug” behavior, get an eyeful of the winking wonder from Wasilla

    Why not just say “yo mama”? It’s more concise.

    Many of those rushing to the defense of know-nothings like SP are leading the fight to condemn old-school GOP gentlemen – lions, really – such as Richard Lugar and John Danforth.

    Mr. Lugar is 80 years of age, has been a public official with no other occupation for 44 years and a member of Congress for 35 years. It was recently revealed that he had been using as a voting address a house he had sold in 1977. Not to belittle a man’s genuine achievements, but there is something the matter with this fellow.

    1. He is not an authentic representative of his constituency. Washington is his world and the points of his compass are derived from arguments and interactions in that world. He does not live in Indiana and the county chairman there do not know him. I would refer you to an article in The Public Interest on this topic. Politicians who spend decades of their lives listening to advocacy groups bid for more spending at congressional committee hearing generally take on the color of the advocacy groups rather than their nominal constituents.

    2. Not to be brutal about it, but the man has a life expectancy of about 10 years. He is due a handsome federal pension, Social Security, and some veterans’ benefits. And, yet, he wishes to spend that time shlepping around Capitol Hill. Does he fancy he is indispensable? There is a reason Olympia Snowe is retiring at 65: she has a life — back in Maine.

    Re Danforth:

    In any system where you’re political choices are binary, you have people who are outliers within their respective distributions. Mr. Danforth is a reflexive temporizer. His affiliation with the Republican Party may not have been altogether for reasons of convenience or derived from the subculture in which he was reared, but those factors were most of the deal. He was anything but leonine during his career. These types can be useful to have around, particularly in legislatures as ridden with obstructive practices as ours.

    There is a multi-part reason social conservatives find Mr. Danforth alienating:
    1.) he is an antagonist, and a rather pompous and obtuse one. 2.) the burden of his remarks has been that social conservatives should adopt the disposition toward their attackers commonly attributed to battered wives. You may think that is right and just, the rest of us do not.

  • Jim.

    @James Jones-

    You’re right of course. To your list I would add that most nonlinear differential equations have no closed-form solution, and that most of the interesting questions out there are modelled by nonlinear differential equations. It’s chaos out there for the most part.

    So what hope have we, between chaos and NP-completeness?

    We have the heuristic.

    I submit that in the Bible, God has given us a heuristic to guide human life that is at least as successful as anything “the best and the brightest” can come up with. Sure it’s confusing. Sure it’s seemingly self-contradictory. (What did you expect the solution to the set of all nonlinear differential equations to look like?) But it’s the best we have. The problems of the 20th century, from Fascism to the AIDS crisis, were the result of insufficient attention to Scripture. The problems of the 21st, from collapsing families and populations to financial speculation, are similarly covered.

    Spend some time with the Bible every week…. a clip from the Old Testament, something from one of Paul’s letters, and cap it off with a bit of the Gospel. (Dropping in on a Lutheran church that still follows the old liturgy will give this to you for free.) Leave before the sermon if you’d like to slip out without talking to anyone else, if you like.

    Try it, if just for curiosity’s sake.

  • Dutch 1960

    Many feel the need to assign blame when throwing around the ills of our society and day. This leads to the “straw men” that are routinely propped up so as to be promptly knocked down (Palin, Krugman, Christianity, Athiesm). To the extent that we all need to quietly better the lives of others in any small ways we can find, it is incumbent for all of us to do so. The effort expended in instead setting up and knocking down those straw men is taken away from the time and energy we have to do good deeds. It also invites more of the same, which is bad for all of us. Christianity “done right” does not involve the straw men, but sermons, too, often stray into that mode. Calling out the minister on it generally brings perplexity coupled with a bit of peevishness.

    The point is to do the right thing for the people around you, and Christianity can be a good tool for getting it done. But other -itys and -isms can be productive, too. It seems to me that the individual either has it in himself or he does not. The rest of it is simply coaxing the best out of a person, if there is something there to work with in the first place.

  • LarryD

    One other flaw the technocratic progressives are heir to: when you grow up believing that intelligence = success, you’re at high risk of being vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy your shortcomings. For them, failure isn’t just a bump on the road, but a refutation of their intellect, their whole worth.

    While those of us raised to believe the hard work is necessary to convert talents and opportunities into success expect failure to happen, it’s something that has to be overcome.

    Which explains, in part, why so many elites gravitate into fields where they cannot be put to the test, the prospect of failure terrifies them.

  • Kris

    [email protected]: “We have a loving God because we are by nature moral”

    Given there are some very un-loving Gods out there, do you conclude that different nations have different natures?

  • I could quibble with the two best writers among the regular commentators — WigWag and thibaud — but I won’t. Instead I want to quibble with Mead’s notion that atheism — an absence of belief in “God” among our elites — is at the heart of the problem. I think it is a lack of knowledge — of secular historical knowledge — as it relates to the content of the word “God” that is the problem. We tend to take the word for granted, as if it needed no explanation. People use it all the time. What is there know?

    But in fact the word God with a capital G is a proper name which in English is used to designate an Hebraic concept which is quite different from any other religious idea whether in Greece or Rome, India, China, or Persia, or any place else in the world. Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming that this Hebraic concept, whatever it is, is the central idea in Western intellectual history. Isn’t that enough to make us want to know more about it?

    In particular if we believe the study of history is important part of every educated person’s secular education, that those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it, that good citizenship is impossible without an appreciation of the historical origins of the ideals we believe in most — liberty, equity, equality — and of the sacrifices that were made to establish them, and of the ideas of the people who dreamed up these ideals, and the beliefs that motivated them — if we believe knowledge of this kind is valuable, then we must know more about the content of this one proper noun. Where did it come from, under what circumstances, and why did it spread? Indeed why is it still spreading, in China for example? Why not Buddhism or Confucianism instead?

    Unfortunately it is hard to get unbiased information on this subject. Most people who want to talk about God are believers. For them the word does not designate an idea but a living reality whatever that means. A lot of them sound like ignorant fools. If not knaves in sheep’s clothing. Though there are exceptions. Mead is an exception. Actually a lot of ordinary people are exceptions. But among our educated elites such exceptions are rare.

    But that is beside the point. This is not about belief. That three letter name might stand for a living reality but it most definitely stands for an historical idea. And it is the content of that idea we need to know more about.

    Ironically atheists would be best qualified to deal with this material. We need educated atheists to teach about God. There are a few of them out there who know what they are talking about. Rodney Stark has done some good work. I once made a stab at explaining the origins of Judaism in its historical and sociological context. It was an argument an atheist might love. But it was only three or four pages long and in the middle of a polemic on Jewish Law, a subject of little interest unless you are an orthodox Jew. It probably deserves to be forgotten.

  • Marcus V

    @6, Art Deco: You ask me where I run into theists who think they are inherently superior to atheists?

    I offer you @59, Russell Snow, who asserts that it is impossible for me, due to my atheism, to possess any reasonable form of morality or humility. And I point to everyone here who applauded those sentiments out loud.

    In partial response, I point to @28, James Jones, who gave an excellent list of the very real, quite unshakable limits to our knowledge– if those do not inspire a form of humility, nothing will.

    In my own response to Russell, I make two comments. The first is on the subject of humility: Most theists I know, and certainly most Christians, believe in some sort of reward/punishment system operating in the afterlife. I, as an atheist, do not.

    You might imagine that this is a freeing sort of lack of belief because of my freedom from everlasting punishment; I say to you that it is just the opposite because there is no supernatural agent minding the books and making up for my mistakes to all my hypothetical victims. If I kill a man, I do not send him to some great reward, he is simple *gone* irrevocably. No happy endings for anyone, no blessed reunion of souls, just misery among the living and premature oblivion among the dead.

    There is great humility to be found in this attitude.

    My second comment regards the nature of morality: Imagine, if you will, two rooms of youths playing nicely together. When asked, the youths in the first room say that they are playing nicely because they understand the golden rule and have worked out a system to manage their conflicts for the betterment of all.

    And likewise, when asked, the youths in the second room say that they play nicely together because at any moment a monitor may enter the room, see someone not playing nice, and throw them into a lake of fire.

    Which group of youths seems more moral to you?

    I understand that not all Christians need the stick of eternal hellfire to lead good, loving, and just lives. Can you understand that not all atheists take their lack of faith to be a license for amorality? Or will you continue to prove my point to Art Deco?

  • thibaud

    “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”

    An odd and sweeping statement, given the conservatives’ rap against the elites’ “liberal guilt.”

    Also close to a straw man. What group is referred to, exactly, by “new elites” is not clear.

    In the political class, if you exclude heirs of great fortunes or political legacies, well, then Mead’s new elites would exclude the Bushes, the Kennedys, Jerry Brown in CA, Andrew Cuomo in NY, Albert Gore Junior, Paul pere et fils and dozens of other prominent US pols of the last 30 years. Whatever their flaws, these powerful children of famous and powerful pols are not likely to think they “earned it” entirely through their merits.

    If the critique here is of a particular character flaw, then again, this doesn’t seem to have much if any correlation to meritocratic status.

    At one end of the character spectrum we have John Edwards, Tom DeLay, Anthony Weiner, Newt Gingrich, day-trading John Kerry and the aforementioned Thrilla from Wasilla.

    At the other end of the character spectrum we have people like Ron Wyden, Paul Ryan, John Danforth, Daniel Pat Moynihan, Dick Lugar, and Russ Feingold.

    Which group is at the high end and which at the low end of the “meritocracy”?

    Which group called for lax financial regulation and which called for sterner financial regulation?

    If you can spot a clear connection, you’re a better man than I. From the evidence we have, there doesn’t seem to be any predictive or analytical power to the “meritocracy” construct,

  • I have met more than my fair of Christians who rank themselves as inherently more valuable people than atheists, or other brands of theists, solely on the grounds of their religious choices.

    This was your original remark.

    Your response doesn’t cut it, fella. I ask you where you had met such a person. In your reply, you refer to a participant in an online forum who made a fairly common-and-garden argument about the sources of moral norms without being self-referential in the least (or referring to any given individual, either). You also make arguments about the implications of adopting theism or atheism, no? Why are his an insufferable assault on you and yours not one on him?

    I might note that there is a distinction between offering an argument about the sources of moral truth or arguing about the reliability of certain metaphysical understandings in leading one to moral truth or arguing that group A is more reliably moral in their behavior than group B (on the one hand) and arguing that members of group A are inherently more valuable as people than group B (on the other). This last is quite peculiar in public discourse today. You are not likely going to get it out of the mouth of either a RadTrad Catholic, a boisterous pentacostalist, or an Anglican squish head. More likely an aficionado of Neitzche.

    There is great humility to be found in this attitude.

    Come again?

    When asked, the youths in the first room say that they are playing nicely because they understand the golden rule and have worked out a system to manage their conflicts for the betterment of all.

    I do not recall talking and thinking that way as a youth, but it has been a while.

    And if you are evaluating people’s morality on a basis other than their observable conduct, you presumably have a conception of what the inner life ought to be (in regard to which pondering some of Russell Snow’s assertions would be in order).

    Or will you continue to prove my point to Art Deco?

    Whatever that may be in reference to anything I have said. Your call.

  • Charles

    Regarding the need for values/religion to serve as reins on the otherwise unbridled arrogance of the technocrat/meritocrat, Adam Smith spotted this problem long ago in that dawn of classical liberalism.

    “The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”

  • Tom K

    [email protected] From a psychological perspective, all gods are projections of our own developmental states onto an outside world. What we fear or worship is of our own creation, reflecting the degree to which are able to integrate our unconscious processes into coscious self-awareness.

    The theist-atheist distinction is not helpful to my thinking, and is but one more dichotomy we can overcome. But I agree with [email protected] that the monotheistic God is one of our singular cultural achievements, and is the basis for most of the great achievements of Western philosophy and politics.

    Beginning around the time of Hamurabi (if I remember my history correctly), and then increasingly in the stories collected in the Hebrew Bible, we see the emergence of a subjective, self-aware narrator, able for the first time to move freely through narrative perspectives of self, other, community and objective world. We also see the emergence of psychological dynamics for the first time in descriptions of our relationships, ranging from the psychopathological Yahweh of the book of Job to the attempts to deal with intrapsychic conflicts through self- refective treatments of myths of creation, fall and sin in Genesis, and the gorgeous subjectivity of the Psalms.

    We in the West gave the name God to our often overwhealming conciousness of subjectivity (which today from a neuropsychological perspective we would e.g. call the “Self” which comes to “Mind” as an emergent phenomenon of our increasing neurological complexity).

    The experience of our subjectivity through the God of the sermon on the Mount as love which, in its capacity to trust and believe all things and not be disappointed, marks a milestone in the development of human consciousness to wherever we are heading, and a great step forward over the fatalistic tragedy expressed in the consciousness e.g. of Greek theater.

    At the beginning of modernity, the consciousness of subjectivity is then distilled and liberated from its theological frame of reference by modern idealist philosophers, and becomes the spiritual essence of social organization through democracy and human rights in the West (here I am thinking of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and the American founding Fathers).

    Part of the drama of the theist-atheist dichotomy (which also gives this thread the Glasperlenspiel quality which makes it so entertaining), is that as we move in our social and economic organization away fom subject-object relations to network-flow architectures and processes, there is just no point anymore in a divine symbol of the subjective self. In a world of science and complexity, we tend to find concepts, hypotheses and heuristics more helpful in understanding reality than symbols and beliefs. Respectful attention to our gods can be good for our personal development at certain vital stages, and help us to understand our historical roots. But it is not an end in itself, just a possible step along the way…

  • Tom K

    [email protected] Thanks for your question, and to answer it more directly, research shows that we are biologically social creatures in our empathic attunement to one another. We are naturally moral because we naturally care about one another. (A lovely summary of the reasearch is in Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization). We are also easily overwhealmed, frightened an traumatized. Our dysfunctional attempts to cope, mirrored in our dysfunctional divinities, are part of our learning process of being human.

  • Eric from Texas

    Tom K @94,

    Great post. I will quibble with your conclusion, however. Even if your point in the last paragarph, about our increased understanding of a world of science, networks, and complexity is correct, there will always be a large portion of the population who will gravitate towards faith in God.

    And I don’t see any function difference in either path. Both are valid in my view. And given our limited brain capacity as a species, perhaps our belief in a personal God is as good an approximation of the infinite as any we’ll ever develop.

    And as a hedge, my Catholic wife regularly prays for my soul!

  • Brendan Doran

    Some of your best writing, and I’ve read quite a bit of it.

    I still hate them, but you certainly show how in losing God they lost their way.

    Good for you trying to save them. Good Luck.

    Si est bellum – Quis vincit Optimati adepto patibulo.

  • JasonM

    Could it be just a coincidence that the drastic decline in this sense of original sin, etc., among our elites comes at a time when our elites are significantly less Christian, and significantly more Jewish and Confucian (i.e. East Asian) then they once were?

    No, of course not.

    Of course, Chris Hayes can’t possibly talk about this in a straightforward fashion. That would be thoughtcrime.

  • richard40

    It is even worse than Mead says though, since it is not even a real intellictual meritocracy. Due to the distortions of diversity quotas, worthless “studies” majors, and leftist professors driving out conservative and libertarian freethinkers, it is not even a real intellectual meritocracy. It is a leftist clique, that in reality knows nothing of value. If it was a real meritocracy, where anybody with intelligence was accepted, it might actually be worth something. But it is only a meritocracy of credentials, determined solely by leftists, not intelligence or ability.

  • thibaud

    #84 Art – not sure why you keep defending Palin’s clownishness, though your appropriation of her as “mama” may offer a clue as to the source of these curiously protective gestures toward the ol’ Grizz.

    Re, Danforth, interesting that even when an ordained minister and conservative Republican – no less one who championed both Clarence Thomas and John Ashcroft – dares to utter a peep against the “sectarian agenda” that has subordinated a great party into “the political extension of a religious movement,” he incurs the wrath of people who can’t hold a candle to him in terms of either service to the nation or integrity.

  • GeriP2020

    Come to the UK to see this new aristocracy full realized. One example: London lost £18 million/day during the “snowstorm” of 2010, a good deal of that due to a decision by some judge who had determined that the average individual is too dumb to shovel snow off of the sidewalk, and it should be done the local authorities. The problem was that the LAs were so overwhelmed (by 4″ of snow) they could barely manage to clear the roads, so the sidewalks (and the school yards, and the parking lots) became solid sheets of ice and folks couldn’t leave their homes.

    Here the meritocracy (new aristocracy) has been dubbed the “Nanny State”, as it has determined that no one is capable of making a successful decision or a completing a successful job on their own.

  • Russell Snow

    @90 Marcus V I think misses my point. I do not say that atheists are not moral people or that you cannot find many instances of atheists acting in a far better way than many Christians. What I am saying is that that they have no reasonable basis to call it better. It is the Godel incompleteness theorem. Without a fixed point outside of the system to orient on, you cannot judge better or worse, right or wrong. It all becomes what is good for you or right for you. Arthur Leff does the subject more justice in his paper:

    “You were trapped in what, to save time, I might call a Godel problem: how to validate the premises of a system from within itself. “Good,” “right” and words like that are evaluations. For evaluations you need an evaluator. Either whatever the evaluator says is good is good, or you must find some superior place to stand to evaluate the evaluator. But there is no such place in the world to stand. From the world, only a man can evaluate a man, and unless some arbitrary standards are slipped into the game, all men, at this, are equal.”
    Leff, Arthur A., “Book Review: Knowledge and Politics” (1977).

  • I do not think Gov. Palin needs much of a defense. She is a Republican politician who adheres to the modal viewpoints within the Republican Party across the full range of issues. Unless you consider the political opposition illegitimate in toto (a common position among soi-disant ‘progressives’), she should not faze you or provoke much special attention. One of her children is problematic (in very peculiar ways), but that happens to the most conscientious of parents. Otherwise, I do not see any indication of abnormal problems in her domestic sphere nor any ethical issues that do not adhere to just about anyone employed in politics (or sales). You want a Republican pol to beat up on verbally? Try Alphonse d’Amato or George Pataki. They are appropriate choices.

    Gov. Palin has her own tastes and sensibility. Reading commentary on her (see Charles Fried’s, for example), one gets the definite impression that that is the real problem here. Nothing she does is obscene and the manifestations of vulgarity (rightly understood) have had as their point of origin not the Governor but Levi Johnston and Bristol. Did anyone hold George McGovern’s hopelessly alcoholic daughter against him? Look, some people like Lawrence Welk and George Jones and hunting and fishing. Some people are oriented toward vocational instruction, not academics. Advocates of ‘diversity’ should set themselves a goal of learning to live with it with equanimity.

    Re Danforth:

    He is ordained, but has never been a working clergyman. (And has remained ordained in one of the most embarrassing and addle-pated denominations in the country). His is a member of the bar, but has spent only about four years as a working attorney. (He currently has a berth at a law firm. See if you can figure out what his practice actually is He is an enrolled Republican, but he manifests no visceral sense that other Republicans are his confederates and by some accounts has stated publicly that he ran for office as a Republican in 1968 “the same reason you sometimes choose which movie to see — [it’s] the one with the shortest line”.

    You could call the man a professional dignitary, a career pol, a patrician chap with an inchoate sense that the world needs men of talent committed to ‘public service’. He was never in it to pursue particular policy goals. Whatever his assets, he is not the sort of person who would have the admiration of people who do have a conception of what an improved political economy would look like and would work to bring that into being. He adds to people’s impatience by offering gassy, ill-considered, and useless criticism.

    Get it through your head: other people have different objects than you do. For that reason, they see Mr. Danforth quite differently.

  • thibaud

    Art – you seem to view our pols and these discussion issues first and foremost through an ideological lens.

    Fair enough, but my reading of Mr Mead’s post was that it and the discussion that followed was not about ideological viewpoints but about elites, “meritocracy,” what used to be called the Establishment – with a specific emphasis on issues of character.

    Mead focuses on “vanity, arrogance and self-esteem.” I see no evidence whatsoever that Danforth is vain, arrogant or self-aggrandizing.

    OTOH there’s a lot of evidence, pouring forth daily from Twitter, cable TV and the lower precincts of the trashy mass culture, of the Palins’ vanity and exaggerated sense of self.

    All of which indicates to me that there’s no correlation or at best a very weak correlation between membership in the supposed “meritocratic” elite and an individual’s level of vanity and arrogance.

  • stan

    The viciousness that poured forth from the left at Palin came immediately after her nomination electrified the GOP base and long before anyone knew a [darn] thing about her other than that she had risen to governor of Alaska as a result of taking on corruption in her own party and winning.

    The viciousness preceded any conceivable justification that thibaud can dream up. It was certainly expected once she gave such a boost to the McCain candidacy. Every Republican who reaches national prominence and appears to be a threat to liberals is smeared, slimed and slurred. Every one, every time. see e.g. Clarence Thomas

  • Ed Snyder

    “…there are certain consequences of success in a meritocracy that put people, and especially American people, without a strong religious faith at great risk,…”

    I might say that a rephrasing of that statement is also true: That this success also puts the strong religious faith of such people at risk.

    Mr. Mead, I just want to say that every time your posts take a theological turn, this Christian comes away edified and reminded of the fundamentals of our faith. If you ever decide to leave the pundit business, I hope that “Theologian” will be on your short list of second career choices. Your simplicity, directness, and humility would make you a very fine one, in my humble opinion. 🙂

  • Mead focuses on “vanity, arrogance and self-esteem.” I see no evidence whatsoever that Danforth is vain, arrogant or self-aggrandizing.

    I do not know him personally. I think you are looking at him with the wrong lens. By all appearances, Danforth is a manifestation of a particular character type fairly common in my part of the world. They are patrician or bourgeois of the professional-managerial sort. They are of a certain vintage, generally born between 1925 and 1939. They are invariably college educated. They have few if any convictions. They do have certain attitudes:

    1. Someone stating a complaint is engaged in wrongdoing;

    2. The appropriate principle to apply in adjudicating disputes is to find the solution which causes the lowest quantum of emotional upset in the near term;

    3. Authority must be deferred to invariably;

    4. Business is properly conducted under the table amongst an inner ring with as little transparency as possible;

    5. The important thing is to avoid the dreaded ‘divisiveness’, to ‘move forward together’, to emphasize ‘the worship which unites us rather than the issues which divide us”, &c.

    These people have many assets and may be good company in most settings. They have little integrity, however. They are not necessarily free of arrogance or vanity, either, just not very clued into it or careful not to be exhibitionistic in expressing it. And they can do a great deal of damage to institutions because they are inclined to paper over problems rather than solve them or cut bait and because they are generally antagonistic to people with real principles and goals.

    OTOH there’s a lot of evidence, pouring forth daily from Twitter, cable TV and the lower precincts of the trashy mass culture, of the Palins’ vanity and exaggerated sense of self.

    The ‘evidence’, thibaud, suggests you have a baseline hostility to these people and interpret what they do and say with that prism.

  • Even though i was very good at taking standardized tests and graduated from an Ivy League school I grew up in a small town of 400 souls. Some of them lived in one room tar paper shacks with a dirt floor and everyone slept together. One year our teacher was a shell shocked WW2 vet who was in an advanced state of disassociation. I discovered I could keep him functioning by suggesting what we could do next as he paced up and down in the basement smoking Pall Malls during recess. In the end that year I corrected all the standardizes tests for the whole school including the IQ tests. It turned out the good kids weren’t so smart and those kids from the shacks – particularly one family of 12 from 5 different fathers – were among the smartest ones in town. They had the ‘merit’ but they never got the ‘ocracy’ part. Most died young. I asked my little sister about the younger ones and she told me “Two of the girls got out.” They had moved far away and gone into the service and married decent men. I reserve a special kind of respect for people who grow up in such circumstances who manage to not become whores, drunks, and wife beaters. They have to somehow cobble together from scratch a moral code that works well enough for them to survive.

  • thibaud

    Stan – that paladin of the meritocracy, John Danforth, was Clarence Thomas’s number one defender.

    When you strip away Mead’s blue-on-red ideological markers, his argument falls apart.

    Perhaps there’s a (weak) correlation between religious faith and humility – in America, though, this seems to be awfully weak. Contrary to what some of my more quick-trigger friends here may think, I don’t have anything against religious people and in my business experience have always found certain religious types – mormons, very religious Catholics and certain evangelicals – to be more reliable and trustworthy than people with no strong religious affiliation.

    But that has zip to do with the meritocracy. Our meritocrats are not less religious, in many ways more so, than the earlier generation’s elite of urban cynics like Ayn Rand. I don’t see any evidence that our elite east coast prep schools are turning out hordes of atheists, for example.

    Again, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between an individual’s “vanity” and his or her membership in the meritocracy.

  • Marcus V

    The principle difference, Art Deco, is that all I say is that Christianity provides no special path to living a moral life. What Russell Snow says that an atheist *cannot* live a moral life.

    I’m unwilling to admit that Christianity is a moral pedestal, but Russell Snow makes atheism a moral pit. These are not symmetric positions. That is why I don’t consider my words an attack, but do consider his words an attack.

    As for my remark about humility in the absence of God. I know of know way to convince you, but I find the idea that my actions can have final consequences on the lives of others, that there will be no justice in the afterlife because there is no afterlife, to be *extremely* humbling.

    If you can neither understand it nor accept it, then we have no further grounds for discussion on that point.

    And finally, if Russell Snow is not a sufficient exemplar, then I don’t know what you’re looking for. I have spent enough of my adult, working life in the Virginia and Carolinas area when they forget that there are people not exactly like them present.

    Any time an atheist court challenge (“Please stop spending my tax dollars on great state-funded statues of religious iconography on government grounds,” for instance) came on the news in the break/lunch room, the odds were fair that I’d be treated to (although mercifully not the subject of) an angry conversation about worthless atheists and how worthless they were. Not to mention the burning in hell and the not-marrying-my-daughter and the not-in-my-house.

    It was a repeated experience that caused me to understand how difficult it can be to stand up your courage and make complaints in the Human Resources office.

    This is of course an *anecdote*. It is not offered to prove that all Christians are like that. Manifestly, many are not. But it is an anecdote to support why I will not let Christians put themselves up on a particular moral or humble pedestal simply because of their Christianity.

  • thibaud

    Art 107 – you make some very interesting points, many of which I agree with. No argument with your astute dinging of that the mentality which posits that truth always lies equidistant from two extremes.

    Sometimes (cf the left’s position on the public option, or the right’s position on unskilled immigration) what the mandarins deem as “extreme” is actually wise and prudent.

    Re. Danforth, maybe you’re right, but from personal experience with his family and their foundations, I just don’t see him as the milquetoast you do. The northeast and midwestern, well-educated Republicans who grew up during the Depression and the war, who agonized through the 1960s riots, are in my view, worthy of great respect and admiration.

    As you can probably guess, there are a deep personal ties here. YMMV.


  • Marcus V

    Russell, I have never stated that an atheist conception of morality (or humility) is better than a Christian one.

    I will continue to deny that a Christian conception of morality (or humility) is better than an atheist one.

    (I also take philosophical exception to the notion that my morality is somehow less grounded than yours, when I don’t even believe that the ground of your morality exists. Invoking a referent “outside the system” that I don’t believe in is profoundly unconvincing. You’re standing in the same void as the rest of us, as far as I’m concerned.)

  • Jim.

    @Marcus V:

    “I also take philosophical exception to the notion that my morality is somehow less grounded than yours, when I don’t even believe that the ground of your morality exists.”

    This reminds me of the old joke, “‘Course I believe in the Bible, I seen one, ain’t I?”

    Marcus, in the context of individual human lives, Christian Scripture comes from “outside”. To claim otherwise is absurd.

    Atheists have no such outer point to ground themselves; just random thoughts and feelings — chemical “fizzing”, as Russell calls it. Rousseau tried to posit that this could provide morality… look up how he treated his wife and children sometime.

    Your other line of reasoning — that the lack of a just afterlife is humbling — really can’t be generalized to people around you. Even granting it works for you (today, anyway), for the most part, if people don’t fear consequences — consequences to themselves, personally, individually — they will take the opportunity to behave as badly as they can get away with.

    Scripture, along with a deep faith that it does in fact apply to you and will have consequences to you personally throughout eternity, is the ultimate check and balance on the individual. It’s like a thermostat. Are you being too harsh on those around you in pursuit of a goal? Scripture has wisdom to moderate you. Are you too lenient to the point that family and society will fall apart around you? Scripture has standards to rely on. It is normative.

    For atheists, norms are accidental, and (self-defeatingly) apply only in individual cases. Try the thought-experiment of convincing an (agnostic, religiously-tolerant) ancient Mongol hordesman that he ought not to kill or enslave you because “there is no eternal justice, just what we make on this earth”. If he actually took your point to heart, he would find it a liberating relief, and then kill you. At best, he would stop and gape for a minute at how anyone could possibly think that sort of argument could convince him to refrain from killing you.

    It reminds me of another joke, made of a famous sinner — “He found his lack of religion to be a great comfort as death approached”. That’s true in more cases than any “atheistic humility” you can imagine.

  • doc feelgood

    There is something important missing here is how you define “atheism”. Atheism is in general until it becomes to cristalize into a more or less “belief”, a healthy form of spiritual agnosticism. This is quite a difference between this position and your claims and its derivate about how atheists divorced from the supposed holy ground turn to be only a bunch of arrogant persons.

    But you haven´t discuss the historical passage from the most ethnocentrically based mythical religion, and its core of intolerance ans self-righteousness and its beliefs of a God in the sky awaiting quietly the days of the Doom to decide who was a good or bad sheep or wrong and rational and then existential spirituality born with Kant and Kierkegaard which has banned the way toward higher forms of spiritual understanding and true clarity of what is human essence, found in the mystical traditions of the world. So Atheism in this sens can be seen as the first step in a healthy deconstruction of dogmatic narratives in the individual search for the miraculous and not just as an adolescent revolt against an equally infantile based power structure of the churches of the past.

    And by looking at the contemporary dynamics of social mobility in the western world we should never ignore the inherently strong inertia still caused by social origin, and its need to control the mechanisms of social reproduction.

  • ltlee1

    A basic contradiction. If everyone is equally significant in God’s eye, and everyone is given the same power because their political freedom is guaranteed, then the elites have no reason to constrained themselves at all. All people are on the same level playing field. Enlightened self-interest, in some sense, can only come from the realization that people are not equal.

  • ChrisGreen

    To Marcus V:
    You make a good point. However, the problem is that the true Christians are invisible while the puffed up blockheads who profess Christianity (but don’t actually follow it’s most basic tenants) are outspoken. That is why the Evil so called Christian Priests in Spain that pushed the inquisition are so famous while the millions of Nuns who cared for 10s of millions of orphans throughout most of Christian history are unknown and little discussed. Everyone discusses the so-called Christian who taunts mourners at military funerals but no one talks about the middle class guy who has given $100,000’s of dollars to charity anonymously.

  • ChrisGreen


    “But you haven´t discuss the historical passage from the most ethnocentrically based mythical religion, and its core of intolerance ans self-righteousness”

    I’m guessing P. Mead would argue that the ‘its core’ is not intolerance and self-righteousness. In fact, I don’t think you would find much about intolerance or self-righteousness in most religious texts. In fact, the Savior’s words to the Pharisees were sermons against intolerance and self-righteousness. Intolerance and self-righteousness creep in when a Faith becomes a state religion (or de facto state religion). In such a society, the Church (whatever the faith) simply becomes a vehicle for those with political ambitious to advance their agenda. Various doctrines are cherry picked and taken out of context to justify whatever an individual wants to do. True adherents to the faith are still there, but history books are never written about them and their good deeds are never recorded. To use an example I used before, Catholic Nuns probably raised far more orphans (probably orders of magnitude more) than people that died in the Inquisition or the Crusades, and they did it with no material reward in mind. However, in how many World History Classes is this ever discussed?

  • The fact that there has been evolution in society should not be used by some here to argue that it happened only due to secular progress (with intellectual developments) rather than religious influences. (Religion led mainly to the spread of literacy.)The complex progress of humanity is not an either/or matter, rather a combination of all factors. Over the eons vast progress has occurred worldwide with a more spiritual attitude, as far as appreciation of values–more human rights, less slavery, even less war.

  • mlindroo

    Mead implies a secular society will be more corrupt and less equal since “belief in the equal value of all people in God’s eyes is a bedrock belief”. We can test this hypothesis fairly easily by looking at actual examples. Does contemporary Scandinavia have an inequality/corruption problem compared to 16th century Sweden/Denmark? Was the medieval nobility less corrupted by “wealth and entitlement” thanks to its “Christian commitment”?


  • Sale

    Been reading WRM for years, and I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything quite like this coming from someone of his position and stature. I’m completely blown away, and am forwarding it to everyone I know who gives a [darn] about not only religion, but America.

    To say that this must have taken courage for him to publish may be condescending in that I don’t know if it was difficult for him or not. But regardless, he is to be cheered and thanked.

    Twenty years ago Christopher Lasch chastised the elites of his day for betraying their callings and responsibilities. Mead has gone a step further – almost in a Jonathan Edwards tone – and given what I describe as, “The One Percent in the Hands of Not Only an Angry God But an Angry Populace.” I hope it contributes to a modern awakening.

  • Scott Wilson

    What I get out of this long articulate argument is that it appears that everyone needs an enemy. If it’s not an Atheist it’s a Christian or a Scientist or a Communist or an Elite or a Commoner or a Rich or a Poor. The names are endless, but the sentiment is the same, and just as endless.

    I once saw a bird in my patio attacking a wall but when I came out into the patio to see what was happening I realized that it was attacking a mirror that had been placed in the garden inadvertently.

    How long does this have to go on before we realize what we have done? You can change the name but the process? Endless variation. Same game/different disguise.

  • Bob Lanham

    Interesting post. I have always thought it ironic that the progressive technocrats who rail against capitalism and its inherent greed are the same political ‘masters’ that have worked to derail the very mechanisms that nurture individuals’ moral compasses in America. Atheism is a part of that trend, but so is weakening the nuclear family; taking moral teaching and the opportunity for prayer out of the schools; vilifying public dissuasions of moral right and wrong (“I’m OK, Your OK” and the beliefs of moral relativists), etc. As the left takes down the scaffolding by which we nurture and sustain moral teaching and standards in this country, there will be less and less to hold the excesses of capitalism or progressive elitism in place. Where will THAT put us as a strong and civil society?

  • William McClain

    As always, a really great piece. I also think (without having meticulously read every comment here) that the “big debate” between atheists and the religious boils down to an issue of whether to accept transcendence as a real possibility, rather than accepting a concrete moral code.

    The principal arguments against Christianity, in particular, rely on the anecdotal dismissal of living Christian morality (see: “Where I live…” or “I grew up with…”) or the scientific dismissal of scripture (see: “These are the people who believe…” or “What about the belief in…”). It often seems that atheists, educated ones in particular, feel they represent the voice of reason against widespread Christian fallacies. But these fallacies have been of constant discussion within Christianity longer than atheism has been the principal point of departure for the educated elite.

    The more important issue, and it is one that does not require religion, is the willingness to accept transcendence of physical life and the thought forms that physical life can produce. Walter Russell Mead does a wonderful job tying this process to Christianity, and it’s not hard for others to move beyond American Christianity. Just a brief encounter with Western philosophic thought from the Medieval era to the Modern one can present a view of the chiseling away of transcendentalism.

    The result of that chiseling away may seem to be one of “grounding” (or liberation, in a more post-modern sense), but I think it is just as often one of untethering human thought from intent and purpose. It creates a situation where good and true is a property of narrative, not an ideal seen as transcending the limits of human thought.

    The “good Christians” that are not and the “enlightened atheists” who are not both suffer from believing that the good and the true are qualities they can control. One need not be Christian nor atheist to achieve what Walter Russel Mead is advocating – one must understand that the good and the true must be seen as beyond control and human thought. This is the principal of original sin, of “Christian humility.” The rebirth of transcendentalism and fading away of pure subjectivism (whether as Ayn Rand’s selfishness or Rorty’s irony) would go a long way to meeting the needs of our society.

  • David Beiler

    A basic mistake both Hayes and WRM seem to be making here is believing there really IS a meritocracy. There isn’t; not in in this country, anyway; not any more.

    Recent studies have shown — for example — that sons in Germany (compared to those in the U.S.) have 11 1/2 TIMES more of a chance to be in an different earning bracket than their fathers. The steeply, steadily increasing income inequality of the past 35 years has left us with a caste system equivalent to India’s. Maybe the elites have been screwing up in recent decades because they’re imposters.

    Oh, the occasional middle-class wunderkind can still make it to Harvard, but the chances he will reach the level where he calls all the shots are miniscule. And while affirmative action has increased minority representation in the 1%, that can be seen as just another means by which true meritocracy has been swept aside.

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