The confident use of the word and concept “meritocracy” is an indication of a general atrophy that afflicts Ross Douthat’s thinking. He defines the term “American intelligentsia” as meaning “not just would-be intellectuals but the wider elite-university-educated population, the meritocrats or ‘knowledge workers,’ the ‘professional-managerial class.’” Without question the positions of privilege and responsibility in America are fully staffed, as they tend to be in any civilization. The questions are, or ought to be, whether merit brought them to that place, and whether their tenure in it should be called meritorious. If the argument can be made that we are often not governed well, or that there is little wisdom reflected in the choices of the institutions and industries that are even mightier determinants of the health of the society than the government, then the elite-university-educated population and their cohort may be a ruling class, but they are by no means a meritocracy.
And then there is the matter of the elite university. Schools that fall into this category are old and rich and may even be selective, putting aside legacy admissions and the rest. Given that students who enter might be very fine, the question is, how worthy are they when they have graduated to function as an elite? The only relevant evidence we have is the quality of the ‘knowledge workers’ and the ‘professional-managerial class’ we all have to live with. If there is a general sense of decline in this country, as I believe there is, it is because our decision makers are seldom impressive. Increasingly at the national level there are those who parody deliberation and public service, some of them having every credential of membership, with Douthat, in Douthat’s elite.
Full disclosure: I have a fair set of these credentials myself. On the basis of my experience I can report that there is no telling what people think, whether or not they are initiated into the class Douthat identifies here as “the American intelligentsia.” His measure of secularization is a fall in church membership and attendance. Obviously the churches themselves should be the first place to look for the sources of their decline. The stratum of society Douthat blames are surely not a large enough part of the population for their absence to result in the significant and recent drop indicated in the statistics he offers, granting for purposes of argument that they are as thoroughly secularized as he assumes.
The whole column indulges in a kind of thinking that is very characteristic of our moment and very harmful to the culture of democracy, and to the great tradition of freedom of conscience. It assumes that weighty generalizations can be made about people as members of a class. He says, “Most of these people … would be unlikely models of holiness in any dispensation, given their ambitions and their worldliness.” They are “wise as serpents,” he says, for once quoting Scripture, and they slither off to become “psychologists or social workers or professors,” routes to affluence and power, presumably. There are many in this country primed to believe that the “elite” are Godless—a term long affixed to Communism—and that they are also actively hostile to religion. From here it is a short step to the belief that the “elite,” in effect, the educated, are subverters of American values and are up to all sorts of evil and corruption. This should be absurd, but we all know that this short step has been taken millions of times in the last few years. Douthat’s version of the tale of the Godless elite, anodyne as it seems, nevertheless affirms these dangerously hostile views. To right our world we have to get these “upper-class” types back to church. Douthat assumes this will not happen. Therefore the discontents that lie behind his thesis and all its street-corner variants will persist. And blame will fall on the “elites.”
Douthat says we should quarrel “like brothers and sisters in Christ.” Fine. In Romans 14:22 the Apostle Paul says, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.” Jesus says, In Matthew 6:1-18, “Beware of practicing your piety before men, in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven,” and much more to the same effect. Pray in privacy or secret, give alms in secret—people familiar with texts like these and who are obedient to them might seem secular or worse to those who ignore the command to abstain from judging (Matthew 7:!). We have lost the habit of reverence before the mystery of the workings of other minds and consciences, and, as we Christians say, the workings of the Holy Spirit. This respect is the basis of most of the freedoms we grant to one another, and it is imperiled whenever we presume to know the deaths of another mind or the state of another soul.