May 26, 2005

Column 2005-5-26 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks says that it would be great if evangelicals and liberals got together to fight poverty, and I agree. Of course, it would also be great if somebody gave me $10000 tomorrow, and I have no reason to expect that any such thing will happen. But apparently Brooks seems to think that such an evangelical-liberal alliance is going to happen soon. He believes that evangelicals are moving away from the culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage and are concentrating instead on trying to help the poor both here and abroad, and that since liberals are the only other group that is "really hyped up about these problems and willing to devote time and money to ameliorating them," they will naturally side with evangelicals on these issues. And again, this would be an extremely positive development, and one that is certainly not inconsistent with evangelical traditions, but I'm just not convinced that it's going to happen, and Brooks offers no firm evidence to change my mind.

He talks up Rick Warren, author of the best-selling "The Purpose-Driven Life" and pastor of a California megachurch, presenting him as a new breed of evangelical leader more interested in fighting poverty in Africa than gays at home, but doesn't really make the case that Warren is actually more significant in the evangelical community than, say, James Dobson. He briefly mentions a couple of other names in an attempt to show that Warren isn't just a lone crusader, including Chuck Colson, convicted Watergate felon turned evangelical leader, who is "deeply involved in Sudan", and Richard Cizik, the Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, who is apparently "drawing up a service agenda that goes way beyond the normal turf of Christian conservatives," but these examples are even weaker than Warren's. He makes much of alliances between evangelicals and liberal NGO's in Africa, but, really, Africa is an extreme case. It's fairly easy to work together on the ground to provide basic necessities to people living in abject poverty while ignoring political beliefs the others have that may clash with your own, since in a country where average lifespans are around 40 years issues like abortion and gay marriage tend to fade from the apocalyptic significance they can assume in the U.S. Brooks claims that evangelicals are embarrassed by the leaders they have at the moment, but this claim is not believable until they get new leaders, or at the very least abandon the old ones. Brooks also asserts that evangelicals are starting to be more influenced by Catholic doctrines about the necessity of good works (which is slightly strange, as one of the basic ideas of Protestantism is that only faith is sufficient for someone to be saved), but simultaneously the Catholic Church has been adopting an ever-harder line on culture war issues and elevating the prominence of groups like Opus Dei which are not particularly interested in fighting poverty. Essentially, Brooks collects some circumstantial evidence, combines it with platitudes like "I see the historical rift healing between those who emphasized personal and social morality," and calls it a column. While I would be happy if evangelicals do decide that "you don't have to convert people; sometimes you can just work with them," I'm dubious about the chances of this actually happening. After all, missionary work is an important component of evangelical Christianity. Brooks does present one piece of hard evidence that such a cooperation may be possible on the legislative level: the Aspire Act, co-sponsored by Senators Jon Corzine and Rick Santorum. However, this act was first introduced in 2002 and got exactly nowhere: not exactly an auspicious omen for the new era of evangelical-liberal cooperation.

But the interesting thing about this column is not that it's an exercise in wishful thinking, it's that it's an exercise in profoundly liberal wishful thinking. If evangelicals were actually to decide that they really cared about ending poverty more than fighting culture wars, that would be a huge victory for the Democratic party and liberals. The entire Republican economic agenda would be knocked down at one fell swoop. A huge wedge would be driven between the evangelical wing of the Republican party and those Republicans who prefer to preach the gospel of laissez-faire economics and small government, and such a divide would be guaranteed to help the Democrats even if the evangelicals don't vote Democratic. And any real anti-poverty program would almost certainly increase the political participation of the poor, which would likely further benefit the Democrats. In short, the creation of the kind of alliance that Brooks describes would be a political earthquake that would likely destroy the Republican party as we know it. And after experiencing a shiver of pure bliss at the thought, liberal readers must wonder why on earth Brooks, who is nothing if not a Republican hack, is writing about such a thing, and writing about it so positively. Does he really think that it's inevitable and is using this column as preparation for a move to the winning team? Is he simply trying to warn his fellow Republicans, and simply deploying a stiff upper lip even as his heart breaks at the thought of his beloved party going down the drain? Both these theories are possible, but unlikely: instead, what's probably going on here is a whitewash. Evangelicals have started to scare people, especially moderates who voted for Bush out of a desire to kill terrorists, not because they wanted a theocracy. On issues like Terri Schiavo and stem cell research (not to mention the whole fight against activist judges), evangelicals, or at least their most prominent leaders -- Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, &co. -- have been adopting extremely radical positions that most Americans find foreign and scary, and the leaders of the Republican party, from Bush on down, have been jumping to conform to these positions. Naturally, this puts the Republican party in a poor light and contributes to steadily falling approval ratings for Bush and the Republican party in general. This presents the Republican party with a quandary: how to retain the loyalty of those who don't want a party that is in thrall to religious nutjobs while remaining in thrall to those same religious nutjobs (or, rather, appearing to remain in thrall to those same religious nutjobs by occasionally giving them symbolic victories on a very big stage and campaigning on their hot-button issues)? Well, one good way is to say that the old religious nutjobs are outmoded relics: the party is actually built on kindler, gentler (and cooler) religious nutjobs, who fight hunger and AIDS in Africa and hang out with Bono. If you say this loud enough and often enough, people may come to think of the Dobsons, Falwells, and Robertsons as being radical leaders with no influence on the Republican party. And what better place to disseminate this bit of propaganda than on the Times editorial page via David Brooks, noted observer of trends in red-state America?