One of America’s foremost public intellectual ponders changing faith, sources say
WASHINGTON — “I’m a believer.” David Brooks said those words on National Public Radio Monday, and the New York Times columnist and author was not referring to his beloved New York Mets this season. Brooks was responding to a question about how his new book,The Road to Character, has changed his religious life.
“I read a lot of theology — whether it’s C.S. Lewis or Joseph Soloveitchik, a rabbi — and it’s produced a lot of religious upsurge in my heart,” he said, elaborating only slightly.
Brooks’ muted but heartfelt reply reflects a change in the celebrated writers’ tone and the subjects he chooses to write and speak about. In the course of his long writing career the 53-year-old Brooks has rarely broached the topic of his spiritual life. But in the last twelve months, he has been quite forthcoming.
“There’s something just awesome about seeing somebody stand up and imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ,” Brooks told The Gathering, an annual meeting of evangelical Christian philanthropists, last October. He hardly hid his religiosity under a bushel there, telling the crowd, “I want you to know that I am for you and I love you,” he said, noting that he attends a Bible study class.
In the introduction to his new book, Brooks disclosed a personal reason for writing it: “I wrote it to save my soul.” Inspired by the authentic Christian joy of what he calls “incandescent souls,” Brooks decided to find out what makes them tick. Writing his book, The Road to Character, was his method.
“A few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like, “ Brooks wrote in a recent column adapted from the book.
The Road to Character profiles exemplars of humility, devotion to a calling, and hard work, such as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. But in his speech to The Gathering last fall and at the Aspen Ideas Festival last June, Brooks reserved his highest esteem for two religious figures, who he called his “heroes” — Dorothy Day and St. Augustine. Like C.S. Lewis, Day and Augustine are converts to Christianity. While Brooks has said he is an observant conservative Jew, one can’t help seeing these “heroes” as clues to Brooks’ own nascent conversion.
Three people interviewed who know Brooks personally say he has taken steps to do just that. “I don’t know that he’s converting, but I know he’s gone to church,” one conservative associate said of Brooks. “No one knows where it’s going to go, but he’s not in the same spot as he was two years ago.”
A second person familiar with Brooks’ thinking would only confirm that Brooks is interested in becoming a Christian. According to a third source, Brooks has received instruction in the Catholic faith from Arthur Brooks and Ross Douthat, both converts.
Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC, said he does not know if his friend is converting.
“I don’t know where he is on his faith journey,” Brooks said at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of movement activists and leaders, on February 28. He said he has not talked with Brooks about his possible conversion to Christianity.
Douthat, also a New York Times columnist and author of the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, did not reply to an email for comment. Nor did Brooks himself.
Yet Brooks has acknowledged his religious outlook has changed. “I don’t talk about my religious life in public in part because it’s so shifting and green and vulnerable,” he told NPR. “… I don’t really talk about it because I don’t want to trample the fresh grass.”
In addition to his Times column Brooks teaches a course at Yale University, and appears each week on National Public Radio and the PBS News Hour. His latest book is his fourth; previous books Bobos in Paradise and The Social Animal were major best sellers. “(E)asily one of the most admired conservative columnists in America,” Kate Glassman Bennett of Politico wrote of Brooks.
Brooks’ career in journalism has evolved from the early to mid-1990s when he covered Europe for the Wall Street Journal, to a job as senior writer at The Weekly Standard in the late 1990s, until the Times hired him as columnist in 2003. In Bobos in Paradise, he described his work as that of a “comic sociologist.” More recently, he has said he aspires to write in the vein of the great public intellectuals of the 1950s and ‘60s like E. Digby Baltzell, Jane Jacobs, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
But reaching the commanding heights of the American establishment’s institutions and media outlets has not brought peace or serenity to Brooks. “I achieved way more career success than I’d ever imagined, and I rediscovered the elemental truth: It doesn’t make you happy,” Brooks told NPR.
In January, Brooks told C-SPAN’S Brain Lamb that he and the mother of his three children are divorced, confirming rumors spread by Washington and New York gossip writers over the past few years. “I was not in any crisis. I was not falling apart,” he said on CBS Monday. “I was fine. I had spent so much time on my career. I was a decent dad, am a decent dad.”
What is the flavor of Brooks’ “religious upsurge”?
If his public writings and speeches provide clues, he still finds appeal in Judaism. Brooks and his wife had kept a kosher home and sent their three children, all of who have Biblical names, to Jewish school.
In his new book, he adopts a key analytical concept of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a major figure in 20th-century Orthodox Jewish thought. Soloveitchik distinguished between “Adam I,” who embodies the virtues of a successful career, and “Adam II,” who embodies the virtues of a rewarding life. Following Soloveitchik, Brooks said that the virtues of “Adam II” are more important. “Soloveitchik says your job is to retreat, it’s to withdraw and to accept this. And this is the trait you see in these deep people. They have acceptance that they are accepted,” Brooks said at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Yet Brooks has spoken about the power of Christian witness. Consider his speech to the Christian philanthropists at The Gathering last fall. While Brooks was critical of Christians who he said erect “walls” to separate themselves from the secular world, he applauded authentic Christian joy, which he said could build a “ramp” the secular world.
Nevertheless, whether Brooks will convert to Christianity is an open question among those familiar with his thinking. If so, he would follow the path of the late conservative journalist Robert Novak.
In his memoir The Prince of Darkness, Novak gave partial credit for his conversion to Catholicism to Monsignor Peter Vaghi of St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Washington. Today Vaghi is the pastor of Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland. In an interview, Vaghi warned that some potential converts don’t take the final step and receive baptism, noting that one man backed out on the very day he was to receive the sacrament. “I really believe it’s the Lord who converts people. I’m just an instrument. I’m not trying to be holier than thou,” Father Vaghi said. “We’re fellow pilgrims.”
Converting from Judaism to Christianity might not be easy for Brooks. In The Prince of Darkness, Novak wrote that fallen-away Catholics criticized him for his decision while a favorite Jewish cousin spoke to him only once after talking with him about his conversion.
If Brooks’ recent columns are any guide (three in the last ten weeks include such religiously-minded titles as “Building Better Secularists,” “The Cost of Relativism,” and “The Act of Rigorous Forgiving”), wherever he is on his journey, he is determined to bring his religion into the public square and invite the rest of us to come along for the ride.