David Brooks moved to The New York Times in 2003, taking possession of a rare opportunity to serve as a columnist for the nation’s most influential newspaper. Brooks was touted as a conservative who would help bring balance to the overwhelmingly liberal slant of the NYT editorial and commentary pages. A veteran of The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal, Brooks had genuine conservative credentials. Beyond this, he is often a masterful writer, combining deep cultural understanding with a fine reportorial eye. His books, especially Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, are filled with keen insights and clever anecdotes, even if both suffer from a lack of final judgment. His moral analysis often suffers from the same fundamental failure–no final judgment.
His “on the one hand, on the other hand” pattern of moral analysis reached a low point in a column on the tragedy of Terri Schiavo [“Morality and Reality,” March 26, 2005]. “What I’m describing here is the clash of two serious but flawed arguments. The socially conservative argument has tremendous moral force, but doesn’t accord with the reality we see when we walk through a hospice. The socially liberal argument is pragmatic, but lacks moral force.” Finally, “No wonder many of us feel agonized this week, betwixt and between, as that poor woman slowly dehydrates.” Missing from his column is any verdict. Would he remove the feeding tube or not? A failure to make his own opinion clear reduces his analysis to pedantry. Without a conclusion, his column is nothing more than a lame lament. If the two arguments he describes are both “seriously flawed,” what is his argument?
Brooks does have an argument when it comes to homosexual marriage–he’s for it. “Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution,” he complains [“The Power of Marriage,” November 22, 2003]. “A gay or lesbian couple may love each other as deeply as any two people, but when you meet a member of such a couple at a party, he or she then introduces you to a ‘partner,’ a word that reeks of contingency.” In his view, conservatives should welcome gay marriage as a matter of social stability. In his words: “You would think that faced with this marriage crisis, we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity. But instead, many argue that gays must be banished from matrimony because gay marriage would weaken all marriage. A marriage is between a man and a woman, they say. It is women who domesticate men and make marriage work. Well, if women really domesticated men, heterosexual marriage wouldn’t be in crisis. In truth, it’s moral commitment, renewed every day through faithfulness, that ‘domesticates’ all people.” By constructing his argument this way, Brooks sides with homosexual ‘conservatives’ like Andrew Sullivan who promote similar arguments. Excluded from this argument is the idea that marriage just might be something that is ontologically fixed and absolute. One gains the clear impression that the kind of ‘conservative’ The New York Times would hire as a conservative columnist is the kind who would make a ‘conservative’ case for same-sex marriage.
Now, Brooks lays his cards on the table, so to speak. In a column published last week [“Stuck in Lincoln’s Land,” May 5, 2005], he tries to chart a course between belief and disbelief, faith and doubt. He cites President Abraham Lincoln as his model. With the various controversies of the Culture War in the background, Brooks looks for a way between those he characterizes as “orthodox believers” and “militant secularists.” As he writes, “Those of us stuck here in this wrestling-with-faith world find Lincoln to be our guide and navigator. Lincoln had enough firm conviction to lead a great moral crusade, but his zeal was tempered by doubt, and his governing style was dispassionate. The key to Lincoln’s approach is that he was mesmerized by religion, but could never shake his skepticism. Politically, he knew that the country needed the evangelicals’ moral rigor to counteract the forces of selfishness and subjectivism, but he could never actually be an evangelical himself.” Further: “Lincoln came to believe in a God who was active in human affairs but who concealed himself. The only truths he could rely upon were those contained in the Declaration of Independence: that human beings are endowed with unalienable rights. We Americans can be ardent in championing that creed, but beyond that, it’s best to be humble and cautious.” Evangelical Christians, he insinuates, could benefit from a dose of doubt, for “while the evangelical tradition is deeply consistent with the American creed, sometimes evangelical causes can overflow the banks defined by our founding documents.” Like the neo-conservatives with whom he has been closely associated, Brooks would require Christian believers to privilege the habits of democracy over the demands of revealed religion. In truth, he points to one of the most crucial issues confronting American evangelicalism. One central problem with his analysis is this: Why should we believe that the democratic form of government he so highly esteems can survive without being undergirded by certain essential beliefs that cannot be secured by democratic processes alone? Someone gifted with his keen powers of analysis and insight should be able to look back at the twentieth century and see that much. For evangelicals the warning is clear. There can be no Lincoln-like refuge in a land of comfortable agnosticism. Our faith is established on a comprehensive truth claim. We cannot act as if we do not know.