I’m not sure when the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks stopped writing political and social commentary and became a homilist, but that conversion seems irreversible at this point. Since I’m something of a homilist myself, I occasionally read Brooks’s twice-weekly sermons. One recent preachment, “Marianne Williamson Knows How to Beat Trump” (August 1), made me squirm in my nicely upholstered pew. Brooks is not wrong when he writes that Trump is a “cultural revolutionary,” a crude bully who threatens to destroy the moral and social norms that are needed to hold the country together. Trump “is instigating a degradation of America’s soul,” Brooks writes. Amen, I shout.
Brooks praises Williamson, the goofy self-help guru, for insisting that the presidential election is about the nation’s moral culture, not about the economy. Here Brooks shows his familiar allergy to any serious critique of how the economy is structured, how wealth is distributed, or how economic relationships fundamentally shape culture. The term “economic redistribution” gives him hives. “We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life,” he writes, channeling Ronald Reagan and sixty years of Republican cant intended to deflect questions about economic justice. Democrats, according to Brooks, simply don’t have the “language” needed “to rebuild the moral infrastructure of our country.” Why? “The modern version of the party emerged during the Great Depression to solve one problem: material want. It is a secular party, trapped in a Lockean prison: Politics should be separate from faith. Politics should be separate from soulcraft.”
Really? I seem to remember the last Democratic president—and every other Democratic president or presidential candidate in my lifetime—repeatedly speaking about his or her faith. Barack Obama even sang about God’s amazing grace in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Perhaps that was only a temporary jailbreak from the Lockean prison. Despite his technocratic reputation on the right, Obama rarely separated politics from soulcraft when speaking to the American people. Even his belief that every American should have access to decent health care was expressed in moral terms. But perhaps that idea was just a way to “win votes by offering members of different groups economic benefits”—something Brooks seems to think has no moral or religious dimension, at least when Democrats do it.