The Intersection of Faith, Media and Politics: An Evening with David Brooks

Last week I enjoyed another one of those great lectures that I get to hear now-and-then. (I have made reference to these several times recently.) This time the presentation was an evening hosted by the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) at Wheaton College. The speaker was New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of my favorite columnists. Brooks spoke about how he began to embrace the conservative philosophy of Edmund Burke while he was a liberal undergraduate student at the University of Chicago (B.A., 1983). As he saw the impact of  socially liberal political philosophy on real people on the south side of Chicago he was forced to question what he had always believed about government and people. In short, Brooks began to embrace a serious view of human sinfulness and depravity and this pushed him away from his liberal assumptions about mankind and how much government can actually serve the betterment of ordinary people. Don't misunderstand, Brooks is not a silly right-winger but a serious, intellectually thoughtful, political and social conservative. He is also a friend to evangelicals, though he remains a non-Christian Jew. This was why he was a guest at Wheaton College.

If you watch "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS you will see David Brooks quite often. A few minutes of David Brooks is often better than an hour of most conservatives who fill up our time in the popular media. Brooks appeared, for example, on Tuesday evening's PBS coverage of the President's speech to Congress. As always, he was insightful and fair.

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Brooks told us last week that he has interviewed Barack Obama on fifteen different occasions. He once listened, with real surprise, as Obama spent twenty minutes explaining his understanding of Reinhold Niebuhr's view of immoral man and society. For those who think that Obama has no theological traditioning at all this should come as an interesting insight. Brooks spoke very highly of the president's great intellect, his wonderful personality and obvious political skills. His concern is not with the character of the man but with some of the places where his confidence, Brooks argues, is misplaced.

I first heard of David Brooks some years ago by reading his book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, an excellent and entertaining book. When he became a New York Times Op-Ed page columnist in September 2003 I was pleased. I try to read him regularly and would thus encourage you to discover this sane and helpful voice for reason and faith. Brooks is one of only two major columnists in the mainstream media to have ever been an editor at the National Review, the magazine begun by the late conservative genius William F. Buckley. If anyone thinks the mainstream media is prone to hire writers from conservative magazines then this fact alone should dispossess such inclinations.

Brooks has the habit of offending populists and right wing media types by his straightforward intellectualism and common sense arguments. Here is a sample from an October 8, 2008, column written during the last election:

[Sarah Palin] represents a fatal cancer to the Republican party. When I first started in journalism, I worked at the National Review
for Bill Buckley. And Buckley famously said he'd rather be ruled by the
first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty.
But he didn't think those were the only two options. He thought it was
important to have people on the conservative side who celebrated ideas,
who celebrated learning. And his whole life was based on that, and that
was also true for a lot of the other conservatives in the Reagan era.
Reagan had an immense faith in the power of ideas. But there has been a
counter, more populist tradition, which is not only to scorn liberal
ideas but to scorn ideas entirely. And I'm afraid that Sarah Palin has
those prejudices. I think President Bush has those prejudices.

Because I agree with Brooks on so much this one caught my eye in October, as it did many others who read it. This kind of thought makes many conservatives, who are not conservatives in the older sense of the word at all, uneasy with me when I write such things. Perhaps this is why I would prefer to hide behind Brooks sometimes. He says it so much better, which is why he writes for the New York Times.

You can understand why I was thrilled to hear Brooks in person for the first time last week. His humility and common sense conservatism impressed me even more now that I have heard him answer questions in an open forum at Wheaton. In many ways David Brooks is a lot closer to the real legacy of the late William F. Buckley than many of those who sincerely think they are following conservative ideas in 2009.

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