Monday, January 12, 2009

Obama, Merit, and the Bible (Through Indian Eyes, Part III)

Obama won the election because the Bible transformed European aristocracy into American meritocracy. Put simply, aristocracy is the rule of the upper class, the socially privileged, and meritocracy is the rule of the competent.

Hillary Clinton and John McCain are both American aristocrats-white, wealthy, well positioned, and well-connected. Clinton is the wife of a former president and McCain is the husband of a corporate executive. Both of them are multi-millionaires, members of the ruling elite, "Washington insiders." Both of them are older, more experienced, and more distinguished than Obama. Why do you think Americans elected a little known younger black man from a middle-class background?

It's true that voters were fed up with the Republican Party because of the war in Iraq, the economic crisis, and so on. They wanted change. But in other cultures, that would have favored Hillary Clinton.

Choosing a leader based solely on one's ability is not universal. Aristocratic cultures may want competent servants, but when it comes to choosing a leader, they prefer someone with class. In those cultures, the right to rule comes from birth or wealth. In my culture it came only from birth. You could not become a priest, a ruler or a businessman in traditional India if you had not acquired enough karma in previous lives to be born into the right family. The idea of earning merit is unique to societies shaped by the Bible.

But where does the Bible teach meritocracy?

The model case is 1 Samuel 16. In this story, God sends the prophet to the home of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint one of his eight sons to replace Saul as king of Israel. Now, Samuel is very impressed by the eldest brother. He's tall and handsome, and as the firstborn in that society he's the leader. But God tells Samuel to anoint David, the youngest brother, whom Jesse hasn't even invited to meet the prophet! God says, "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."

If you keep reading, David shows his extraordinary courage, initiative, leadership, skills at war, public relations, communications, poetry, music, and most importantly his deep devotion to God and reverence for God's word. It's these qualities--not his birth or wealth or social status--that make David God's choice, and make him Israel's greatest king.

David's attitude to God's word is the decisive issue. Samuel says to Saul, "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king." The skeptics may doubt that Samuel's words were God's word, but Saul had no such excuse. He knew from firsthand experience that Samuel was a seer and spoke the word of God (see 1 Samuel 9:15 - 11:15). Saul's rejection of the word of God started him down the path to become a pagan totalitarian dictator, as I will explain another time.

David's greatest descendant Jesus said, "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples (John 15:8). Only God can look at a person's heart directly, but a person's actions are the most reliable indication available to others. Jesus explained this further in his parables, such as the parable of the stewards and the talents (a "talent" is a weight measure of gold or silver). In this story the "good and faithful" steward turns his five talents into ten. The master says, "Well done! ... I shall put you in charge of ten cities" (Luke 19:17). Thus the steward earns his position of leadership by proving his merit--his diligence and competence.

In modern times, the notion of meritocracy began with Martin Luther's writings about the "priesthood of all believers." As Luther - still a Roman Catholic monk - was translating the New Testament he began to realize that the word of God taught that the work of a housewife or a shoemaker was as sacred as the profession of a priest. The Bible commands, "whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Just as you would not make a poor quality shoe for a king, you would not do poor quality work to glorify God. Merit means high quality work.

Following Luther, Christian leaders began studying the Bible's teaching on "calling" and "work." Christian groups such as the Puritans, Quakers, and Mennonites disciplined themselves to do all their work for the glory of God.

These, then are the ingredients of meritocracy: the idea that character, not class, is what counts in a leader; and the idea that a person shows his character through his skill and hard work in his calling, since all work is done "unto the Lord."

In America, meritocracy begins with the Puritans, Quakers and the Mennonites. The colonists chose John Winthrop, who was not a nobleman, to be the first governor of New England because of his character and abilities. A class-conscious country like England would not have done this. He was chosen because the Bible shaped the Puritans' values. They demonstrated what sociologist Max Weber called the "Protestant ethic," which is also called the "Protestant work ethic" or "Puritan work ethic." It would yield unprecedented economic fruit, enabling America to become a meritocracy and surpass other nations in economics, education, science, technology, sports, government and military.

One of the things that made Obama's victory possible is that America has traditionally preferred merit over class. But now that America is turning away from the Bible, recent elections show that a new kind of superficiality is beginning to replace meritocracy: one that prefers glamour and charisma to character and competence.

During the presidential campaign, Obama's outward appearance to the majority of Americans was that of competence and integrity. But only the Lord can look at his heart. Let us pray that he will turn out to be what he appeared.

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