David Brooks Endorses John Calvin

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        The other day, David Brooks, one of the resident "neo-con" columnists for the New York Times, wrote an opinion piece captioned "The Prodigal Sons" (February 18, 2014). In that column, Brooks attempted to elucidate the meaning of that parable and apply its lesson to contemporary American society. The question raised by Brooks' column is whether Brooks himself understood the meaning of that parable and has properly applied it to today's circumstances.

             In The Gospel According to Luke, 15:11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is narrated which the gospel's author attributes to Jesus:  'There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.


            "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.  After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.


             "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.'  So he got up and went to his father.


            "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'

             "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

             "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.  'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'


             "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.  But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'


            "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"

             "The father responded, 'You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.' But he had to celebrate the younger one's return. The boy was lost and now is found."


              After describing the parable in his column, Brooks asks whether, in welcoming back the wayward son, "Did the father do the right thing? Is the father the right model for authority today?"


             Brooks then opines, "This is a story about mercy, the mercy of the father, and not a story about distributing the inheritance fairly! ... It is about repentance and contrition, confession of sins before God and man. The father's critics say he was unjust. People who play by the rules should see the rewards. Those who abandon the community, live according to their own reckless desires should not get to come back and automatically reap the bounty of others' hard work. If you reward the younger brother, you signal that self-indulgence pays, while hard work gets slighted."


             Brooks adds, "The father's example is especially pernicious now, the critics continue. Jesus preached it at the time of the Pharisees, in an overly rigid and rule-bound society. In those circumstances, a story of radical forgiveness was a useful antidote to the prevailing legalism." Brooks, however, emphasizes that we no longer "live in that kind of a society."


             Brooks then casts his withering glance at the present and describes an American society in which the many live lives of desperation trapped in Hobbesian-kind of dystopia that they themselves have created by their own self-indulgent behaviors, short-term horizons, and moral  relativism. From Brooks' haughty perspective, our society is one in which "in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay -- with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father's example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less."


             For its part the elite, the governing class of which Brooks counts himself as an influential member, out of some mistaken but well-intentioned sense of noblesse oblige, sometimes support policies that are too  judgmental: "We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: "You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder."


            The correct response by the chosen elite to the moral and personal failings of the poor and the working class among us, Brooks argues, is not to moralize or to hector but to emulate the conduct of the father in the parable as Brooks understands the father's behavior - i. e. to show  the wayward, by example, the errors of their chosen behavior: "The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity."


             The ultimate lesson that Brooks draws from the parable is not the central importance of unconditional and uncritical love and acceptance by the father, as was the lesson Jesus sought to explicate in the parable. Rather, Brooks' understanding is that only through the penance of mutual hard work and moral perseverance, will the poor, the undisciplined, the unruly, the poorly educated, the dispossessed of Gods' Kingdom perhaps yet atone for their past sins and become one of the chosen - the Elect: "The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project........The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship."


  Among the shared common projects that Brooks recommend is national service. One doubts, however, that Brooks is advocating universal, compulsory military service for all, including the children who number themselves among his elite. More likely, the shared common projects that Brooks has in mind are akin to the poor houses that Charles Dickens deplored. 


             Fortunately, David Brooks' column has elicited a number  of critics. Michael Roland observed in today's letters to the editor that Brooks' "perpetuates a stereotype that continues to divide us: that those who haven't succeeded are self-indulgent, undisciplined and unambitious. In fact, our country abounds with tens of millions of hard-working and self-sacrificing people who can't advance because of low wages and a lack of realistic opportunity. They don't need lectures from fathers, elder brothers or politicians. They do need economic justice, without which our experiment in democracy will."


             Felicia  Nimue Ackerman's comment was equally incisive: ".... America's poor and America's middle and upper-middle classes did not start out equal. Few of America's poor had any inheritance to squander. This is why redistributive taxation might be a better remedy for poverty in America than bringing the poor and those more fortunate together 'for some third goal' like national service."


             Another reader, R. Alta Caro, replied: "Mr. Brooks probably meant well. But when working 40 hours a week standing on your feet or digging a ditch at minimum wage doesn't earn enough to meet the poverty line, when attending college is too expensive to be within reach of many, and when the most effective contraceptives are priced out of reach for many married women who wish to remain in the work force, is it really fair to equate "poor" with lazy, negligent or criminal?"


             Finally, Sharon Aucoin's letter echoes the insights of R. H.  Tawney and Max Weber,"David Brooks's insidious analogy that the poor are like the reckless prodigal son highlights a troubling and pervasive prejudice against those not born with advantages. One could easily reverse the analogy and charge that the wealthy are the rule breakers."


             Eighty-two years ago, as the United States suffered from the corrosive after-effects of our last era of crippling economic inequality, Franklin Roosevelt collectively inspired a disheartened people. The New Deal that he proclaimed showed that government was not the enemy, but that it might be part of the solution - that it could be used as a positive instrument for the public good to improve the lives of those who were suffering and burdened by an ill-performing market economy. 


             Today, The United States today is saddled with an enormous number of economic, political and social problems that have been exacerbated by the growing chasm between the few and the many. In the past decade, there have been many thoughtful  proposals - including those advanced by economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and by politicians such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders - that, if adopted, would ameliorate the suffering of so many of our neighbors.


             The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, ever faithful to the gospels and to teachings of Thomas Aquinas, urges us to return to first principles: "The primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."


             David Brooks' enthusiastic endorsement of John Calvin's moral philosophy is the antithesis of the kind of commitment to social justice that Maritain prescribes. Because Calvin's worldview is rooted in a firm belief that poverty, crime, misfortune and misbehavior are evidence of serious moral failings on the part of each individual person - i.e. sin -  no amount of collective action - beyond the public opprobrium and punishment that Brooks' decries - will ever cure the ills that Brooks bemoans.

             The Calvinism that Brooks has embraced is a convenient rationalization for the preservation of the status quo. It also serves as an implicit rebuke to everyone who believes that the gospels challenge us to do more - to take care of one another. The central message of the gospels, in stark contrast to the misplaced focus upon the self that Brooks shares with Calvin, is one of our interconnectedness - that we are not alone. It is  perhaps best summed up by the words of the priest and poet, John Donne:

 No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main....

 

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