When an American says “I’m a layman”, he usually means that he is not an expert in something. The phrase however originally refers to someone who is not a member of the ordained clergy of a Christian denomination.
When I lived in Europe I was confused by how people used the term “layman”. Italians would say “Sonno laico” the way Americans would declare themselves Democrats or Republicans. There, calling yourself a layman meant being consciously and emphatically opposed to formal religion, particularly Roman Catholicism. Using the term that way in America would not make any sense, but it makes sense in Europe given the old medieval caste system which regimented society into three classes: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners, each with its own duties, privileges and laws.
Of course, the nobility and the clergy were entitled to most of the privileges. They argued that it was because they also got most of the duties, governing the country and bringing grace through the sacraments, and there may have been a grain of truth in that. But the commoners could tell that the priests and aristocrats were more interested in the privileges than the duties, and eventually made their resentment felt.
Believe it or not, we Americans also have a clerical class that manifests much of the same behavior as the old clergy of Europe, and which creates similar tensions, though on a smaller scale.
A clerical class is a group of people who preform a service to society and are therefore given a special aura of honor and respect. They may even get a pass for bad behavior. Our clerical class consists of people like soldiers, policemen, teachers, firemen, clergy (of course) and scientists. Each represents one of our cultural values: police embody the rule of law; teachers, knowledge; the clergy, transcendence; scientists, progress.
None of these groups are traditionally well paid, in part because you simply cannot put a dollar value on a child’s education or the grace of God. Some, like the police, firemen or soldiers, occasionally risk their lives to serve the community; how do you put a price tag on that? Since most of these people could be making more money doing something else, we assume that they do what they do because they feel called to service. That is yet another reason why we honor them.
But the honor becomes a problem. We all know teachers or cops or ministers who are not only good at their jobs but also excellent people, but this is not always the case. I’ve known teachers (thankfully a minority!) who do not care at all about their students. While I respect the police as a group, I respect as individuals only about half of the ones I really know. I’m glad firemen exist, but of the handful of full-time firemen I’ve met, only a couple struck me as the dutiful, self-effacing public servants and family men I expected; the others were boozy slobs.
A more extreme example: I have known a few dozen priests in my life and am proud to call some of them my friends. Most were good men, a handful great men, but over the years I’ve also been acquainted with two priests who, it later turned out, used the honor society gives to clergy to gain access to adolescent boys for sex. Not men who once or twice fell into temptation, but sex predators with scores of victims; pompous and highly manipulative sociopaths. They were priests not because they wanted to serve the faithful but because they wanted the faithful to serve up opportunities to rape boys.
Out of one eye we should look at these clerical figures in a rosy light, respecting what they represent to our culture. Out of the other eye we need to critically size up their strengths and weaknesses as individuals, giving no free passes.
So when cops claim that because the rule of law is priceless, the town should raise property taxes so they can retire after twenty-five years with a pension that most of us can only dream of, a little red flag should go up in our heads. They are pulling a bait and switch, trying to redirect our esteem for the social role they play into personal gain, without regard to whether the work they do as individuals is good or bad. For all the guilt trips teachers’ unions like to pull when threatening a strike, there is no contradiction in telling them that while a child’s education is indeed priceless, a teacher’s salary is negotiable.
The fact that much of our “American clergy”, teachers, scientists and the rest, used to be poorly paid also played a social function: it was meant to keep them honest. It meant that a person would become a teacher or minister because they wanted to help others, not because it was a comfortable racket. This was a flawed arrangement: for example, a poorly paid cop is much more likely to accept bribes. In some states it is becoming popular to limit the bargaining rights of public employees. I can’t say for certain if that is right or wrong, but I understand the motive. As a society we need to have ways of keeping our clerical class honest. There are few things uglier than a group of people proclaiming their desire to help others when all they want is to help themselves.