Protestant Evangelicalism and the Merit Trap

By Dion Forster

Why is it that in many western countries where “life expectancy” and “material well-being” have increased, “life satisfaction” is decreasing? German sociologist Hartmut Rosa suggests one reason is our “social acceleration.” In his book, Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World, he writes, “modern capitalist society, in order to culturally and structurally reproduce itself, to maintain its formative status quo, must forever be expanding, growing, and innovating, increasing production and consumption as well as options and opportunities for connection—in short: it must always be accelerating.”

One consequence is what Rosa identifies as the “three great crises of the present day: the environmental crisis, the crisis of democracy and the psychological crisis (as manifest, for example, in ever growing rates of burnout).”

Supporting Rosa, other research finds that socio-cultural unhappiness may be traced, ironically, back to the laudable values and beliefs of British, American, and European evangelicals.

In a 2020 article, Kyrkan och kampen för ett bättre samhälle [The Church and the Struggle for a Better Society], Swedish theologian Arne Rasmusson notes that dissenting nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestants—including the Oberlin Colony, Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists—contributed to “the emergence and development of an independent civil society, democracy, religious freedom, and freedom of expression, the struggle against slavery, and the feminist movement.” As Marcia Pally argues (The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good), and as Rasmusson holds, this emerged from a mix of doctrinal convictions, political identity, and community structures, all of which supported dissent.

These communities did not submit themselves to religious and political authorities. They saw themselves as working towards a new religious, moral, and political order based on their conviction of God’s desire to save humanity from sin and its consequences. Each believer plays a part in this salvific work and must work out and live by moral principles in keeping with these religious convictions.

A second aspect of our story is found in The Quarterly Journal of Economics (February 2021). The article discusses the impact of an evangelical education and economic development program on poor Filipino households. Six months after the program ended, participants had “higher religiosity and income . . . and lower perceived relative economic status.” This suggests some correlation among certain forms of evangelicalism, economic development, and perceptions of dissatisfaction. Families who received both religious and economic training showed economic increases of up to 9% yet they perceived themselves as having dropped in economic status. Similarly, a 2017 research project in Germany found that, “relative to their Catholic counterparts, Protestants do appear to work longer hours” without, however, increases in wages. Protestants work harder but do not necessarily experience higher societal value or compensation.

These findings echo Max Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argues that under Protestantism, people develop higher motives for work. Weber notes that the Protestant Reformation, particularly Calvinism, created distrust in the Catholic Church’s ability to mediate salvation through its rituals. Thus, unsure of their salvation, all persons now had to live spiritually disciplined lives (while previously, only priests, nuns, and monks had to; the salvation of others was mediated through the Church). Insecurity about salvation and the effort to assure it became the basis for virtues such a diligence, thrift, and self-control.

Moreover, previously it was only religious functionaries who did ‘holy’ work. However, the Reformation taught that God is at work everywhere and all persons participate in God’s work. God feeds everyone, and the farmer participates by laboring to grow food. People thus began to attach moral and religious significance to work. They work harder, longer, and see their labor as virtuous merit to be admired and respected.

As Rasmusson’s and Pally’s work show, such values were deeply engrained in Protestant theology, identity, and practice. However, among dissenting Protestants, work became more important for the spiritual imperative of liberation. Not only a means of honoring God through economic production, work became a political tool to combat structural injustice such as poverty. Hard work and economic return, understood as available to all, create the conditions for a more just society. Work becomes associated with virtue, and the merits of hard work are understood as in the interests of the common good.

As dissenting Protestants moved from the societal margins to positions of social and moral influence, so did their values. The Protestant Ethic and the virtues of hard work (with capitalist rewards) became a subtle yet powerful ‘civil’ religion. Pally argues in Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality that the same beliefs that led dissenting Protestant movements to liberate themselves from political and religious authoritarianism are the foundations for much of contemporary western political values. She writes “belief constitutes conduct” which in turn “constitutes belief.”

Michael Connoly, in The Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine, echoes: much of contemporary economics is built upon a historical intermingling of “religious and economic doctrines” that were birthed in dissenting Protestant Christianities.

This leads us to the final part of our story, two new books on merit by Daniel Markovits and Michael J. Sandel. Markovits opens by saying that those who believe in the virtues of merit hold that “advantage should be earned through ability and effort rather than inherited alongside caste . . . social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding.” Many in modern democracies might agree. Markovits continues, “meritocracy is now a basic tenet of civil religion in all advanced societies.” It is a civil religion since it operates as a largely unquestioned set of values and beliefs.

Yet, as we see in South Africa, where I live, and in many other countries, meritocracy may create its own problems. One is that often, many do not have access to the training that would allow them to succeed in a meritocracy. Markovits writes, “middle-class [and poor] children lose out to rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work.” According to Sandel, the notion that people can better their lives if they “work hard and play by the rules” is no longer true.

Meritocracy is leading to deep social discontent and unhappiness among the middle and working classes. Those who lose out in the merit-race—because they were not groomed for it by their parents or by an (expensive) elite education—resent the economic and social elites for their privileged status.

Second a shift has taken place from working for the common good (as well as for one’s own betterment) to working only or mostly for one’s own economic and social privileges. Third, Markovits writes, elites at the upper echelons of income and power must work ever harder to protect their meritocratic privilege and status. Fourth, elite status is increasingly becoming a matter of inherited wealth, such that the meritocracy is no longer based on merit. Some end up in elite positions unsuited to them and must work exceedingly hard to maintain themselves there: “[m]eritocracy entices an anxious and inauthentic elite into a pitiless, lifelong contest to secure income and status through its own excessive industry.”

In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel argues that meritocracy traps generations of workers in unsatisfactory work. Lack of education for merit-based work leaves working class persons with few choices about their jobs and often with two or more jobs to make ends meet. Economic and social elites, with economically rewarding and prestigious positions, frequently suffer the breakdown of family relationships, friendships, and their physical and mental health owing to stressful and demanding work.

Moreover, Sandel suggests, meritocracy damages society in changing the “terms of social recognition and esteem.” Working class persons feel undervalued and underrecognized; elites frequently begin to believe that their work makes them better than others.

Meritocracy, lack of access to it, and overwork from it seem to have trapped societies in immoral, unjust social systems. It is little wonder that many countries face negative “life satisfaction” indices. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider some of the unquestioned beliefs and values that form the foundations of our contemporary discontent. This would not be the first time that we have had to do this for the sake of a better future.


Dion Forster is Professor of Ethics and Public Theology at Stellenbosch University. He is the author of numerous books and articles in theology and ethics. His research focusses on social ethics, economic ethics, and political ethics. Dion is the director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology. See:

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