by Marc Fisher
David Brooks, that rare New York Times columnist equally criticized by liberals and conservatives alike, was born in Toronto, Canada. His father’s college teaching jobs brought the family to New York City and Philadelphia before Brooks headed off to college at the University of Chicago, where he caught the attention of William F. Buckley. After graduation, Brooks worked as a reporter for the City News Bureau, a Chicago wire service. He left for a job at Buckley’s National Review, where he made the jump to opinion journalism. Later, he edited book reviews and op-eds at The Wall Street Journal before moving on to The Weekly Standard.
Brooks began his tenure as a columnist for the op-ed page of The New York Times in 2003. There were liberal readers who bristled over every column—even those that swept aside evanescent political issues in favor of exploring broader themes of American culture. And from the right, there were conservatives who viewed Brooks as an apostate—a closet liberal, even.
In the past year or so, Brooks—who also teaches a course at Yale University and is a regular on NPR and PBS’s NewsHour—has grown noticeably weary of the passing parade of politics, and pivoted from his fascination with social science and neuroscience to matters of faith and morality. Brooks has long attended Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington with many well-connected and politically influential members. The recently divorced Brooks is part of an informal Jewish study group led by Orthodox scholar Erica Brown along with fellow prominent Washingtonians, among them former Meet the Press host David Gregory and Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg. Brooks says he now also meets regularly with Christian theologians.
As Brooks, 54, struggles publicly with questions about who we are and what we believe, he is more cryptic about what he describes as his transition into a new religious community. In this interview with Washington Post senior editor and Moment contributor Marc Fisher, he discusses his evolving perspective, while seeking to retain a zone of privacy around his changing spiritual life.
There’s been a shift in the tenor and content of your columns and other work over the past year or so. This year, you’ve written 51 columns on timeless, big questions about the meaning and purpose of life, and 40 columns on news of the moment, mainly politics and policy.
Wow. I would have thought it had been the reverse.
You’ve been writing about your desire to live with a passion for meaning, about how you want to be more like people who display a generosity of spirit. You wrote that you want “to be better at balancing my life.” How’s that going?
It’s going okay. Every day, I try to read something of some meaning. This morning, I read a book about how we find our callings. I always try to keep a book like that open. The question is: Am I a better person? I hope so. My mornings are sadder.
I had a student come up to me at the end of this class I taught at Yale, and he said, “Since I’ve been taking the class, I’m much sadder than I used to be.” And I took that as a win. Sadness is not quite the right word. Hunger and longing is what I mean. There’s a biblical verse, “Blessed are the hungry ones.” So I’m hungry for this sort of knowledge. I have this vision that if I do this long enough, I’ll be the sort of person who, when people come to you for advice, I’ll have answers, I’ll have wisdom. I’m not sure it will really work that way, but the one measurable thing I’ve noticed in my life is that people never used to confide in me, and now, they do. I don’t always know what to say, but I’m getting there.
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While I was counting columns, I noticed a marked turn in the sources and readings you’ve been relying on. It’s a shift from social scientists to philosophers, clergy and novelists. Is that a purposeful change?
Yes. I’d written this book, The Social Animal, and it had a lot of social scientists in it. I don’t abandon that stuff; it’s very useful. But I’ve really become disillusioned—not completely—but halfway disillusioned with neuroscience. Ten years ago, I thought that was going to teach us a lot about who we are. And it does, a little. It teaches you the importance of emotion, how the amygdala is involved in everything. But I don’t think neuroscience has taught us anything that George Eliot didn’t already know. It doesn’t at all solve the problem of meaning. So I felt I had to go back to the Soloveitchiks or the Niebuhrs or George Eliot or Dostoyevsky, who didn’t have fMRI machines but were pretty good observers of human nature.
Was your decision to switch directions a factor of living in the digital age or of your stage in life, or were there other reasons?
It’s a lot of things. First, stage in career, in which I’ve achieved more worldly success than I’d ever imagined and am not satisfied. Second, stage in our culture, which has gotten so technology-oriented. Third, teaching at Yale, where everything’s so achievement- and résumé-oriented. Fourth, I just read a book from Carl Jung, of all people, who said that every single one of his middle-aged clients was mourning the loss of a religious sense and was searching for that religious sense. And there’s some element of that in me. And then finally, there used to be a lot of Abraham Joshua Heschels in the world, and even Billy Grahams, and they were commenting in public on moral issues. Now we just don’t have as many. Jonathan Sacks is one. The Pope is obviously a giant. But there are really very few. And when I write about it, the reader interest is just off the charts. So if I’m interested—and I’ve learned, being a columnist, that it pays to be self-indulgent—and if the readers are interested, that’s a home run.
Will you eventually go entirely in that direction? Do you feel at all schizophrenic now, being on one hand a traditional political pundit and on the other a public moralist or sermonizer?
If I were just doing sermons, it might get bogged down. And I know my employers want me to pay attention to politics. If I were just doing politics, I’d get bored. I confess I am more excited by the moral and cultural columns than the political ones. But I believe in dual callings. One of my callings is to represent a certain moderate Republican Whig political philosophy, and the other is to try to shift the conversation more in a moral and theological direction.
Is there a conflict in trying to work on these moral issues in daily journalism? Is journalism by its nature relativistic?
There are some people who don’t expect to read this kind of crap in a newspaper. But I have found mostly welcome arms. I gave a speech in Connecticut, a very moral speech, and the women were loving it. But a bunch of guys, mostly hedge-fund guys, listened and said, “You’re making me feel guilty, I really don’t need this. Let’s talk about Chris Christie’s prospects.” But when I do public speaking now, I do this stuff full bore. I haven’t given a political speech in years. And there’s an intensity of listening that’s greater than anything I’ve ever experienced. There’s a hunger across all ages.
Did you need to reach a certain age or maturity to shift into this focus on morals?
No, I don’t think so. At 14 or 15, you discover profundity. And from then on, you’re hungry. I was having coffee with one of my students at Yale and he said, “We’re so hungry.” Because they’ve been raised with so little moral vocabulary and so much achievement orientation. They feel they’re humans, they have souls. I don’t have to tell them how to be good. I just have to name the categories. If we use a word like “grace,” what does that mean? Or “sin,” what does that mean? I don’t have to say, “Don’t be sinful.”
Was there a threshold event that led to your new focus on morality and spirituality?
No, I didn’t have a midlife crisis. If anything, it was the opposite, it was moments of coming home and seeing my kids so happy, and meeting people who were just so joyful. And I would love to experience and radiate that inner joy, which they did. So it’s more aspirational than that I hit rock bottom and I’m rebounding.
Did you become frustrated by our culture’s inability to focus on bigger questions?
Universities and a lot of institutions became very amoral because they didn’t know what to say. We became such a diverse society that it became hard to know what to say without insulting somebody. And then we became a very individualistic society. If there’s something I’ve been frustrated with, it’s our excessively individualistic society. That’s led to a belief that everyone should come up with their own values and no one should judge each other. That destroys moral conversation and becomes just a question of feelings. That, to me, was the big wrong turn.
Is that equally true on the right and the left?
Totally. The 1960s and 1970s were a great age of social individualism from the left. The 1980s and 1990s were a great age of economic individualism from the right. And as a result, we eviscerated a lot of things that we held in common.
Have you experienced a loss of personal religious purpose or are you seeing this primarily in society at large?
Both. Some people pray at shul or at church or mosque, or in the woods. I pray by writing. And that means sometimes I’m like one of those creatures who’s preaching to himself from the pulpit. I’ve been observant mostly through my family. We kept kosher at home, my kids went to Jewish day schools, we had Shabbat meals. So at that moment, I was more traditionally observant than I am now. At the same time, I’m now reading a lot more Soloveitchik and a lot more Heschel. So in some sense my observance is down but my thinking is up.
Is there a correlation between the two?
No, I should be doing both. I probably should be in community and in my mind. I’m too much in my mind and not enough in community.
But you’ve hinted that you’ve undergone some kind of shift in spiritual outlook. What is that?
I don’t talk about my own faith. It’s all so new and green that I’m afraid if I talk about it in public, it will become like my political opinions, just a bumper sticker, not a living, breathing thing. I will say that right now I’m just a magpie. I read everything, and some of it is Jewish and some of it is Christian, and some of it is just humanistic. Ethnically, culturally, historically, I’m Jewish. Parts of Jewish theology I like—the emphasis on agency. There are parts of Christianity—a more richly developed sense of grace— that I find very beautiful. And so now, just in my attempt at understanding, I’m reading everything and seeing everybody. I go to the Jewish Theological Seminary and I go to Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts. I’m just in learning mode.
You said you should be more in community. Have you done that?
That part I really don’t like to talk about. But the short answer is I haven’t found a community.
In a number of columns this year, you seem to be struggling with what you do and don’t want to talk about publicly. One column in particular generated a lot of speculation about your marriage and your relationship with your children. Talk a little about the tension between exposing your personal life and the fact that you write a very personal column.
That column read more personal than it was. I was at a party and a woman came up to me whose children had just gone off to college, and she was just crushed, just so sad. It wasn’t me. My kids were already off to college, and I wasn’t that crushed. That conversation was the impetus for that column. It was about when love goes away and how you keep it at that distance. Sometimes you write with an intensity so that people feel, oh, God, he’s spilling his guts. In that case, they weren’t my guts. When I re-read it a couple of months later, I could see why people were saying, “Why is David having mass therapy in The New York Times?” But there is a larger issue of how much to reveal, and I find this is intensely generational. People under 30 are bugged, in some innate way, by the reticence. I grew up in a reticent family, in a reticent culture. Most of my heroes were very reticent. Frances Perkins did not like talking about her private life. George Marshall, too. Some of my writer heroes, Niebuhr, Heschel or Irving Kristol, they could talk about these issues without saying, “Now I’m going to tell you what happened in my bedroom.” That involves lifting the skirt to the calf but not above the waist. I can tell you one thing: I’m certainly not holding up my life as a model.
You say in The Social Animal that although you write about emotions, you’re not good at expressing them. Actually, you say, “I’m naturally bad at it.” How does your desire to be better at expressing emotion square with your ideas about the virtue of restraint and reticence?
A woman in her 60s who had lost her son in a freak auto accident came up to me not long ago. She just described it to me and said, “How do I make sense of this?” Of course, there’s no answer you can give. But you can hug the person, and so now I’m a little better at that, just because I’ve spent the last ten years writing about and dwelling in the land of emotion. Before, I wouldn’t have known what to do. I find it easier with audiences than with individuals. In this last book, I wanted to have a variety of professions represented among the heroes I held up, and the toughest profession in which to find a really good person was writing. Writers tended to be narcissistic, and they were bad to the people around them. In journalism, we erect walls between us and people. It’s sort of a faux intimacy.
We’re playing roles.
Yes, playing roles. I was struck when I went to The New York Times 13 years ago for the first time by how many shy and socially awkward people there were. I remember thinking, interviewing is a social activity, but it’s structured. So if you’re awkward, you know how to do it, but it’s not like hanging out at a party.
In the book and in columns, you argue that we need to find a way out of the celebration of self and concentration on self that has characterized the secular West since World War II. After the war, you said, there was a “renunciation of renunciations.” What have you renounced?
I think our problem is too much freedom. The great challenge for me is tying myself down, and that involves maritally, that involves defining what I’m doing with the column. The thing I have not done is tie myself to a community.
Have you found examples in history of societies that have rediscovered or rekindled community?
Totally. In Ephesus, when the Roman Empire was at a stage of late, high decadence, there was a little guy in the market, who everyone probably considered a weirdo, named St. Paul, and he was preaching. Within 300 years, Ephesus was a ruin and Paul’s religion had taken over the world. There are other cases, closer to home. In 1830, in this country, it was totally acceptable to go to work, drink all day, drink afterwards, go home and beat your wife. By 1840, that was completely unacceptable. There was an awakening, and people said no, we don’t tolerate that. The year Judaism was most unpopular in America was probably 1913—all these immigrants’ kids wanted to renounce their parents’ culture, their parents’ religion, so they went totally secular. And then they snapped back, because human nature doesn’t change. These are all cases where what we thought was the modern trend has been reversed. People want community. They want their traditions.
You’ve become comfortable talking about some religious concepts to secular audiences who don’t always think they want to hear that.
A lot of the people I speak to are slightly religious or sort of religious, and when they left their church or synagogue, they got untrained in a vocabulary. I try to explain their vocabulary in non-religious ways. You can use the word sin as original sin, or, in secular vocabulary, sin is when you get your loves out of order—if a friend confides in you and you blab his secret at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s wrong, that’s a sin. And it doesn’t require going back to Genesis. It’s just a secular way of describing what sin is. I’m always careful not to pretend that I’m a religious writer. I’m not. I don’t talk about God, barely at all.
Is God an important part of your life?
Yes, I believe in God. But I decided not to be a religious writer. I’m just not qualified. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from theologians. There’s a lot of wisdom in the Bible.
Are our politics an impediment to the return to that community you’re looking for?
Politics have become a perverted form of community. One of the reasons we’re so polarized is that becoming a Republican or becoming a Democrat has become an ethnic category. In 1970, people were asked, would you mind if your son or daughter married outside your party? Five percent would mind. Now, 40 percent would mind. That’s screwed up.
Do you see that reversing in any useful way?
No. Historians talk about cycles of polarization, but according to their rhythm, we should have been out of this one 15 or 20 years ago, and it’s not exactly happening.
President Obama in his first campaign and in his previous writing got into a lot of what you’re talking about. Why was he unable to translate his charisma and thinking about morality and spirituality into greater political success?
Well, he’s not the first to fail at that. George W. Bush was allegedly going to be a compassionate conservative. Where Obama overlapped the most with me was that he was a big student of Reinhold Niebuhr, and I think he misread Niebuhr. Niebuhr believed in taking action, but with modesty and caution. And to me, Obama doesn’t believe in taking action. To be fair, Niebuhr was about shades of gray, and it’s very hard when you’re president to lead with shades of gray. But Obama’s a writer more than he is a politician, and that personal aloofness hurt his performance. But there are moments when he’s found his voice, especially on racial matters.
Do you sense in him the same kind of disillusionment with politics that comes through in your recent writing?
Yes, on stilts. I sense in him a disillusion with the stupidities he’s forced to put up with at every level. And there’s a little arrogance that, you know, he’s a visitor from a superior civilization.
Since you’re still in the pundit game, I have to ask, who do you think will be the next president and why will Americans choose him or her?
I think Hillary Clinton will be the next president. My normal rule is, people vote for order. They may want change, they may be disgusted with politics. But that disgust tends to lead to low expectations, and “just don’t screw things up any more.” And Clinton is a safe choice and moderately competent. People don’t like her, but she seems strong. I’ve always believed that Marco Rubio would be the Republican nominee because he has the raw talent, he has no natural opponents in the party, and he’s a decent guy and people like him.