Smashing the Status Hierarchy

Evangelicals need new sources of elite status in the Negative World

One of the trends that has been noted in society is the divergence between the elite, variously defined, and the masses of society. Rob Henderson refers to this growing gulf as a “chasm,” and supplied some interesting data to support that.

Membership in the elite today typically comes from attending the right colleges, such as Ivy League colleges, and other tedious resume building activities both before and after attending school. It also involves being socialized into a particular ideology, especially what Henderson called “luxury beliefs,” and the socially correct forms of behavior and consumption choices.

Merely having a lot of money does not necessarily make one elite. There are many people who are wealthy by virtue of ownership of some prosaic business like a construction company, car dealership, or industrial scale farm. But unless accompanied by other status signifiers, this does not make one elite in terms of social status.

This same elite-base type split is evident in evangelicalism as well as mainstream society. Within the evangelical world specifically, elite status seems to be conferred by a broader set of mechanisms. Becoming a famous pastor generally gets you treated as somewhat elite, unless you are in the prosperity gospel world or something. There are also evangelical institutions that confer a sort of elite status within evangelicalism, along with access to certain networks. Wheaton College is a good example, once called the “evangelical Harvard” (albeit with a much lower degree of difficulty of getting in).

But evangelicals, especially of the cultural engagement and seeker sensitivity variety, are also heavily shaped by the general status system of society. An evangelical who attended Harvard is likely to be viewed as higher status by other evangelicals. I know very wealthy, and even non-wealthy evangelicals who have worked hard to ensure that their own kids are able to climb the secular status hierarchy: exclusive private prep schools, Ivies, a final club, etc. I’m hardly immune to this pull myself.

The fact that a big way to accrue status within evangelicalism is to succeed at obtaining secular status, and the fact that large numbers of evangelicals want their children to obtain the highest secular status possible means that evangelical culture will be heavily shaped by the same values animating secular elite culture. It operates with something of a shadow status system.

I’ve noted a similar situation in civic cultures of cities. The local powerbrokers and elites of every city in America take their cues from national elite culture – to the point of agreeing with and promoting ideas that are actively harmful to their own city.

For many people, remaining potentially bankable within national elite circles trumps any other consideration. It’s one reason there is so little courage in our society today.

Defeating the sclerosis that plagues our society today often requires individuals to be willing to reject its status system. This by its very nature selects for troublemakers, and the majority of the people who fall into that category will not be people doing productive things.

It’s not realistic to expect most people to reject the status system, just as it’s not realistic to expect the public to behave in a self-sacrificial way on other than limited occasions.

Much better is to have an elite status signaling system that encourages the behavior we want. Since we don’t have that, a second-best option is to create alternative forms of obtaining elite status.

Thiel Fellowship

One example of trying to do that is the Thiel Fellowship, in which Peter Thiel pays people $100,000 to drop out of college to work full time on their startup. This has been enormously successful as an investment strategy. Thiel Fellows have created eleven startups valued at $1 billion or more. A recent Bloomberg article has details:

In 2011, Peter Thiel launched a controversial education program to pay college students $100,000 to drop out. The program was widely criticized with many noting the hypocrisy of Thiel, who holds philosophy and law degrees from Stanford University. Former Treasury Secretary and Harvard University President Larry Summers said of the fellowship: “I think the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade is Peter Thiel’s special program to bribe people to drop out of college.” Available evidence supports the opposite conclusion. Thiel fellows have achieved shocking success, enough to merit a reconsideration of our current approach to college…

There are more Rhodes scholars every year than Thiel fellows and, depending on the course of study, the scholarships can easily pay well over $100,000 to keep students in school. They also offer access to larger networks of more powerful people than Thiel can arguably offer. There are many other prestigious scholarships and fellowships to identify the highest-potential students. All of them put together can’t match the kind of entrepreneurial success before age 35 of Thiel fellows. In addition, nearly every college today has entrepreneurial institutes, incubators or other programs to support student ventures while the founders continue taking classes. Again, none have achieved anything like the success of the Thiel Fellowship…

Thiel has argued in several talks that the problem is much bigger than a few dozen precocious teenagers. Rather, he sees the current higher education system as a perverse credentialing machine that forces students away from impactful careers in favor of ones like consulting and banking, which offer the surest path to repaying exorbitant loans.

This is a good article, but I think misses a key implication of the Thiel Fellowship, namely that Thiel is paying people to drop out of the mainstream elite status system in favor of a new way to acquire status. The piece notes, for examples, that there are more Rhodes Scholars than Thiel Fellows. In other words, Thiel designed his program to be ultra-selective and thus prestigious in its own right. In a sense, being a Thiel Fellow is a more exclusive credential than having a Harvard degree or being a Rhodes Scholar. It is also creating a network of people who share that credential in common. Hence, being a Thiel Fellow is incredibly desirable.

Early Christian Alternative Status Hierarchies

One of factors that drove the Christianization of the Roman Empire was the development of an attractive alternative means of acquiring elite status within the Christian community as opposed to the traditional Roman status system. This is perhaps the most interesting part of Edward J. Watts’ book The Final Pagan Generation.

Watts notes that the Roman status system bound people to the old order in the same way that our status system binds people to our current order.

The great wealth and opportunities that the Roman system provided to those who were willing to play by its rules steadily shaped these men into loyal and cooperative superintendents of imperial stability. Romans born in the first quarter of the fourth century consequently showed little inclination to challenge this prosperous imperial order.

Opting out of this system came at great personal cost, just as it does for people in America today.

The cronyism inherent in this selection process also made the fourth-century imperial system self-perpetuating. Once you were a part of this system, it was hard to get out again. The money and privileges that came along with imperial positions could prove difficult to give up, but honors and social payoffs like invitations to great parties and marriages to the well-endowed daughters of prominent families were even more addictive. Even if one could stomach giving up the perks of this life, tremendous costs accompanied any decision to opt out. The men who secured positions as publicly funded teachers or imperial administrators accumulated substantial debts of social capital to those who wrote letters on their behalf, hosted them as they traveled, and recommended that they be hired. Everyone involved in this process expected these debts to be repaid, with interest. The man who returned these favors could fashion himself into a peddler of influence and, ultimately, a patron of the next generation of rising young men. The man who ignored them could expect verbal abuse and social isolation. Once a person decided to play this game, he had great incentives to continue to do so. Tremendous costs prevented him from quitting it.

But in the mid-300s, the next generation of elites – that is, the children of the existing Roman elites – began to question the bargain. Watts doesn’t go into detail, but his book is suggestive that the rewards began to look less appealing or attainable to the young.

The final pagan generation brought up their children expecting that they would similarly embrace and thrive in this system. Many of their children did, but, by the 360s, it was becoming clear that some children of the post-Constantinian empire did not react to these opportunities in the way that their parents hoped. Unlike their parents, some elite youth of the 350s, 360s, and 370s came to suspect the rewards secular careers promised, and sought opportunities outside of them.

Again, if we make the analogy to today, it’s increasingly competitive to gain access to true elite status. Hence we see even many millionaires desperate to game the system to get their kids into a top school, even employing dodgy means to do so as in the Varsity Blues scandal.

Add to this that DEI dramatically disadvantages Asian and white students, and you have a group of people ready made to begin questioning the system at some point.

But regardless of the reason why, these next generation elites in Rome began to turn aside from the Roman system in favor of what became elite careers in the church as ascetics or bishops.

By the 360s, however, texts like Athanasius’s Life of Antony catalyzed a movement through which some elite Christians turned against the careers for which they had prepared. Some became bishops, while others joined ascetic circles organized by their peers. Intriguingly, the networks of friends they developed as youths helped make their rejection of elite social norms and aspirations possible. This led young aristocrats like the former governor Ambrose, the former teacher Gregory Nazianzen, and the former lawyer John Chrysostom to exchange the careers for which they had trained for ecclesiastical or ascetic pursuits. Networks of like-minded friends also helped these young dropouts weather the disapproval of parents, friends, and family members. The rise of this Christian youth culture gave large numbers of young elites an alternative model of aristocratic success that existed outside of the mainstream imperial system.

A few of things to note.

First, these folks had a sort of built-in elite status as a result of being the scions of the existing Roman aristocracy. Their choice of careers in the church thus imbued those positions with social cachet. When the cool kids chose the church, the church became the cool option.

Second, these young elites were going against the expectations of their parents. It wasn’t disenchanted middle aged elites who encouraged their sons to go in a different direction. It was the sons themselves who rebelled against their fathers’ expectations.

Third, we see here the James Davison Hunter insight about how it is networks of elites, particularly those who are at the cultural center but not the absolute center of the center, that drive cultural change. This shift in elite aspirations happened in networks of people, not just a collection of individuals making personal choices.

Watts explains a bit about how these networks functioned.

But young elites like Chrysostom, Theodore, and the courtiers at Trier tended to avoid large institutional enterprises like the Koinonia. They instead formed small, collaborative enterprises that used social relationships like those members of the elite formed at school to provide positive reinforcement for certain behaviors that most of society did not endorse. Instead of creating a schoolboy camaraderie that reinforced one’s commitment to the aspirations of traditional aristocratic life, these smaller ascetic groups existed to give young men the strength to pursue goals that diametrically opposed those endorsed by their parents, teachers, and many of their peers.

Literature, notably the Life of Antony, played a key role in glamourizing the alternative path and positioning it in an explicitly elite way:

The first three chapters of the Life of Antony offer an idealized blueprint for how a member of the local elite could extricate himself from the personal relationships, financial obligations, and social aspirations that defined mid-fourth-century elite life. The rest of the work, in a sense, illustrates what one can achieve once these strictures are lifted….Ultimately, Athanasius returns Antony to the world as a figure whose radical renunciation of conventional social and personal ties lent him a new, powerful type of authority whose value elites could immediately understand. Antony offered a better, more virtuous path to these ends, but the achievements of ascetics, like those of bishops, now could be understood in elite terms.

The result was a dual shift in which young, aspiring elites went into church careers, and church professions became more upper class as a result.

Some elite children proved more difficult to control. Much of this had to do with the emergence of new ways for demonstrating elite achievement that worked differently from the established municipal and imperial models. Elites had customarily taken little interest in service within the church. Clergy and even bishops had tended to be people of middling rank who could pursue careers in the church but lacked the background, means, or the social standing to hold high municipal or imperial office. Beginning in the 370s, however, men who had once served as teachers, advocates, and even imperial governors entered into bishoprics, a trend that accelerated as the fifth century approached.

This upper class shift also brought higher wattage governance to a church that was growing and needed highly competent leaders and administrators.

By the 370s, large urban churches controlled such sizable property portfolios that the middle-class bishops of the late third and early fourth centuries no longer had the administrative experience necessary to administer their finances. Churches now needed bishops who knew how to manage large estates, diverse properties, and complicated political relationships. This led them increasingly to turn to talented members of the upper class to manage their affairs. In return, the churches offered these men a way to do recognizably elite activities in a new context of Christian service.

As I’ve noted before, you can’t really understand much of American history without an understanding of social class. Similarly, social class is an interesting lens in looking back at the historic church. Ambrose of Milan, for example, came from a blue blood background. “Ambrose came from a wealthy, senatorial, Christian family that owned extensive property and had built its fortune through service within the Constantinian imperial administration.”

Ambrose played a key role in Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. Undoubtedly, the fact that Ambrose was highly educated and cultured as a result of his background played a key role here. Augustine finally met someone who was as smart or smarter than he was and could compellingly articulate the faith at that level. I’m imagining something similar to what people experienced when they encountered Tim Keller, although obviously on a different level and Keller was not from an upper-class background.

Republished with the author’s permission from

Image Credit: 16th November 1940: A man stands in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral after a German nighttime air-raid destroyed the center of the city. (Photo by George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

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Aaron Renn

Aaron Renn is Cofounder and Senior Fellow at American Reformer. He also writes on cultural topics at Renn was previously an urban policy researcher, writer, and consultant. He was a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research for five years. His work has been featured in leading publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.

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