David Brooks is a most congenial fellow and as bright as a freshly polished penny. We were both born in Canada, and he grew up in Stuyvesant Town here in New York, which is in my parish. We have given his wry and insightful cultural commentaries, such as Bobos in Paradise , major attention in First Things . In short, I have reason to like the guy, and I do. But . . . When several years ago he took over the "conservative slot" at the New York Times vacated by William Safire, something began to go awry. He has "grown," as it said by those of a leftward bent. His support for same-sex marriage was a bit of a surprise but seemed like an eccentricity. Friends are unpredictable in sometimes unfortunate ways. The main problem, however, is not with the positions he takes but with the way his column has evolved into putative "big think" pieces in which he attempts to redefine the world in cogitational spurts of seven hundred words or less. One column aims to recast the concept of economics from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek, another explains the conflict between modernity and the erotic, while multiple columns instruct us on how "conservative" and "liberal" no longer mean what we think they mean. For example, on June 12 Mr. Brooks provides us with " The Next Culture War " (subscription required). The occasion for this lesson is immigration policy. He favors the failed Senate bill, calling it "the best compromise" that we are likely to get. Actually, he says it is the best compromise that "they" will get. They means the people opposed to the bill. Arrayed against them is "the educated class." "These conflicts," Mr. Brooks explains, "were and are primarily cultural clashes, not economic or ideological ones. And if you want to predict which side a person is likely to be on, look at his or her educational level. That’ll be your best clue." The educated class has embraced "university values" and celebrates "cultural diversity." Its members tend to deride other Americans as racist or atavistic, which throws those other Americans "into fits of alienation and prickly defensiveness. It’s what makes many of them, in turn, so unpleasant." We educated and "cosmopolitan" types value civility and decency, but we have to guard against a "smug attitude" that enrages the natives and makes them so nasty. The tone of "The Next Culture War" is not easily distinguished from the infamous Washington Post observation of a few years ago in which it was explained that conservative Christians are poor, uneducated, and easily led. And precisely what is the next culture war "that has succeeded the familiar and fading culture war"? Mr. Brooks does not say, except to point to the class warfare between the educated and uneducated. Nor does he tell us why the "familiar" culture war is "fading." Are people losing interest in the future of marriage, the conflict between protecting the unborn and "reproductive rights," the clash between "traditional values" and radical secularism, multiculturalism’s assault on the ethnocentric "privileging" of Western civilization, the battle over individualistic license and the virtues of restraint? Those and other conflicts defined the old culture war that is presumably now fading. Have these conflicts been resolved? Or is Mr. Brooks’ new culture war simply a recasting¯a tediously familiar recasting, one might add¯ of those conflicts as a clash between the educated and the uneducated? Maybe next week’s big think column will return to explaining in seven hundred words or less why liberalism is the new conservatism, or vice versa, or whatever.

And then there is this in the forthcoming "Public Square" section of First Things : "How the West Really Lost God." The title of Mary Eberstadt’s essay in Policy Review somewhat overstates her argument. I expect the editors came up with the title to catch attention. The assiduously documented essay is certainly deserving of attention. A now discredited "secularization theory" (still to be found in textbooks from fifth grade to graduate school) is that, as people became more educated¯read "enlightened"¯religion would inevitably decline on its way to disappearing. Nietzsche, Freud, Bertrand Russell, and a host of other worthies notwithstanding, that is not what has been happening in the world. Another theory is that, as people became less religious, they would abandon the natural family and have fewer children. That is a claim often found in discussions of Europe’s religious, cultural, and demographic doldrums. Mary Eberstadt argues that it may work just as much, or more, the other way around: As people stop having children, they became less religious. Family and children are key to prompting deep thoughts about, for instance, mortality and its alternatives. Eberstadt writes:
All men and women fear death; but only mothers and fathers, and perhaps some husbands and wives, can generally be counted upon to fear another’s death more than their own. To put the point another way, if 9/11 drove to church for weeks on end millions of Americans who had not darkened that doorstep in years¯as it did¯imagine the even deeper impact on ordinary mothers and fathers of a sick child or the similarly powerful desire of a devoted spouse on the brink of losing the other. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too would there appear to be few in the nursery or critical care unit, at least most of the time. In sum, because it treats belief as an atomistic decision taken piecemeal by individuals rather than a holistic response to family life, Nietzsche’s madman and his offspring, secularization theory, appear to present an incomplete version of how some considerable portion of human beings actually come to think and behave about things religious¯not one by one and all on their own, but rather mediated through the elemental connections of husband, wife, child, aunt, great-grandfather, and the rest. The proposed religious anthropology which I have sketched as a complement to Nietzsche’s has another advantage: It ties up another theoretical loose end that should be troubling to the secularizationists, despite having no apparent standing in their discussion. That is the well-known fact¯one that is curiously unmentioned in the latest vogue of atheism as well¯that women as a whole are more observant than men. This difference in practice is not only verifiable through studies, it is also easily observed by walking into just about any North American or European church.
Some of the old secularization theories depicted people as autonomous thinking machines. Eberstadt writes: "But the majority of people, to continue this complementary religious anthropology, do not re-invent the theological wheel this way. They learn religion in communities, beginning with the community of the family. They learn it as Ludwig Wittgenstein once brilliantly observed that language is learned: not as atomized individuals making up their own tongues, but in a community. Wittgenstein countered Descartes’ dualism, after all, by observing that the philosophical question he was most famous for¯how do I know that I am?¯contained the seeds of its destruction in the very phrasing: Only by presupposing a community of language believers, Wittgenstein argued, could this question about radical oneness make sense." Which leads Eberstadt to this: "There is plenty of reason for pessimism about what the future holds for religious belief if by ‘pessimism’ one means further decline. Divorce and illegitimacy¯to say nothing of maternal surrogacy, polygamy, polyandry, multiple parenthood, and related political experiments involving children that defy the empirical evidence about what’s best for them¯all these and other forces are battering the natural family. The more we modern people experiment with it, retooling it to suit our material desires, our political agendas, our busy lives, the more we would appear to risk losing what it is that makes many people religiously inclined in the first place. Nevertheless, in the religious anthropology proposed here¯and contrary to that of secularization theory¯there is nothing inevitable about the decline of the natural family and thus, by implication, religion too." It’s a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Between religious decline and family decline, which causes which? Eberstadt doesn’t say we have to decide one way or the other, but she makes a persuasive case that vibrant religion is very closely tied to family and children. Which should not surprise people who understand that grace builds on nature.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus


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