Author’s Note: Recently, I participated in a religious conversation about meritocracy. I noticed that the conversation was almost exclusively focused on economic subjects, such as how resources should be allocated, but was devoid of economic concepts and vocabulary. This article is an attempt to utilize modern economics to describe the implications of various interpretations of Protestant christian theology.
Divided in Belief. United in Conviction.
There’s a quality that committed Christians of all political persuasions share (although Left-leaning Christians seem to be motivated by more admirable qualities in their political pursuits than their Right-leaning counterparts): they seek to restructure society according to their theological convictions. Whether or not those convictions are morally sound is outside the scope of this post. However, there’s no doubt that both sides’ Biblical interpretations drive their view of how society should be governed, structured and, most importantly, how resources should be allocated. Additionally, both sides have LOTS of (cherry-picked) Biblical evidence to support their view. And, both sides’ actions indicate that they’re perfectly fine with breaking down the wall of separation between church and state.
Rightist or Right-leaning Christians have sought to impose their interpretations of scripture on society via restrictions on individual autonomy and the imposition of cultural standards: women should not be allowed to get abortions, LGBTQ+ individuals should not be allowed to get married, Creation “Science” should be taught alongside legitimate science in schools, etc. For what it’s worth, I disagree on all counts.
Leftist or Left-leaning Christians have sought to impose their Biblical interpretations on society through economic activism and political reform. Christ’s concern for the poor, his distaste for greed, and his ideal of humility are cited as justification. They interpret Christ’s prescriptions for how individuals should treat other individuals as evidence of the existence of positive rights (referring to entitlements vs. negative rights – “You can’t hit me”). This faction often criticizes free market fundamentalism and considers socialist or redistributionist systems as potential alternatives to pure capitalist or Neoliberal economic frameworks. Their theology drives their politics (and vice versa).
Should both sides "stay in their lanes"?
In general, I tend to view the Christian Right as more hypocritical (the recent Jerry Falwell, Jr. drama exemplifies this). However, I feel that the Christian Left is hypocritical in that they love to warn of the danger of the Evangelical Right’s disdain for the separation of church and state while simultaneously seeking to manifest their theological visions politically. They love to warn against Mike Pence’s goal of American theocracy. Yet, they’re fine when they are the ones breaking down the wall between church and state – using their Biblical interpretations to justify redistributionist economic policies.
Personally, I’d like both sides to be mindful about bringing their theology, which is intrinsically subjective, into secular and governmental matters. We have more objective and robust tools, grounded in empiricism, available to us that are better suited for analyzing societal problems than theology or religion. The scientific method does not blur the line between church and state, emotion and morality, or ideology and evidence. We should rely on that instead of religiously-motivated bigotry or religiously-motivated benevolence when formulating policy. However, I think we can all agree that most Christians won’t sign on for that Sam Harris brand suggestion.
Economic philosophy permeates modern interpretations of Christian Theology
Each individual Christian’s unique theology is a product of her interpretation of scripture, personality, political bent, life experiences, denomination, and many other variables. Whatever theology a Christian subscribes to, that theological position inevitably has significant implications for that individual’s economic philosophy. Economic philosophy refers to how an individual believes scarce resources should be allocated in a society. Without fail, a Christian’s theologically-derived economic philosophy lands somewhere on the Left-Right political spectrum illustrated in Figure 1. Unsurprisingly, the two mechanisms of distribution are diametrically opposed.
This illustration warrants some explanation. The two bell curves represent the population of Leftist/Left-Leaning Christians and Rightist/Right-Leaning Christians. It is NOT constructed from survey data so the size and overlap of the curves is not drawn to scale. The graphic is merely meant to provide a visual framework to describe the Christian distribution along the political spectrum with respect to theologically-informed economic philosophies.
The three names of the three sections of the graph refer to the three different primary mechanisms of resource allocation implicit in the different Christian economic philosophies. On the right is the mechanism of MERITOCRACY, which states that resources should be allocated on the basis of talent, effort, virtue, compliance with rules, and achievement. This mechanism produces a strong individualized incentive because achievement leads to greater levels of resources. So, based on this incentive, we can predict rationale individuals’ behavior: appropriate modification of behavior will lead to better moral and material conditions. Meritocracy, advocates claim, leads to personal responsibility.
Proverbs 10:8 – “The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin. “
Galatians 6:5 – “For each one will bear his own load.”
1 Timothy 5:8 – “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
2 Corinthians 5:10 – “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
A defense of meritocracy is NOT a defense of “The Prosperity Gospel,” which states that material riches are a sign of God’s favor and/or that God wants his followers to be rich. The Prosperity Gospel states that the primary mechanism of the distribution of resources is God’s opinion of individuals’ righteousness.
Meritocracy contends that the mechanism of distribution is competence, defined by individuals’ ability to solve problems.
As Elon Musk has suggested, the greater the problem solved, the greater the reward.
On the left side of Fig. 1 is the mechanism of ALTRUISM, which states that resources should be allocated based on need, level of poverty or inequality, and the ability or inability of individuals to care for themselves.
Leviticus 19:10 – “Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for poor people and foreigners. I am the Lord your God.”
Proverbs 28:27 – “Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.”
Matthew 25:40 – “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Matthew 19:24 – “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
While the Bible doesn’t explicitly address inequality in the way that modern individuals frame the problem, at the very least, the Bible makes clear that Christians have a moral duty to alleviate the suffering that comes from poverty. It’s certainly not a stretch to extrapolate from scripture that massive inequality is a critical problem that Christians have a moral imperative to minimize.
Because this mechanism of resource allocation does not provide an incentive for individual agents to modify their behavior, it is reliant on the charity and goodwill of Christian individuals with sufficient financial means. This is NOT the same as a socialist system. Altruism is a private enterprise that represents the cumulative good will of the Christian community in action. Altruism REQUIRES sacrifice, meaning that Christians who subscribe to this method of resource allocation are voluntarily redistributing their resources to other vulnerable parties while non-Christians are not (or are not in sufficient quantities). It is not mandatory redistribution of resources via taxation and state-sanctioned compulsion. If all individuals were forced to participate in the reallocation of resources, that reallocation would not be voluntary, nor would the activity be the exclusive domain of Christians subscribing to the altruism mechanism.
As I mentioned before, there is a vast amount of Biblical justification for every point on the spectrum to the left of the Left Median (Altruism Section) and to the right of the Right Median (Meritocracy Section). The Centrist view is a middle ground between both perspectives. Centrist Christians have the more difficult job of striking a balance between the Bible’s contradictory incentives for grace/charity and for work ethic/rule-compliance.
Click on the link below to go to Pt. 2.
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