A Cautious Man
December 30, 2003
I don't know why I get so annoyed reading David Brooks' columns in the New York Times. Once again, in today's column, he just seems particularly shallow. His starting point is sound - noting the varied religious journeys of the President and some major Democratic contenders, he observes: "What other country on earth would have three national political figures with such peripatetic religious backgrounds?" But, he then makes other observations (clearly designed to push his own political views) which are just nonsense. Taking just a few which bugged me (in sort-of increasing order of serious concern), Mr. Brooks says that Americans are "reasonable tolerant", noting: "In London recently, President Bush said that Christians and Muslims both pray to the same God. That was theologically controversial, but it was faithful to the national creed." Excuse me, Mr. Brooks, but it was only "theologically controversial" for some American evangelical leaders (the same people you claim do not have as much influence now). It's theologically orthodox for the rest of the world, such as among us Catholics. In another passage, Mr. Brooks cites deTocqueville's comment that Americans "don't seem to care that their neighbors hold to false versions of the faith", and he adds: "That's because many Americans have tended to assume that all these differences are temporary." Again, there are clearly a lot of Americans who very much do care about their neighbor's "false versions". Americans may be happy to go off by themselves, and leave others to their own faiths. When all together, though, there are many people who want to have their version of what faith is dominate - others can believe what they want, just as long as it remains unseen. If you don't believe me, observe how many commentators still seemed torqued off by the simple greeting, "Happy Holidays."
I have a big disagreement with Mr. Brooks' assertion that an "effect of our dominant religious style is that we have trouble sustaining culture wars." As evidence, he points to what he considers to be the waning of the influence of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. Mr. Brooks is missing the point, that the culture wars are no longer being directed from the churches, but from political types who consider themselves on a mission to save America. Look at the conservative books which sell well, touting the left-wing plot to destroy America's soul. Take as an example the "marriage debate". Cal Thomas recently wrote about "a strategy session at the White House", to make gay marriage a hot button political issue in the upcoming year. As Mr. Thomas wrote:
Most people would probably be happy to launch a counter strike in the culture war. Many could be counted on to support an amendment that tries to do something about the social, moral and cultural erosion over which they have felt powerless. Surrounded by bad television, worse movies, anti-religious attitudes of judges and certain liberal activist groups, a pervasive sense that "anything goes," most of those responding to the New York Times/CBS News Poll apparently find a constitutional amendment in support of marriage a much-needed line in the sand. They think we have already gone too far, too fast on too many things.There will continue to be a "culture war", not necessarily because of religious institutions, but because of the efforts of the "culture war profiteers". Whether for political power, personal aggrandizement , or plain-old money, these all-American entrepreneurs will continue to use the culture wars for their own ends. Personally, I have faith in the tolerance of the individual American, I'm concerned that there are people out there hoping to capitalize on intolerance.
Finally, Mr. Brooks paints a little word picture, of how Mr. Bush and Dr. Dean may be political opposites, but able to unite if they met in a Bible study. I think that would depend on what the topic was. Given that these two gentlemen wound up following very different life choices, from very similar, privileged starting points (as Mr. Brooks likes to remind us), they may have very different views about how to live their faith. I think that's a big point which Mr. Brooks just misses.