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Meritocracy Is a Betrayal of the Protestant Ethic, not a Fulfillment

Why the “rhetoric of rising” is incompatible with Christian views of grace and the common good.

A nonnegotiable rule of political discourse these days is that it should operate on the basis of “public reason.” Debates about law and public policy, we are told, should only appeal to universally shared principles, rather than personal morality or religious belief, which vary from person to person. Therefore, in the public square, one must translate religious arguments into generally accepted “public reasons,” which in practice means secular reasons.

In his latest book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Michael Sandel refreshingly turns the public-reason doctrine on its head. Sandel, a Harvard University professor as well as a popular author and speaker, casts secular arguments about social and political values in terms appealing to religious believers. Though the book betrays nothing about Sandel’s personal religious leanings (or lack thereof), it invokes concepts with deep roots in the soil of Christian theology—terms like humility, community, dignity, grace, purpose, and the common good.

Against the grain of modern political philosophy, Sandel argues for a decidedly thick view of public morality and personal well-being. He makes the case that politics ultimately requires us to ask who we want to be as a people, a question at the heart of a Christian understanding of history.

Frustration and resentment

Some years ago, a Newsweek profile described Sandel as a “rock star moralist.” This is a curious description, as Sandel remains modest and soft-spoken even amid his worldwide fame as a lecturer on issues of public morality, justice, and the common good. He converses with his audience as much as he lectures. Firm in his own views, he nevertheless remains …

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