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Being David Brooks

It must be hard being David Brooks; the man lives in a permanent identity crisis. He’s Jewish, and about as socially liberal as a pundit can be and still qualify as a “conservative” in the contemporary news media, yet regularly carries water for, nay, yearns on behalf of, aches even for the pains of, the shrinking Christian Right. Can’t be easy.

In his most recent New York Times column, “The Next Culture War” (June 30), Brooks is obsessed as usual with demographic trends he misreads like an Etruscan squinting at sheep entrails. The dwindling conservative Christian share of the polity—and some unfortunate recent Supreme Court decisions—set Brooks to thinking how he might help his comrades.

He sets the stage by reminding Christians of their steady withering.

Christianity is in decline in the United States. The share of Americans who describe themselves as Christians and attend church is dropping. Evangelical voters make up a smaller share of the electorate. Members of the millennial generation are detaching themselves from religious institutions in droves.

His explanation for the decline is to be found, without a hint of irony, in “values.” Both the lack of irony, where honest analysis screams for it, and the focus on values, are, as the sorry readers of his columns know, par for the Brooksian course.

Christianity’s gravest setbacks are in the realm of values. American culture is shifting away from orthodox Christian positions on homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce and a range of other social issues.

It’s those damn Sixties again, with women’s and gay lib movements, war protesters, the Pill and breakdown of the nuclear family. Brooks cannot imagine there was ever anything wrong with the “values” themselves, or that the decline of Christianity stems directly from (not just young) people’s revulsion at conservative Christian cruelty, mendacity and hypocrisy. Brooks ignores pedophile priests and mega church pastors on the down-low. No mention of the Duggars or their spiritual advisor. No consideration of the higher divorce and teenage pregnancy rates, deeper poverty, lousier public education, or more entrenched racism in states where conservative Christians hold political and cultural power.

More and more Christians feel estranged from mainstream culture. They fear they will soon be treated as social pariahs, the moral equivalent of segregationists because of their adherence to scriptural teaching on gay marriage. They fear their colleges will be decertified, their religious institutions will lose their tax-exempt status, their religious liberty will come under greater assault.

If alienation from “mainstream culture” is due to growing public disapproval of patriarchy and homophobia, then more power to the mainstream. If Red State use of ‘religious freedom’ as cover for discrimination leads to social (and economic) rejection, give us more of that. What “assault,” let alone a “greater” one on religious liberty? Brooks sneakily echoes Fox News’ ridiculous “War on Christmas” meme. Segregationists, indeed. It’s as if Brooks were sympathizing with slave owners after the Civil War, or anti-miscegenationists after Loving v. Virginia.

The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision landed like some sort of culminating body blow onto this beleaguered climate. Rod Dreher . . . argued that it was time for Christians to strategically retreat into their own communities, where they could keep “the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness.”

Since when do body blows land onto climates? And where has Brooks been for the past thirty years? Fundamentalist Christians have been walling themselves off from the larger culture since at least the eighties. Start with home schooling or a Christian academy (whose enrollment exploded following Brown v. Board of Education), then off to Liberty University (which “trains champions for Christ”). Buy your books at Family Christian Stores, and your art supplies at Hobby Lobby. Receive your TV news from Pat Robertson and radio news from Christian News Network. Stream your music from Today’s Christian Music and watch your music videos on GodTube. Get your game on in a Christian sports league, and check out the (heterosexual) profiles on Christian Cupid.

Not all conservative Christians have turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. There remain some scrappy ones out there.

Several [of them] called the [gay marriage] ruling the Roe v. Wade of marriage. It must be resisted and resisted again. . . . These conservatives are enmeshed in a decades-long culture war that has been fought over issues arising from the sexual revolution. Most of the conservative commentators I’ve read over the past few days are resolved to keep fighting that war.

Brooks has dual pronged (unsolicited) strategic political advice for embattled social conservatives. The first part requires some special pleading (before he drops a bomb).

I am to the left of the people I have been describing on almost all of these social issues. But I hope they regard me as a friend and admirer. And from that vantage point, I would just ask them to consider a change in course. Consider putting aside, in the current climate, the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution. Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex. Put aside a culture war that, at least over the near term, you are destined to lose.

This is a bold proposal: finally admit defeat in a culture war you cannot win. The special pleading is necessary because Brooks is not a social conservative (merely a political, economic, and cultural one), and because his Jewishness surely matters to millions of rank-and-file conservative Christians (the sort who believe that God does not hear the prayer of a Jew). Brooks understands that these people’s identities are as wrapped up in waging the war on sex (and consequently women) as is his in waging a broader culture war. But, never fear: Brooks has an idea for a new culture war (the second part of his advice).

The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.

This culture war is more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham; more Salvation Army than Moral Majority. It’s doing purposefully in public what social conservatives already do in private.

Schweitzer—vegetarian, (problematic) anti-colonialist, anti-nuclear weapons activist—and Day—commie Catholic Worker—as models for contemporary social conservatives? Sure, social conservatives build some community institutions “in places where they are sparse,” but who built the co-ops, farmer’s markets, community gardens, and independent media centers in your community? Stable families require good jobs, good schools, good health care, and good housing, also known as the end of poverty. Consider the prospects for social conservatives (who are at the same time economic conservatives), never interested in anything more deeply Christian than charity, making an end to poverty the aim of their next jihad.

Brooks calls for the withdrawal of Christian Soldiers from the failed cultural counter-insurgency while declaring a conservative Just War on the irksome social dysfunctions of poor people (especially of color). “Dysfunctions,” of course, not to due to racism, redlining, deskilling, offshoring, policing, or disinvestment in their communities, but to the poor’s personal failings, their “spiritual poverty.” This is why Brooks identifies with Christian conservatives. Neither can live without one culture war or another on women, the poor, racial and sexual minorities, and the Left. He’d never be able to write another column. If at first you don’t succeed, war, war, again.

Steve Breyman teaches “How to Read the New York Times” at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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