Few public intellectuals have the power to provoke conversation like David Brooks. His columns for The New York Times are flush with depth and provide fodder both for weekend brunchers and commentators who comment on commentary. His regular appearances on “Meet The Press,” “News Hour” and elsewhere often stir up political junkies and bloggers. Brooks is “liberals’ favorite conservative,” which means almost everyone has opinions about his opinions.
It should be no surprise then that a measure of natter followed the release of Brooks’ newest book, The Road to Character, in which Brooks traces human virtue throughout the centuries and then profiles a handful of “heroes of renunciation” he believes serve as models of character. The book has sparked conversation about Brooks’ views on morality, theology, and his personal faith commitments. Brooks is ready to share his thinking on such matters, but not completely.
In our conversation, as in his book, Brooks sticks to his strong suit: social and moral analysis. He argues that America has shifted from a posture of humility to a culture of “big me,” and he presents data that indicates young people today often fail to comprehend the moral component of problems. Brooks traces this troubling slip back to the mid-20th century when moral and religious words slipped out of common usage.
“If you don’t have those words—whether you’re religious or not religious—it’s hard to have a conversation about morality because you don’t know what virtue is or what character means,” he told me.
Brooks is particularly troubled by the decline of the word “sin.”
“We use the word in the context of desserts now, but it used to be something people acknowledged was a real category inside of themselves,” Brooks says. “If you don’t have sin, you don’t have something to fight against.”
When asked how he defines sin, Brooks borrows St. Augustine’s definition of “disordered love.” (He calls Augustine “pretty much the most brilliant thinker I’ve ever come across.”)
But while Americans have increased in narcissism and grown less comfortable with moral language, Brooks says it does not follow that America is in “moral decline” or, as Robert Bork once stated, “slouching toward Gomorrah.” While our culture is less humble, he notes that we’re also less racist and less sexist. Domestic violence, teen pregnancy, abortion rates and crime are down too.
“If you look at how people behave, there’s a lot of data that suggests we’re not in moral decline,” Brooks says. “Cultures in some eras have one set of problems, and in another era, they have a different set of problems.”
All the talk of morality leads us to the topic of Brooks’ personal faith….