Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Quasi-conservative David Brooks writes about the worldly success of the quasi-religious. He’s probably right that, so long as people live on their accumulated moral and communal capital, they’ll be relatively successful in this world. But he doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that, over time, they’ll fritter it away. And he also seems to overlook the possibility that sincere, orthodox, and thoughtful folks can also do quite well in this world, even if it’s not their principal aim.

You can find an abstract of the paper on which he bases some of his conclusions here. I have questions about whether his two principal "data points" actually describe the same people:

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

Both are plausible as observations, but I wonder whether the causality works the same way in both cases. Students from "denominations that encourage dissent," for example, may also come from educated families that encourage hard work for purely secular or worldly reasons.

I’ve contacted Dr. Mooney to ask for a copy of the paper from which Brooks draws his evidence. I’ll let you know what I think if and when I receive it.

Discussions - 7 Comments

Joe, this is a very strange article. My one addition to your comments is that I see no relation of the "social gospel" to the essential point Brooks appears to be making. The point is obscured by his absurdly overstating the go to Church and not believe gobbledy gook, but what it comes down to is being religious and being thoughtful--which is not the same as being heterodox. That is the common sense conclusion. The quasi quasi stuff doesn't make sense. Though I like the reference to the quasi-conservative and probably quasi-religious David.

"A very strange article" indeed. Words like "gibberish" come to mind.

I fail to see the "strangeness" of the article and am far from seeing it as "gibberish." In fact I think the article raises, if only indirectly, an interesting and pertinent question. As far as religious belief goes is the choice not in fact between orthodoxy and atheism? A question of great difficulty. Is any other alternative not by definition "quasi-religious?" It is perhaps not surprising that people attempt to find a middle, and muddled, road. That they find success is not strange, the question is how do they define success?

Brooks doesn't seem to distinguish genuinely religious people who try to think independently from barely religious people who think they're thinking independently, but in fact are following a pseudo-religious version of Christianity that has no distinctive identity. This isn't strange, exactly, but neither does it win any prizes for insight or clarity.

As for the greater "success" on campus of theologically liberal Protestants as opposed to theologically conservative Protestants -- I find it unsurprising. Liberal Protestants probably come from families of higher socioeconomic status. Controlling for SES isn't always easy in a study. In addition, everyone knows that liberal Protestantism is common among the Establishment and accepted by all of the Establishment. Conservative Protestants are second-class, countercultural citizens. As a whole, they have not yet developed the fighting spirit that would allow them to overcome this in socially competitive situations. I would also suggest that these denominations that supposedly "encourage dissent" are probably quite unwelcoming toward dissent from a conservative direction. They encourage dissent not from the denomination's own predominant views, but further liberalizing of those views, and "dissent" only from the remaining conservative elements in our culture.

David Frisk, yes, those Liberal Protestants ARE the dissent. Actually, Brooks is fairly indefinite about what he means by denominations that encourage dissent. Is he writing about denominations that encourage people to ask questions? There are those who do not. I would suggest that students from the latter would not do well in colleges, because they do not know how to deal with the theological or intellectual challenges that come in the classroom.

Brooks would seem to be saying that Catholics who live as Protestants are doing very well. In South America, Protestantism
is changing the culture. That Gerson piece mentioned previously on the blog described Protestant Hispanics in the US as inclined to conservatism. Want to bet they have many of the same cultural and religious characteristics that Brooks cites for the new Catholics?

The whole column is confused, in part for the reasons you cite. Brooks is an intelligent observer, though too centrist for my taste. But this topic is too complicated for intelligent column-length treatment.

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