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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Faith and focus groups

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Early this morning, I thought I was in a dream-state guest slot on the PBS News Hour, filling in for Mark Shields in the Friday colloquy with New York Times columnist David Brooks.


Brooks was murmuring in my ear, in that well-oiled, speaking-not-in-tongues-but-in-paragraphs manner of his, about religion in public life. It was all there: his self-referential jokiness (“enough about me,” Bette Midler used to say. “What do you think about me?”), his glittering, multi-faceted generalizations, drawn from his famous, if infrequent, trips outside the Acela Corridor bubble to find some people who are doing good in a manner he finds good, and in those hours- stolen from his columns, his teaching posts, and his explaining the week to us on public radio and TV, finding new insight into America- he can infer the world’s oceans from a Mason jar of salty water, and the world in a grain of sand (then, years later, explain how he was wrong then but is right now, right now.)




It’s worth listening to (or reading- there’s a transcript), both for the challenges of what was said as well as what wasn’t.


Brooks, as I’ve come to expect from a William Buckley acolyte, did most of the talking. He has always puzzled me. He looks, and talks, the part of a classical Buckleyite, Anglo-Catholic, Eastern Establishment man (Buckley, whose life filters were as fine as Henry James’ and nearly as ornate, passed Brooks over for the editorship of National Review on religious grounds). Yet, as Tippett commented,


David, you are Jewish, and you were raised Jewish. You’ve lately taken to quoting Saint Augustine with great fervor. And you’ve spoken and written about really loving reading theology as you were writing The Road to Character.


And Brooks explains, in his Thomas Kinkade way, painting word pictures of his ideal polity. You have to read it to glean whatever meaning is in it: it is long on feeling and short on the scaffolding that underpins a consistent, thought-through philosophy. In that way, Brooks- who always refers to himself as “THE conservative columnist at The New York Times”- is a study in contrasts with his younger colleague at The Times, Ross Douthat.


Douthat’s course has been the more unusual, from pentecostal evangelicalism to an embrace of the austere and authoritarian high Catholicism of Richard John Neuhaus and First Things Magazine. I read Brooks on faith and try to divine the meanings in his woo-woo mysticism; I read Douthat and wonder how he can cram so much incomprehensible dogma-talk into a 750-word column.


Brooks wants everyone to group-hug their way to a conservative, limited notion of who gets to feel all that warmth and grass-rootsy helpfulness; Douthat believes the way is lit by severe contrition doled out by old men.


Brooks helps audiences leave his events feeling more tolerant and less isolated, with his talk of pluralism and hipster churches in the hipster outer boroughs of New York City:


[A]s I go around, especially to cities, I see just an exploding religion that, believe me, is deeply religious but the opposite of Trumpism.

Say, pick New York City. There is a burgeoning supply of these churches, these Trinity Grace churches that are all around the city. There’s C3 churches, which I went to one in Williamsburg in Brooklyn a few months ago, and every beautiful hipster in New York seemed to be at that church. If you wanted to be where the cool crowd was, that church was it. And the Redeemer plants that are spreading.


For Brooks, the challenge to religion in the public square is not one of rethinking, much less, abandoning, any of the full-stop positions that define the trinitarianism of an old, white Catholic hierarchy; an old, white evangelical taliban; and an old, white- but healthier and trimmer- LDS leadership. Brooks celebrates the sunny, all-are-welcome manner of the Pope, and the catching-up-with-the-social-consensus-but-still-grounded-in-inerrancy-progressivism of the Southern Baptist’s #NeverTrump leader, Russell Moore. On his side of the aisle, politics is church the rest of the week after Sunday services.


Dionne’s view of politics is one informed by his faith, the Catholic social justice calling that flourishes in the parishes but withers in the archdiocesan chanceries. “If I made a hat that looked like the Donald Trump hat, it would be, ‘Make America Empathetic Again’, he told told Tippett this morning, and he was right, adding,


There shouldn’t be groups that it is fashionable to be empathetic toward and unfashionable to be empathetic toward.


I lay in bed, listening, and thinking, “here we go again.” So many of Krista Tippett’s conversations are conversations about how we need to have other conversations, some other time, with some other people, and if we did, and if all those others were as filled with book-learning and sweet reason as her guests, things would be right as rain. I guess, at its heart, that is the dilemma of faith as expressed in the PBS/NPR world: you can only go so far without impacting the next pledge drive; burying On Being Sundays at 7 am offers some protection from the judgmental but late-rising, but at the same time denies the message to those who most need to hear it.


I’ve no doubt that, if David Brooks opened a community church in Brooklyn for the most lumberjack-shirted, waxed-moustache millennials Gotham could assemble, I’d be welcome at his Krista Tippett-moderated panel between Russell Moore and the Pope in the fellowship hall. And I’m sure that, if I got to shake hands with the speakers over coffee the Pope would wrap me in a bear hug, bless me, assure me I am still objectively disordered, then urge me to go over and sit with that nice Kim Davis, the lawless Kentucky court clerk to whom he granted a private audience on his trip to America. Russell Moore would even take me over to effect the introductions, assuring Mrs Davis, "This man is a nice, harmless old homosexualist who will never come to your counter seeking a marriage license."

All the while, though, I know Russell Moore still agrees with one of his old-school predecessors, Albert Mohler, whose published works include a column observing that, if science ever proves sexual orientation is genetic, the evangelical position on abortion will change overnight. And I know the positions of the Catholic church change only when measured in geological time scales.


Dionne put the point- how one’s views on faith and politics matter to most only as props for confirmation biases- more succinctly:


I’ve always been uncomfortable when some of my fellow liberals talked about completely separating religion from politics. The late Jean Elshtain said, “Separation of church and state is one thing. Separation of religion and politics is something else.” And for me, they were inseparable in the way I thought. I once debated Ralph Reed, and I said, “I will always defend Ralph’s right to base his political conclusions on his religious conclusions, but I do want to ask him where Jesus endorses a cut in the capital gains tax because I just couldn’t find it in my Scripture.”


He added,


And politics in a democratic republic is about solving problems and resolving disputes peacefully, usually through argument and negotiation. We don’t even know how to argue anymore. Bill Buckley, when he had his Firing Line show, engaged in real argument. He brought on really smart liberals whom he really engaged with. We don’t have that kind of argument right now, so I think we have to ennoble the word “argument,” and we also have to ennoble the word “politics.”


...I wish that religion could play a role in bringing us together. There used to be a time when people who disagreed went to the same churches or congregations. They had an instinctive trust in each other. They could argue from respect, and they didn’t assume bad faith. Is there any way in which religious institutions could try to play that role again? I came from a very argumentative extended family, and we always argued about politics, and we never doubted that we loved each other. You cannot do that very much in our politics now outside the family, and I think our religious institutions might struggle to be venues for that. And I’m not talking about bringing people together artificially. The hardest thing to reach is authentic disagreement but not disagreement among people who then leave and hate each other forever but disagreement among people who respect each other and know they have to live with each other the next morning.


Brooks ended with his re-branding theme:


And I just see young people who are theologically super rigorous and warm to each other. And then I go to the churches I mentioned in Brooklyn and Williamsburg, the super hipster churches, and there’s just a native warmth. And you just are drawn to that like flowers to the sun. And so all I want out of religion is just a little more human decency inspired by a devotion to God. I do think that’s imminently possible and imminently happening.


“Theologically super rigorous and warm to each other.” Hate the sin, love the sinner. I'll bring the old wine: you got some new bottles?


I confess to a certain frustration with intellectuals modeling good debate behavior and sunny, Micawberesque optimism that somehow it will all work out in the end: for someone else. Our children, or our grandchildren. I only have one life, and by standard reckonings, two-thirds of it is behind me. I get impatient listening to men like Brooks and Dionne talking about how we all need to agree to talk about talking about things later on. And on, and on.


Yet Those Who Judge for a living-be they columnists or confessors- tell me the End Times are nigh, and the reckoning will be severe. I’ve heard that all my life.


They've got the entire Left Behind series to prove it. The arbitrary wrath, the dirty tricks, the smitings of the Old Testament are ever-hovering, summoned by the Franklin Grahams of this world to backstop their otherwise questionable credentials as prophets (Henry IV, Pt. 1 GLENDOWER: I can call spirits from the vasty deep. HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?)


Yet the promises of the New Testament- justice, equality, forgiveness, the high welcoming the low to dinner without worrying about mud on the Berber- those are infinitely postponed. “Not now, later” as the Calvinists have it. Delayed gratification is, in fact, its own reward.

Frederick Douglass was right: it’s a poor rule that won’t work both ways. Even the Golden One.


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