Friends, this week’s David Brooks column is…a little bizarre. I don’t completely know what to make of it. It’s definitely about Christian homophobes, and how they need to conduct themselves in the new, slightly-less-homophobic America that the Supreme Court has gay-married us all into, and I can’t tell if it’s this clever mixture of diplomacy and stinging criticism, or if it’s just astonishingly dopey. Experience leads me to believe option two, but…man.
Just, look at this, check this out.
So, he starts off with some mostly-accurate, if a little misleading, business about how Christianity and religion are in decline in the United States (I say “misleading” because it is extremely dumb to talk about “Christianity” like it’s one thing, not the least of which because we don’t have a lot of good data about it — and if you look at some of these Gallup trends yeah, sure, in the last twenty years, regular Protestantism has declined from 59% of the population to 37% of the population, while Catholicism has suffered a shocking drop from 24% to 23%. Judaism has suffered a little worse, going from 2% to somewhere still within the margin of error of 2% for the survey. The “nones” — these famous Millennials who just aren’t into your grandad’s church, man, have EXPLODED from 6% to 16% on this one. That’s to say nothing of the Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or any of innumerable other faiths that we weren’t even asking about twenty years ago. Furthermore there’s a lot that surveys like this don’t tell us; my favorite is always the point that we have no way of knowing how many people were identifying as Christian twenty years ago because they thought they had to, and so lied on the survey for the sake of their own personal identity; it’s entirely possible that very little has changed, Christianity-wise, except that people don’t feel compelled to bullshit the census-taker anymore).
The problem with this kind of stuff is how guys like Brooks use “decline of religion” as a shorthand for “decline of morals” (or, in the case of actual David Brooks, actual longhand for it: “Christianity’s gravest setbacks are in the realm of values.”). Of course, this is horseshit. Many Christians have different sets of values. My in-laws go to an Episcopal church, those guys have been pro-gay-marriage for decades. If you ask them, the normalization of gay marriage is a triumph of Christian values, not a setback. Likewise the Affordable Care Act. Likewise increased support for transgender visibility. The guys that Brooks calls “orthodox” Christians (this is impossible of course: since Christianity itself doesn’t have a fixed doctrine you can’t be orthdoxic, but nevermind) aren’t more moral, than everyone else, they are differently moral than everyone else, and they’re not more Christian, they are differently Christian. Failure by one metric is success by any one of a dozen others, and it’s weird that Brooks wants to concede moral authority to what is actually a pretty small (if noisy and irritating) corner of a complex, multivariate tradition.
But again, set that aside for right now. I don’t believe that this “decline of morality” is anything other than a completely stupid way to look at the modern world, but I’ve got a suspicion that Brooks might not believe it either. Here is what he says later on, after paying some obeisance to the conservative cultural commentators that he admires:
Consider putting aside, in the current climate, the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution.
Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex. Put aside a culture war that, at least over the near term, you are destined to lose.
Right? Give it up, guys! You’ve lost! He says maybe they’ve just lost in the near-term, but let’s be real — if they give up in the near-term, they’ve lost the long-term battle, too. No one seriously thinks that shithead Christianity is going to go into their prepper sheds for a hundred years and come out after the Sex Apocalypse has destroyed society to show us the way again. (I mean, I think. I hope no serious person believes that. I hope that the New York Times’ most serious opinionist doesn’t believe that.)
All right, what’s happening here? Is David Brooks trying to give these guys an out? A way to leave the battle with dignity? To save some face? Of course, no one wants to be the guy who retreats, who surrenders, who GIVES UP like a LOSER, especially not in the sort of proto-fascist Conservative politics of the modern day, where anything like “weakness” is anathema. You can’t tell someone to retreat, but maybe you can convince them that it’s okay to advance in a different direction. Maybe that’s all the Conservative Christian Coalition needs, a way to give up where we all pretend that they didn’t actually lose!
A brief aside: I don’t have a problem with this, but let me set up my position on a couple things. I believe that the kind of “orthodox” Christians that Brooks describe — the kind that live in that particular nexus of disapproving of: “homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce”…what David Brooks calls “values” but by which he means “cultural proscriptions” — I think those guys are bad and wrong. And I know that as a liberal I’m supposed to have a position of tolerance or something like that, but I have to let you know that no, I am not a very tolerant person. I am not tolerant of homosexuality; I like homosexuality. I think it’s good. I think the world is better for it, I think humanity is better because some people are gay, some people are trans, some people are genderfluid or genderqueer or bisexual or pansexual or asexual. I think as a society we must tolerate this difference at a bare minimum; the reality is that in order to be good people, we must embrace it as completely fucking rad.
The same goes for sex of all kinds and in all forms; I think the only bad relationship is a dishonest relationship, and the only bad sex is when someone isn’t consenting. That’s it. Same with race, same with religion, same with everything — these things are awesome, and I don’t want to tolerate them, I want to celebrate them. The fact of the matter is, i don’t have a tolerant bone in my body, because I don’t need tolerance to support liberal values of inclusiveness: I genuinely believe that this kind of inclusiveness is beneficial to humanity.
So, because I am not a very tolerant person, I don’t feel any misgivings about thinking the people who hate this kind of thing are terrible people. I will tolerate them, because I have to, and I believe that in a free society I should have to tolerate them, which is why I don’t advocate throwing them all off of bridges or sending them to dungeons. But I don’t like them, and I don’t intend to like them, and I don’t have any problem saying that I think their values are bad.
I know these “orthodox” Christians think they’re the most valuey of all values voters, but their values are shit. I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in the Christian god, and even I know that a supreme being isn’t going to create a species with this kind of marvelous diversity and then insist that we hate each other for it. If you believe the Bible is true and you come away from it hating gay people, or hating any kind of person, then you’ve either misunderstood it, or the Bible has misunderstood your god, and that’s about it. One way or the another, America is as much mine as it is yours, and we’re not making a bunch of rules based on your misunderstandings, get out of here with that business.
All that said, I don’t have a problem letting these guys make a graceful exit if it will make things easier. If they have to hear that they’re the true heroes of love and charity and selflessness while they’re pulling up stakes and packing up their bedrolls then so be it. Whatever you need to hear, guys, just get the shit off my lawn.
And maybe that’s what Brooks is doing. Maybe he’s reaching out to his fellow conservative commentators and saying, “Guys look, I know that you’re good people, but maybe this isn’t the best way to use your goodness? Maybe you can apply your religion of selfless love, which you guys are committed to and these ignorant liberals don’t even BEGIN to understand, the people at Chris’s in-laws’ church notwithstanding, to something in society that would actually be USEFUL?”
Well, hey, A+ David Brooks, I can agree to that. What do you think these guys should be spending their time on?
Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love.
Okay. I mean, we’ve got…we’ve got a lot of sinews here already, it’s not like the irreligious are just wandering around in a state of confusion, but people have to have meaning in their lives, so…sure, okay.
They can serve as examples of commitment.
Yeah, good choice! If you think your values are so great, just live them for real, and let people follow them if they want to!
They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans.
That…is kind of a little insulting (see all the things I said about values earlier). I mean, is the implication that I support gay marriage because I don’t have a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong? Okay, you know what? Whatever. Sure, you guys talk a lot about right and wrong, and so in that sense (I mean: the sense of having a lot of words that you use) you definitely have a lot of words that you use to talk about right and wrong.
But what are you guys actually going to DO?
The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families
Uh. What? Like…hold on, what?
Like what, you want to take Focus on the Family apart, and send those guys on a fucking mission trip into the inner cities? Dave. Davey. What the fuck are you talking about?
Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other.Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.
How they reinforce each other? You think that spiritual poverty is helping to keep people poor? Like they’re coming to the welfare office because they don’t have enough Jesus in their lives? Are you serious?
David Brooks, of course, does not live in an underprivileged area, but one thing he might be surprised about, should he ever find the occasion to visit, is how many fucking churches there are. There are hundreds, if not thousands. In West Philadelphia, where I used to work for the welfare office, there is a church about every four blocks. Little churches built into old shops or in the back of someone’s house; big churches that look like castles, where every Sunday you can see men in suits and women with elaborate hats lining up to get in. You think these people need some anti-gay lobbyist to roll up and start telling them about grace and transcendence? You think they’re all waiting for Ross Douthat to swing by and give them the lecture on stable families that’s been missing from their lives?
It’s pretty…wild to imagine a bunch of well-meaning Utah kids in white shirts and black ties chartering a bus to Malcolm X Park and lecturing the black ladies in their Sunday hats about family values. It’s…it’s such a baffling idea to me, opinionists like Brooks who want to talk to black people about the church, or about values, this idea that “faith” is some Red-State-only quality, something that James Dobson eats and breathes and swims in, and is utterly desolate in the hearts of our cities.
But maybe that’s true. Maybe there really is no legacy of lynching, of slavery, of discrimination, of institutional racism and structural poverty. Maybe politics doesn’t keep people poor at all. Maybe “underprivileged” means just that: it means people who’ve never had the privilege of Pat Robertson coming by their neighborhood to tell them the good news about the Lord.
What the fuck does this mean?
Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.
“Rendered barbaric because there are no common norms”? So, we can’t agree on whether or not parents need to be married in order to be good, so everyone is wearing animal hides and sacking Rome?
Post Post Script:
It’s really weird that he talks about sending his team of homophobic missionaries into underprivileged areas to lecture them about family values as the next culture WAR, right?
Post Script, David Brooks Metaphor Edition:
The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision landed like some sort of culminating body blow onto this beleaguered climate.
Body-blows are landed on boxers, not weather. They are, furthermore, landed over and over again in order to exhaust an opponent; they are not culminating blows.