A Conversation With David Brooks
New York Times columnist David Brooks likes writers who are unafraid, as he says, “to take up the big brush,” and produce ambitious books on momentous topics. That helps explain his affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential mid-century theologian (and Elmhurst alumnus, class of 1910) who wrote about God, human nature, evil and war. One of Niebuhr’s books, Brooks likes to point out, was called The Nature and Destiny of Man. “After you’ve finished a book with a title like that,” Brooks asks, “what’s left to read?”
Brooks has been making the case for Niebuhr’s continuing relevance for nearly ten years now. In an essay in The Atlantic in 2002, he called Niebuhr “one of America’s most profound writers on war and international conflict. At the start of World War II and again at the dawn of the Cold War, he wrote sweeping books that helped readers to connect their historical situations with broad truths about God and human nature…Niebuhr’s arguments were big and ambitious, whereas our debates are small and wonky.”
As it turns out, Brooks is not alone in his admiration for Niebuhr. In a 2007 interview with Brooks, then-Senator Barack Obama called Niebuhr “one of my favorite philosophers.”
Obama told Brooks: “I take away [from Niebuhr] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”
Like Niebuhr’s work, Brooks’ columns are, in their own way “big and ambitious,” blending politics, faith, science and cultural commentary. It’s a style absorbed from the mid-century nonfiction writers he admires, including Jane Jacobs, Digby Baltzell and, of course, Niebuhr. “There aren’t as many intellectuals taking up the big brush today,” he told Quick Studies. “Basically, my column tries to update the 1950s style I admire and put it in newspaper form.”
Brooks will be at Elmhurst to offer his take on Niebuhr’s influence when he delivers the keynote address in the Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life at 7:30 p.m. on October 1 in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. In this conversation with Quick Studies, he offers a preview.
Niebuhr wanted us to recognize our fallibility and to be modest about what we claim to know. That’s so out of step with our strident, ideological politics. Is part of his relevance that he’s a welcome corrective?
I think so. The way you get heard and get attention these days is by being pure and very forceful. His whole system was based on the idea that you’re divided against yourself, that you’re checking yourself. So it was always about acting even while you’re aware of your limitations. I wrote a piece on Niebuhr and they gave it the title “A Man on A Gray Horse.” That about summarizes his ambivalence. It’s definitely an antidote to the black and white of our political culture.
During the last presidential election campaign, you asked then-Senator Obama if he had ever read Niebuhr. He responded with what you described as a convincing “off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History.” What made you ask him about Niebuhr?
He was just leaving the Senate floor and we were talking about Lebanon or something and so it was as inopportune a moment to ask that question as possible. But I recognized some Niebuhrian tones in his rhetoric. And, of course, Niebuhr had influenced Martin Luther King. I couldn’t tell if he was mimicking King or if he had gone straight to the source. So I thought, I’ll see if he’s actually aware of Niebuhr.
You argued in The Atlantic that we needed a thinker like Niebuhr in the wake of 9-11. Now we have a Niebuhrian in the Oval Office. Wish fulfilled?
I think he’s been pretty good, especially in foreign affairs where it applies most directly. His Nobel Prize speech was very Niebuhrian. But it hasn’t always worked out great. He’s committed to Afghanistan, but also wants to withdraw and already has set a date for withdrawal. So there are downsides to Niebuhrian ambivalence. The George Bush-style total commitment without ambivalence in some cases has some advantages, I’d have to admit. But overall [Obama’s] sobriety has been pretty positive in foreign affairs.
You’re speaking at Elmhurst as part of a series of interfaith conversations. Does our diversity of belief shape our politics?
My main concern is that faith has become so non-theological. They all blend into one. Certainly the differences between different Christian denominations have become less distinct. In my sphere, when it comes to voting patterns, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, it matters how religious you are. If you’re very religious, no matter what kind you are, you vote one way. If you’re secular, you vote another way.
What do you make of the church-shopping phenomenon? Does all that mobility break down barriers or does it just leave us unmoored from traditions?
Both, I think. There’s a trade off. I remember during one of the Democratic primaries, I think two elections ago, every single candidate had switched denominations at one point. I think Wes Clark did it twice. Howard Dean did it because his church didn’t support a bike trail that he was supporting. Everyone was moving. That’s part of where we are. But I think the downside is consumer religion, where it’s all pretty thin and people are competing to fill the pews with whatever works in the market.
Should we care about what our presidents believe? Does it matter?
I think people want to know if he will react as they would react, that he has a moral system beyond political ambition. So I do think it matters. I also think there’s a lot of phoniness involved. I don’t think Obama is a particularly religious person. But he was for a few months there during the campaign.
What do you think of the level of religious literacy in the United States?
I’d say it’s pretty awful, but I’ve been places where it’s worse. When my oldest son was born in Belgium and we named him Joshua, I remember the doctor at the hospital assumed we were big U2 fans because of the Joshua Tree album. On the other hand, I’d met a business executive who had a son at Williams College. He was taking an art history course and they were studying the Renaissance and he noticed there were a lot of pictures of mothers with male children. He was appalled because they never showed a mother with a girl. It didn’t occur to him that these were all Madonnas and that child was a specific child. So there’s a lot of illiteracy out there.
Ten years ago, you wrote about the Organization Kid—the dutiful, success-oriented college student who rarely questions authority. Do you still see a lot of Organization Kids on the campuses you visit?
I see them around every day. They all work in the Obama administration. The law firms of New York, Chicago and Washington are filled with them. I do spend a lot of time on campuses and the younger generation is very inspiring in many ways. They’re hardworking, community oriented, much less individualistic than their parents or grandparents. On the other hand, the pressures of the system to jump through one hoop after another are still there and that competition is still very fierce at a very early age.
Ten years ago, Organization Kids were graduating into what you called “the sweetest job market in history.” That, at least, has changed.
It’s changed less than you might think at the upper echelons. Law firms are still recruiting the same way.
Elmhurst, like other liberal arts colleges, has been asking students to examine their values and think about the “big questions,” especially in their first-year seminars. Should colleges be teaching values?
I think so. I think colleges should be very prescriptive in the first two years and much less restrictive in the last two. Now it’s the other way around. I took a very strict common core when I was at [the University of] Chicago and those were the two best years. Once it was up to me to choose my classes, I screwed up. They’re private institutions and they should represent a point of view.
What will you talk about when you come to Elmhurst?
I’ll look at the Niebuhrian view and how it applies to the world today. I hesitate to apply him to specific policies. I’m not sure if he would be for or against extending the top rate of Bush tax cuts or anything like that. But I do think he gives us ways to look at problems. How do you govern in a time of economic crisis? How can you be a leader? I was at an event where he was discussed recently and someone read a Niebuhr prayer. He was so down and dark and pessimistic. I just wanted to say, “Lighten up, Reinhold.”
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Read an excerpt from Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History here.