Lutherans against meritocracy?

by Pastor Bernt

Since Lutheran Christians like to talk about Paul’s “saved by grace apart from works,” it’s interesting we don’t speak out against meritocracy.  I recently read “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good” by the philosopher Michael Sandel – who’s Jewish – and was struck by what he says about Martin Luther: “Luther’s stringent doctrine of grace was resolutely anti-meritocratic. It rejected salvation by good works and left no room for human freedom or self-making” – well, I think Luther was saying self-centered ambition just isn’t true freedom – but anyway, Sandel continues: “And yet, paradoxically, the Protestant Reformation he launched led to the fiercely meritocratic work ethic the Puritans and their successors would bring to America.” (pg.39)  Meritocracy, says Sandel, is itself somewhat religious, with roots in how some of those ‘other Protestants,’ the Puritans, viewed prosperity as a sign that you were among the true saved.  And even today when we say “nothing is impossible if you try” or “I deserve this success because I earned it,” aren’t we making statements of faith? (Sandel brings up the Book of Job – which FLC recently studied as a congregation – as taking a contrary position: the good aren’t always the ones who prosper).

Sandel isn’t saying that rewarding merit is always bad: it’s best to pick the most qualified candidate for a job, to reward hard work and initiative, to be able to freely pursue dreams.  But meritocracy has a dark side and has become something of a tyrant, in several ways:  If I believe my success is my doing and not luck or grace, I’m tempted to be prideful, while those on the bottom don’t just feel unfortunate but humiliated.  Think of the contempt, resentment, mistrust in our society (hesitancy to take a vaccine made and promoted by elites).  Also, our meritocracy doesn’t reward what should be rewarded.  Why should Wall Street gamblers earn so much more than school teachers?  And obviously, it’s just not the case that most people on the top are there because of merit.  Wealth, race, gender and our natural abilities or lack thereof mean that we’re not really competing on an “even playing field.”

Meritocracy feels like a hot topic these days.  But isn’t the Lutheran view on grace and works really about something else? Final salvation, heaven and hell?  I’ve been pondering what I read once from German Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer.  Bayer points out that in the Catechism we all use in Lutheran confirmation, in Luther’s explanation of the Apostles Creed, mention of merit doesn’t come up in the articles about the Son and the Spirit, but in the first article, on the Father and creator:

“I believe that God has created me together with all creatures; he has given and still preserves for me body and soul; eyes, ears, and all members; reason and all senses; in addition: clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and child, fields, cattle, and all goods; he richly and daily provides me with all necessities and nourishment for this body and life; shelters me against all danger; guards and protects me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, all without my merits and worthiness.  For all of this I am responsible to thank and to praise, and because of this to serve and obey him.”  (italics mine)

So that’s clothing, food, house, family and goods, safety  – “richly and daily” provided – “all” of it, everything, a gift of God apart from my merit and worthiness.  To say “I trust in” this God, it seems, does seem to put us against the claims of meritocracy. “I didn’t deserve this, neither did you.”  At a most basic level, says Bayer, Christian faith believes that “ life and what is necessary for life has been given to me,” even when we don’t yet have these gifts but must wait and reach for them. (Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: a Contemporary Interpretation, pg 100).

I just finished Sandel’s book and I have a lot to still think about here – provocative stuff!  (I’d be interested in how criminal justice and mass incarceration fit in to the big picture).  One other theme I have to mention: Sandel talks about the need for “distributive” justice, everyone having enough money, but also the overlooked need for “contributive” justice: that people find dignified work and other ways to contribute to the common good (lack of this dignity for people, he says, is a big part of what led to the rise of Trump and deaths of despair).  Sandel doesn’t mention that this is another key Lutheran theme: that of vocation.  In his own time, Luther challenged the idea that religious and monastic vocations were superior to ordinary jobs like being a parent or a farmer.  In our time, as Sandel puts it, the jobs that require advanced degrees are those considered superior, while the two-thirds of Americans who don’t have college degrees are looked down on.  “Learning to become a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist should be respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League.” (pg 191)

This was quite a book to read in Palo Alto, a real center of meritocracy.  How might a church challenge meritocracy in some way, or offer a “grace-ocratic” alternative?  How can we show grace to people in high pressure situations, such as in academics, competitive jobs or in the high school college application process?  What about connecting with and lifting up people who don’t have sophisticated credentials?  Sandel talks about solidarity and the common good.  What about recognizing with Paul the forgotten excellence of love itself, which bears faults, accepts and nurtures the gifts each person brings?