During this past Lent, one of the pastors at my church made a comment about how we live increasingly in an “entitlement culture where everyone thinks they’re entitled to everything.” I’ve heard this before, but hearing it at church really bugged me. What does “entitlement culture” mean? And is it, as implied, a bad thing?
First of all, no specific examples of entitlement were offered, so I will be forced to venture my own examples. I’ll start with the fact that I’m an older millennial and my generation is supposed to be very entitled. This is true. We are so entitled that we think that going into crushing, possibly lifelong debt in order to get a college education and then being unable to find a job that pays above minimum wage or offers any benefits and so having to apply for government assistance to survive is actually pretty messed up. We are so entitled that we think we deserve things like healthcare, housing, and food. Not only that, we think our children are entitled to these things, too!
Who else is entitled in our society? Let’s see:
Women think they’re entitled to be paid the same as men for doing the same work.
BLM activists think they’re entitled not to be shot by police because they’re black.
The residents of Flint, Michigan think they’re entitled to water that doesn’t damage their children’s brains.
Disabled activists think they’re entitled to access their own homes, schools, buildings where they work, doctor’s offices, and public transportation.
Trans people think they’re entitled to use public restrooms that best match their gender.
People who work 40 to 80 hour weeks think they’re entitled to healthcare, housing, and food and that their children are, too … oh, we’re back to that again.
This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the point.
Don’t get me wrong; there are many things in our culture that I find deeply disturbing. But the examples of entitlement I have just given are, I think, not only good, but are grounded in a humanism that actually comes from Christianity. (For a detailed argument on this and an exploration of how liberal humanism became disconnected from sacramental theology, read Reinventing Liberal Theology by Theo Hobson.)
So let’s ask the question. In a country that has the resources to provide clean water to everyone, where food is routinely thrown away, where large houses are empty and many people own two or even three homes, where available jobs are being outsourced to other countries, and where a small segment of the population possesses such huge amounts of wealth that they have nothing better to do with it than buy politicians, do we have an obligation to provide clean water, food, housing, and jobs that pay enough for people to survive? Do we have an obligation to treat people with equal dignity regardless of their race, gender, income, or health/disability status? I think we do, and doesn’t that mean we are all entitled to those things?
Furthermore, when people in our society are educated, when people who want jobs have jobs, when people with disabilities are included and their talents are utilized, everyone benefits. We owe our democracy (such as it is) to the founding fathers’ entitlement. We abolished slavery because of the slaves’ entitlement. We gave women the vote because of women’s entitlement. Entitlement is a good thing.
Finally, although this is not a religious blog, I’d like to address the claim my pastor made in the same sermon, that “God doesn’t owe us anything”.
Entitlement involves two things: an assertion of personal dignity, and an admission of need. I brought my son into the world in a state of complete dependency. Do I have an obligation to feed him? Clothe him? Shelter him? Change his diaper? I think I do, and the government thinks I do, because if I don’t do those things the government will take away my child and give him to someone else who will provide for his needs. Some people would argue that I also have an obligation to love him. Love is harder for the state to regulate, but ultimately just as important for a child. Because of his inherent dignity as a human being, my son is entitled to have his physical and psychological needs met by someone, ideally by me and his father, but if not us, then by someone else. Can we really maintain that this is true of infants and parents, but not of a God who according to traditional theology enjoyed full freedom and agency when creating human beings?
It’s false humility, not to mention insulting to God, to say that if we were deliberately brought into being only to die of starvation and suffer eternally, that would be totally fine. Entitlement is not antithetical to humility. What is antithetical to humility is for a privileged person (and most of us are privileged in some respect or other) to dismiss a nonprivileged person as “entitled” whenever they complain or demand change. More on that in my next post.