Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

David Brooks on liberals and evangelicals

Today’s NYT Brooks column makes an argument regarding the possibility of an alliance between evangelicals and conservatives:

The natural alliance for antipoverty measures at home and abroad is between liberals and evangelical Christians. These are the only two groups that are really hyped up about these problems and willing to devote time and money to ameliorating them. If liberals and evangelicals don’t get together on antipoverty measures, then there will be no majority for them and they won’t get done.

But, he argues, we can’t have both a war on poverty and a culture war. The evangelicals, he says, are broadening their agenda:

And when I look at the evangelical community, I see a community in the midst of a transformation - branching out beyond the traditional issues of abortion and gay marriage, and getting more involved in programs to help the needy. I see Rick Warren, who through his new Peace initiative is sending thousands of people to Rwanda and other African nations to fight poverty and disease. I see Chuck Colson deeply involved in Sudan. I see Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals drawing up a service agenda that goes way beyond the normal turf of Christian conservatives.

As I argued
in this book review, there’s something to this phenomenon: evangelicals are very active in "anti-poverty" work. And they’re even willing to reach out to folks who aren’t their natural allies.

But while Brooks concedes that "[s]erious differences over life issues are not going to go away," he seems to imply that evangelicals are the ones who are and ought to be doing all the reaching out and changing. If they’re too insistent on things like abortion and stem cell research, he seems to suggest, if they aren’t "embarrassed by the people held up by the news media as their spokesmen" (who does he have in mind? Falwell and Robertson or Dobson, Land, Colson, and Mohler?), then secular liberals won’t want to work with them. The war on poverty can succeed only if--am I right about this, Mr. Brooks?--evangelicals soft-pedal the "culture of life issues." That would be quite a price to pay, and one that I’d urge them to not to pay.

Another consideration that Brooks overlooks is that evangelical and liberal approaches to fighting poverty are not quite the same. The former focus more heavily on the individual and "characterological" sources of poverty, as opposed to those found in the structure of the economy. The two can, I think, be complementary. I don’t see anything in evangelicalism that would lead them necessarily and absolutely to resist addressing structural problems. But they would continue to insist, I think, that in many cases the causes of poverty are to be located in the souls of the needy. If they get their souls in order, they’ll get their lives in order, and if they get their lives in order, they’ll very likely be more successful in everything they attempt. Yes, they need opportunities and training, but they also need help becoming disposed to take advantage of those opportunities and training. So, yes, evangelicals can work with secular liberals. And there is, as I said, nothing in evangelicalism itself that necessarily requires that they prefer the conservative over the liberal approach to dealing with poverty. (This is, as I have argued many times, less a matter of theology than of social science.) But I would hope that the evangelical emphasis on "soulcraft" is non-negotiable. And if I were sitting at the negotiating table, I would insist that my secular liberal brethren make room for this soulcraft as a means of dealing with poverty. I’d also, needless to say, be unyielding on "culture of life" matters. If the price of cooperating with secular liberals on goals we have in common is surrender on abortion, stem cell research, and so on, the price is too high to pay. I’d want to see some give on their side as well.

And, above all, I’d want David Brooks using his bully pulpit on the editorial pages of the New York Times at least gently to suggest that more cooperation would be forthcoming if secular liberals (1) stopped demonizing and insulting theologically conservative evangelicals and (2) showed some willingness to recognize that individuals have responsibilities as well as choices, that the role of government is not simply to maximize human autonomy and power, but also to leave as much room as possible for an individual’s (and a church community’s) recognition of its dependence upon a deity.

Discussions - 4 Comments

"I see Rick Warren, who through his new Peace initiative is sending thousands of people to Rwanda and other African nations to fight poverty and disease. I see Chuck Colson deeply involved in Sudan. I see Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals drawing up a service agenda that goes way beyond the normal turf of Christian conservatives."

Ok, Russell Kirk, and me, are dead.

Actually Russell is turning (in grave), and I am puking. Have the heirs of John Ashbrook lost their minds?

Long live the "puke" Brooks, and death to the un"girlie men" of Hollywood! By all means, lets wait to govern until we have the MSM.


If the evangelicals get distracted into do-gooder work, they run the danger of forfeiting whatever slight influence they have on social issues. The temptations to be "nice" and therefore less a target of the powers that be are great. Some serious soul-searching is in order here.

Joe, Your qualified endorsement and your deeper disagreement with D. Brooks strike me as correct. He tries - a bit (only a bit!) like Alan Wolfe to appeal to liberal secularists: see, they (the Evangelicals) aren’t the monsters you imagine them to be! And they can be allies in one of your causes. But all he (tacitly) asks them to do is to drop (or feign dropping) their demonizing of "the [Evangelical] Other" and to play nice with others. It’s really too pat, it’s almost all too one-sided.

Evangelicals are interested in saving souls, not eradicating poverty. When they are interested in poverty, it is a means to an end...evangelizing those lost in Darkness.

Evangelicals should continue to be who they are, and let Liberals (who are interested only in forging society in their own image) go hang. I think Brooks has written for the Times too long.

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