I enjoy Douthat’s Substack. He’s a good writer and an interesting thinker. If you don’t know, Douthat’s day job is Op-Ed writer for the New York Times. His Substack is fun because you get to see a Harvard-educated, east coast elitist, New York Times Op-Ed Conservative let loose. It’s lurid. There’s a whole other side to him full of depravity and chaos. I’m being sarcastic; his Substack is very proper and orderly. That being said, it is an impressive Substack. As a conservative at the NYT, he’s either a terrible conservative like Bret Stephens or some sort of hostage. Given how he writes, he strikes me as a hostage tip-toeing around his captors. Ross, if you’re in danger, give us a sign!
Douthat brings up a valid point. As Christianity continues to become more of a negative in our society, the ambitious will not be incentivized to join the church. Ambition and status are potent forces, as explained in Federalist #51 and in Masculinist #51. Prestigious institutions will naturally attract the ambitious, and they will compete. This will help the institution as the best, and the brightest will be lead it. This is the basis of a meritocracy. However, without the prestige, the ambitious will go elsewhere.
Meaning, in a world where Christian offices and Christian institutions still had a certain kind of elite status, you could take your elite ambitions and bind them to the ministry, the priesthood, the episcopate; you could be “clever, ambitious, organized, competent” on behalf of a mission society or a church-building project; you could aspire to a certain cultural prominence as a theologian or religious scholar. But now, even though important religious offices and opportunities for churchly ambition still exist, they’re no longer really connected to the cursus honorum of the contemporary upper class, so you have to give up certain upper-class ambitions completely in order to pursue them.
The culture has rebuked Christianity, and as such, Christianity will struggle to get elites. Since the church will no longer be an avenue for respectability, it will attract a different kind of person—likely individuals from the lower strata of society or individuals who decide to give up social status. In a sense, it will be a return to Christianity’s roots as a clandestine religion persecuted by a pagan empire. The reduction of elites is not the worst thing in the world.
All of this is a way of saying that Christians shouldn’t over-sentimentalize their loss of elite sway. No doubt there is a strong element of the rich young man going away unhappy, because this time Jesus asked him to give up his ambitions and his resume, in the meritocracy’s irreligion. But the church itself does not yet seem purified by its slow exile, occupying instead an unhappy middle place — neither powerful enough to really shape the dominant culture anymore, nor vigorous and self-sufficient enough as yet to be a salt-and-light counterculture of the sort that the rich young man might, with whatever doubts and reservations, ask to join.
The Negative Christian world is about a church in decline. The church still has enough power to appear threatening but not enough actual power for the bandwagoners to hop on. If the church had power, the ambitious would flock to it. Instead, we have dying church bleeding members and losing relevancy. Pope Benedict said something similar:
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
The journey deeper into Negative World Christianity is just beginning. It’s likely to get much more complicated before it gets easier.