Religion, Inequality, and David Brooks' America

New York Times columnist David Brooks is taking a lot of heat for a recent column on race. And rightly so. Even worse, or at least equally bad, is a recent column he wrote on class. I don’t have the time or patience to unpack every single error in this piece, but I wanted to spend a few short minutes examining one major point.

In the world portrayed in Brooks' “Religion and Inequality,” an inversion in values has occurred. A century ago, the American ethos emphasized thrift, hard work, moderation. Religion played an important role in this constellation of values. Both Judaism and Christianity prioritized the humble and the marginal, so that “the moral status system was the inverse of the worldly status system.” The poor were virtuous whereas the wealthy were morally suspect. What has happened since that time? “Over the years, religion has played a less dominant role in public culture.” This process of waning influence has meant the rise of a new materialism, a matter-of-fact attitude about conspicuous consumption and luxury, a loss of what Brooks (following Charles Murray) calls “seemliness” among the rich. Among the poor it has meant the rise of an even more harmful and self-destructive set of habits.

What’s wrong with this narrative? Almost everything: Brooks’ dependence on Charles Murray means that all of the change takes place in culture, with little to no attention given to economics. And the role of religion here is disturbingly innocuous. Max Weber’s point about the “inner-worldly asceticism” of radical puritanism didn’t mean just a reluctance to display one’s wealth. It meant an obsessive and joyless concern over the fate of one’s soul accompanied by the constant distraction of hard work. Worldly success was not a bad thing, in fact it was the place where one could sometimes discern signs of being part of the “Elect.” Certain occupations and forms of extreme wealth were suspect, to be sure, but even worse were forms of life that were given over to lassitude and sloth. Wealth became a virtuous sign of what William James called the “vigorous life,” whereas poverty became both a symbol of laziness as well as a kind of sin, a stubborn refusal to be productive. The poor man or woman lost all significance and became a pariah in both social and theological terms.

Americans have never been as sanguine or charitable about the poor as we’d like to believe. Brooks’ story is just part of this self-deception and bad faith. The so-called decline in religious influence is a red herring. One witnesses not change but continuity. Scratch the surface almost anywhere in America, in any so-called secular discussion of work, wages, the fate of the working poor, etc. and the old puritanical values find expression. If anything, in certain conservative circles – among so-called traditionalist Catholics (Paul Ryan I'm talking to you) – the antipathy towards the poor has intensified.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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