Newsletter #61: Rediscovering the Lost Virtues of Authority
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A frequently remarked on characteristic of modern America is the deficiency and ineffectiveness of leadership. One reason I studied the works of the sociologist E. Digby Batzell is that he saw this leadership crisis coming even before the 1960s, and much of his life’s work was dedicated to diagnosing what was going wrong.
Baltzell was the foremost scholar of the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) Establishment that ran country from its founding through to the 1960s. He sited the origin of America’s leadership problems within the WASP class, and later in the collapse of the establishment.
One of Baltzell’s themes was the decline of authority, which in his framework represents legitimatized power deferred to by the people. But there’s also been a decline in the simple exercise of authority or utilization of power at all in the way that the leaders of the establishment exercised it.
There’s certainly much more to our leadership problems than this. For example, since the late 1960s there’s been a massive expansion of “citizen voice” in decision making that has introduced large numbers of veto points into public decision making. Environmental litigation or the potential of it, for example, imposes significant delays and costs on any sort of infrastructure construction. This makes it much harder for leaders to do things even if they wanted to. But if these went away, would we see a return of authority? I doubt it.
Reading biographies of WASP leaders like John Foster Dulles or Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., one can’t help but be impressed with how they simply assumed it was their right and duty to lead. This gave them a confidence in making decisions, building or transforming institutions, and taking risks. A recent interesting article in Palladium magazine looking at the WASP establishment said:
To be an elite is to act in the world as an independent historical player with the collective power and ambition to not simply accept established institutions, but to change them. Our late American upper classes maintained a sense of stewardship over their institutions—from universities to the United States—because these were the vehicles by which they could act in the world. And when they need something different, a true elite creates and re-creates its institutions, rather than merely staffing them.
The WASPs certainly made their share of blunders (Vietnam) or morally dubious decisions (CIA mind control experiments) but most of the contours about what we recall as a functional America were their creation.
One thing that characterizes the American elite today is that there are few among them comfortable exercising their authority, especially to reshape institutions and society in a way that promotes the public good.
Instead, we have an elite whose members advance their own personal status and financial advantage, while denying that they are doing so and taking active steps to disguise their activities and class status. Another Palladium article that went viral when it was published was from a lower-income woman who had attended Yale and what she discovered there about how the wealthy feign lower and middle class status:
Approximately 2% of students [at Yale] hailed from the lowest income quintile, while 69% came from the top 20%.. But this low number of 2% surprised me because when I was at Yale, everybody kept talking about how broke they were.
“Want to go out for brunch?” “I can’t—I’m so broke.” This was a common line. Sometimes the conversations had a more accusatory tone. “Wow, you took a taxi to the airport? I always take the subway.” Poor people—actually poor people—don’t talk this way. They tend to stay under the radar because they don’t know the rules of the game. But I bought it—at least when I was a freshman. If they were constantly announcing how broke they were, my assumption was that they must have even less money than I do.
This turned out to be wrong. The reality was that they were invariably from the upper-middle and upper classes. I know this because they eventually told me, like Marcus did. But there were tells. These students didn’t act the way my friends and I did growing up.
Cambridge Ph.D. student Rob Henderson, who runs an excellent newsletter, recently wrote in one issue that:
In my first year at Yale, I spoke with a fourth year student who told me he had grown up poor, and that his dad was a construction worker. Months later, he revealed to me that his father in fact owned a construction company, and that he’d grown up in a nice house in Scarsdale. I asked him why he told me he’d been poor. He replied, “Because it makes a better story.”
Some might simply ask, “Why not just select students on merit?”
The fact is, Fierceton [who lied about an underprivileged background to get a Rhodes Scholarship] had a stellar academic record, as do most students at Ivy League colleges. It appears these institutions are filtering for students who are at once academically adept and socially strategic in how they portray themselves. And ironically, affluent people can figure out the ways they are marginalized more fluently.
I’m always struck at how frequently people today disclaim elite status. In the various debates over evangelical elites, for example, I’ve never met anyone who admits to being one but many who profess not to be one, not to be especially influential, etc.
And again, the goal in America seems to be more or less personal advancement today, versus achieving positions of power in order to exercise the authority of those positions in order to advance the public welfare. This isn’t 100% the case, of course. Michael Bloomberg is an exception. He leveraged all of his wealth and influence to become mayor of New York, and then governed competently and used the power of his office to enact change that he believed would better the city. One can disagree with his vision of New York as a luxury city or with various policies he put forward, but he was extremely consequential and governed with real authority and not in simple self-interest. Democratic operative Bradley Tusk, who spent time working for Bloomberg, once said (and I paraphrase from memory) that Michael Bloomberg was the only politician he’d ever met who wasn’t in politics to try to fill a hole in his heart.
Again, power doesn’t work like it used to. It’s been diffused and bureaucratized. Many of the top positions in our society come with less genuine authority than they used to. A corporate titan like Mark Zuckerberg, for example, may own a controlling stake in Facebook, but an array of actors ranging from the government, to the media, to his own employees greatly constrain what he is able to do. Many of the decisions in changes in our society seem to come about emergently, without any single leader or group of decision makers explicitly making a decision. This is one thing that fuels conspiracy theories. It seems like there must be a man behind the curtain pulling the strings.
But in my experience, even apart from these constraints, few leaders actually want the burdens of authority. Before undertaking even the most modest initiative, they have rounds of interviews or “convenings” of “stakeholders.” At these, everyone makes pretty much the exact same safe and anodyne statements they downloaded from the current approved set of beliefs in the zeitgeist. In between, we all attend conferences at which again, every speaker is in pretty much basic agreement on every topic already. When the winds of culture change, people in this world are very adroit at sniffing it out and realigning themselves with the new line so that they don’t put their own standing at risk.
The results are slow, usually incremental type changes that are often, though not always, a net positive, but don’t seriously grapple with the biggest challenges facing our country or communities, and rarely fundamentally challenge the status quo. Corporate leaders are if anything even more cautious about anything that falls outside the lines of simple profitability. (No wonder would be disruptive startup founders decide to absent themselves from this system).
We see the results around us: declining life expectancy, rising opioid deaths, a flailing pandemic response, homelessness, rising income inequality, etc.
What we’ve seen instead of the exercise of authority is the rise of governance by activism. Some group of protestors or activists (sometimes but not always with some kind of patronage) pressure people in positions of authority to do what they want. BLM type protests are the paradigm of this. So are cancel mobs demanding that people they don’t like be deplatformed.
Protestors and pressure groups rarely seem to want to assume responsibility by taking executive positions. Instead, they want to appeal to the executives, to the management, to take action.
There’s an internet stereotype of the so-called “Karen”- a white, suburban mom type who is always complaining to the management about something she doesn’t like. Activism and protests are a form of Karenism because they fundamentally involve complaints to management. This has become the default mode of engagement in America.
The fact that we’ve moved from a society in which change happens because executives plan and execute it to one in which managers, who don’t view themselves as elite or imbued with executive authority, take action mostly in response to complaints (if at all) reveals very unhealthy dynamics in our society.
Evangelicalism’s Denial of Authority
The ethos of the WASP elites who previously did successfully exercise authority was derived in part from the theology and sociology of the mainline Protestant tradition (both of which of course evolved with the country). With far fewer WASPs in elite positions today, and the decline of mainline churches, Protestantism in America is now dominated by evangelicalism.
I have noticed evangelicals tend to be de facto hostile to an exercise of authority by Christians. I first saw this in evangelical gender theology. Conservative complementarian evangelicals nominally affirm that the husband is the head of the home, but in practice, they deny men any scope to exercise authority through their “servant leader” concept. It’s pervasive in their teachings, but the most direct statement is from Kathy Keller:
A head’s job is to use their authority to please, meet needs, and serve…Headship is something given by one person to another. The giver is equal to the receiver; and the receiver has a real and final authority but uses it only to serve, and please, and build up the giver. It is not used for yourself because that’s not how Christ used His headship.
Pleasing, meeting needs, and serving are the tasks of a butler, not someone in authority. I could go into much more detail on this but don’t want to belabor the point because I’ve covered it elsewhere.
Similar ideas are common in other domains of authority. For example, having evangelical beliefs animate public policy and leadership decisions in the political realm is denigrated as “Christian nationalism.” A growing group of today’s evangelicals are promoting a form of Christian political disengagement and rejection of political authority wielded by Christians.
Similarly, James Davison Hunter’s oft touted “faithful presence” model of vocation is elusive when it comes to exercising authority. In fact, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what faithful presence actually is. Most of the description of it in his book To Change the World is vague. Here’s how Seattle Pacific University described it after Hunter gave a lecture there:
In Hunter’s view, being a “faithful presence” is the exercise of faith, hope, and love toward family, friends, neighbors, and — yes, enemies — in all spheres, from the classroom to the government, from the dinner table to the marketplace, from the neighborhood to the world stage.
This way of living was modeled for us by Jesus, said Hunter. “Jesus was not powerless, but he always used the power at his disposal for the good of others.”
Hunter said that the embrace of this vision “cannot help but generate relationships, institutions, and a kind of work that fosters meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness … not just for Christians but for everyone.”
It’s hard to figure out what this means practically, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the exercise of authority. In fact, much of the faithful presence model seems to be implicitly positioned in contrast against traditional modes of authority. Hunter writes:
If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.
Thank goodness the creators of the Marshall Plan, the Tennessee Valley Authority, NATO, our public library and park systems, our land grant universities, the framers of the Constitution, etc. didn’t think like this.
Also, I’ve never actually heard of a compelling example of faithful presence that doesn't involve helping the poor or some other activity of the type Christians have long done. By contrast, it’s easy to find evangelicals in high level positions whose public actions in those positions don’t show much signs of Christian influence (e.g., former NIH director Francis Collins).
The “faith and work” movement is similar in many respects. I have found it to be also somewhat vague, and not especially oriented towards the use of authority in the way that, say, former Cummins Engine CEO J. Irwin Miller (a mainline WASP) wielded his authority and power to develop his hometown of Columbus, Indiana such that it became the only small industrial city I know of in the Midwest that never endured a period of significant decline. (I wrote a bit about Miller for the Atlantic).
Put it all together than the feel that comes across is one of a deep suspicion of the exercise of authority, and even the idea that it’s illegitimate to exercise authority in any particularly Christian way.
As with the secular world at large, this interacts with other forces in curious ways. There’s an increasing evangelical stress on the social and systemic aspects of justice, particularly in distinction from purely individual salvation or acts of justice (or charity, since evangelicals increasingly seem to subsume corporal acts of mercy under the heading of justice).
When they say that justice requires systemic changes, but reject (or at least neglect) the exercise of authority by Christians, then the remaining outlet for justice is advocacy. But as we’ve seen, advocacy is in essence an appeal to authorities, complaining to the management. Some might label this speaking prophetically, but when you are extremely unbalanced in favor of prophets vs. kings, priests, and other officials who are chartered with actually ruling in accordance with God’s justice, that’s not a healthy situation. At some point somebody actually has to implement justice.
Who Exercises Authority Today?
To restate, the direct exercise of authority for the public good has been in a long-term decline in America in general. And power has been diffused and bureaucratized in ways that militate against the direct exercise of authority by individuals. But there are many roles in which the occupant does have the ability to wield power. When I see someone doing that, I’ve started making a habit of looking up the religious affiliation of the people in involved. I previously mentioned Michael Bloomberg as an example. He is Jewish.
Or consider Mitch Daniels. He’s currently the president of Purdue University, where he immediately froze tuition, experimented with income share college payment plans and made other moves to tame the cost of higher education. He has invested heavily to upgrade the campus and surrounding towns, which were not competitive with other peer college environments. He worked hard to promote technology transfer and economic development anchored by the school. Unhappy with the low numbers of qualified minority applicants, he decided to build his own pipeline by starting Purdue high schools in Indianapolis and South Bend.
If you know my body of work, then you know that I’ve had criticisms of some of what Daniels has done. But it’s undeniable that he’s worked to the best of his ability to reshape the institutions he’s run to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Love him or hate him, he’s been consequential. It would not have even entered the mind of 99% of college presidents to reshape their institutions in the way Daniels has done. And while he may not have changed the culture of academia, he did save students and their families over $1 billion as a result of his cost freezes. That’s a real, tangible benefit.
His religion? Mitch Daniels is a mainline Protestant. (In fact, most although people would probably stereotype Indiana as Bible Belt, the majority of consequential civic leaders here in Indianapolis have been mainline Protestants or Jews).
Similarly, which governors have been the most aggressive at pursuing their own independent agenda under Covid? Ron DaSantis is clearly a leader in that regard. Unsurprisingly, he’s Catholic. (Catholics are the only one of today’s Christian denomination that’s retained an elite leadership orientation even though they originally started in America as a subaltern group). Or perhaps you prefer Greg Abbott of Texas? Also a Catholic.
What I don’t see that often is evangelicals playing at a high level in terms of exercising authority in a confident way. As with the historic status of Catholics, evangelicals are a socially subaltern group, and their theology has functionally become a way of reconciling them to that status. So we’ve seen a decline in authority generally in our society, with evangelicals taking it to the next level.
A New and Reformed Elite
The problem of the decline of authority is one that is pervasive in society, not just in the evangelical church.
As I have said before, I am not a populist, because the common man is actually not equipped to exercise leadership in the more complex domains of society. All societies have and need elites. Having an elite and being an elite are good things.
Our problems stem not from having an elite, but from a defective elite. The solution is for our existing elites to either elevate their game or make way for new elites. Realistically, we’ll need some of both.
But just bringing in new elites won’t make any difference if they are simply the same as the old. Our system selects and develops new elites to fall into the existing mold, which only perpetuates problems.
We need some changes. One of them is for people to stop pretending like “elite” is a dirty word. It is a good thing to be elite, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking to become an elite. As the Bible itself says, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer [bishop], it is a fine work he desires.” (1 Tim 3:1).
At the individual level, each of us should be thinking about how we can step into elite roles, even if at more junior levels. I asked in a podcast whether we are willing to be elite. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and take potshots. But if we think something is broken, we need to be willing to step up and be part of the solution.
We also need to be preparing ourselves to be worthy elites by living our lives in a way that is above reproach, becoming competent in our domains, and being prepared to exercise authority that comes our way.
From a church perspective, there needs to be a complete refactoring of their approach to authority and vocation. Evangelicals punch far below their weight in elite representation. As I observed before, while evangelicals are the core voting block of the Republican Party, they have almost no representation at the top levels of movement conservatism. This is not just about anti-intellectualism or the proverbial “scandal of the evangelical mind” (though that’s a part of it). As I discussed above, evangelicalism implicitly rejects exercising the authority that comes with being elite.
Obviously, we are not going back to a Protestant establishment. But Protestants, including evangelicals, need to supply their fair share of the elites America needs.
This means that developing a new approach, theologically and otherwise, to developing evangelical elites who are prepared to exercise authority in the world is a key task that needs to be undertaken. In fact, I’d argue it may be the most important role some of these urban churches with upscale demographics could take on. What this looks like I’m not sure, but it would mean moving away from the enervating “faithful presence” concept.
Being a self-confident elite doesn’t just have to mean pushing a social agenda. In fact, in the negative world, any Christian leader needs to use prudential judgment in his approach to the world at large. But there are so many serious, substantive problems that require an elite willing to self-confidently exercise their authority to solve, that there is plenty of scope for evangelicals who are in elite positions in the secular world to take action.
As the Catholic blogger the Social Pathologist put it, the genius of Protestantism was producing men like George Bailey who took action within their sphere of authority to better the world around them.
Which brings me to the movie “It's a Wonderful Life.” I've always enjoyed the movie but only recently have seen some of its deeper theological significance. While Catholicism has been a factory of saints, Protestantism has been a factory of George Baileys. It is true that he is fictional character, but he is also an archetype of the type of man that we all know, and the type of high minded [mainline] Protestant man who is slowly disappearing due to the cultural forces that have been unleashed since the Sixties. Although the movie is fictional it, unnervingly, is beginning to resemble real life. Bedford Falls may be a fictional town but I remember the world I grew up in strongly resembling it, the world I live in now is slowly turning to Pottersville. The genius of the movie is the depiction of what world would have looked like without Protestant George Bailey.
Now I do have disagreements with Protestantism, but my intention here is to praise one of its strengths. And its strength was to produce thousands of George Baileys, who in various fields and in their own small way were able to transform the world. Catholicism may have a great theology of the Incarnation but Protestantism, at its best, produced the goods, and bought Christianity to the day-to-day affairs of men.
The fall of the WASPs and the decline of mainline Protestantism have produced a shortage of this kind of man. If we want to stop our slide towards Pottersville, evangelicals need to step into the gap and find a way to recreate a mode of Protestant elite formation fit for the 21st century.
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Possibly I might be an small-scale elite, or elite-adjacent, of sorts, if being known around the world in a subfield of science counts. But I've come to the firm conviction that aspiring to be an elite can be quite dangerous to one's spiritual health.
Over the years I've seen that becoming famous and influential to any degree requires sacrifice, as is necessary for service to any idol. It could be the sacrifice of one's family, one's health, one's integrity, or something else, or all of them, but sacrifice is required that no Christian in good conscience could make. And if one is not willing to make those sacrifices, there are a hundred other peers who will, and thereby get ahead.
The biblical Daniel is upheld as an exemplar, but it is important to note that Daniel did not ambitiously pursue a career as a high official in a pagan empire but instead was raised up by the special providence of God. And God certainly could by special providence raise up a Christian in America to high office and influence, but otherwise I think any Christian seeking high office and influence is likely to make a shipwreck of his faith. When I look at professed Christians among the elite, the higher they are, the less firm their faith seems to be. And why should we expect it otherwise, in a world with values hostile to those of the Bible?
It may be the case that we would be better off with a natural aristocracy because that would enable a man of firm Christian conviction to possess great authority simply by virtue of birth. But in our current society, I fear that it is the most pathological who reach the highest.
I feel as though I lack the foundation for appreciating the point being made here. What's so special about the Marshall Plan, the TVA or NATO that I can confidently say, "Yes, these were well implemented designs"? If these are successes, what would failure have looked like?
Also, I don't like George Bailey as a model. The guy was ready to off himself and leave 4 (or at least I think it was 4) fatherless kids until he had his own ego stroked. (And the alternative reality was totally implausible; no way a woman who looked like his wife would end up single unless she wanted to.) If Bailey deserved to die for anything, it was for perpetuating the evil of fractional reserve banking.