Interview with Arthur Brooks on “Love Your Enemies”
With a Following Critique from “First Things”
Boyd Matheson: Divisive politicians, screaming heads on TV, angry campus activists, Twitter trolls. In America today, there is an outrage industrial complex that prospers big time while setting Americans against each other. New York Times bestselling author and social scientist Arthur Brooks joins us to discuss “Love Your Enemies,” a possible solution on this week’s edition of “Therefore, What?”
“Therefore, What?” is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what’s next. I’m Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is “Therefore, What?”
All right, we are very excited to have on the program today Arthur Brooks, one of our favorite thinkers in America today. Still the head of AEI for a little bit before he heads off to Harvard and a host of other adventures, but has a new book out called “Love Your Enemies,” and very grateful to have Arthur spend some time with us today. Thanks for joining us.
Arthur Brooks: Great to be with you as always.
BM: Well, you’re busy as always, you’ve cranked out another book that I think is one that the nation is desperately in need of. Give us a little bit of the backstory. A lot of times we see these books roll out and think, oh man, that’s genius. But what was the nexus point? What was the point when you said, OK, I need to write about this.
AB: Well, it came partly from experience and partly from some work I was reading. So I’ll tell you about both. I travel around for a living. I do about 175 speeches a year. And a couple of years before the 2016 election, I saw a preview of what the rest of the country was going to see, which was the bitterness and nastiness and really contemptuous way that we were treating each other because of politics. I was doing a rally, actually just like an activist event for conservatives in New Hampshire in 2014 and it was 700 of them, they were really whooping and hollering and I was the only nonpolitician, actually the only person not running for president, on the schedule. And in the middle of it, you know, this think tank guy sneaks in there. And I said, look, we all agree on foreign policy and economics and politics. But let’s think for a minute about the people who don’t agree with us and aren’t here, political liberals. I want you to remember they’re not stupid, they’re not evil, they’re simply Americans who disagree with us on public policy. And our job is to persuade them. No applause. And right after that the applause came because a lady said I think they’re stupid and evil. She got the applause.
And at that moment, Boyd, I thought of my family in Seattle, because they’re liberals. I mean, I grew up in Seattle, Washington, the most progressive place in the United States. And my mother was an artist. My father was a college professor. What do you think their politics were? And I tell you, they weren’t stupid and evil. They’re smart, they’re nice. They love each other. They loved me. They just took good care of me and brought me up in the right way. And they’re probably right on a bunch of stuff that I’m not right on. I thought, if this is the way that we’re talking to each other, that I’m right, and you’re not just incorrect, you’re stupid and evil. That’s a form of contempt, the conviction of the worthlessness of another person. If we do that in America, we will make permanent enemies who will be completely unpersuasive. Which is indeed what we’ve become. No conservative ever persuades a liberal and no liberal ever persuades a conservative, and worst of all, we’re going to become unhappy. And that’s what we’ve seen as well. More loneliness, more depression, more anxiety. And a lot of it has to do with our politics.
BM: Yeah. And I find it interesting. You know, some people say, OK, so you’re just saying what we really need is a Kumbaya moment, we just need a hug it out, you know, have a have a big old group hug as a nation. And that’s not realistic. And that’s not right. But you think it’s much more than that. It’s not about a group hug. Is it?
AB: No, it’s not. It’s a very practical thing. You know, one of the things that I talked about a lot in the book is that no person in history has ever been persuaded with hatred. You can’t insult anybody into agreement. So when I talk about treating people with love, what I’m basically talking about is making the calculated decision that when someone treats you with contempt, you can choose your reaction, you should choose the reaction that’s going to be most persuasive. And the great side result is that you’ll become a happier person, and you’ll start to feel the way that you act. Now, this is something that a lot of our listeners already know, because their mothers taught them, that they will become the person that they pretend to be. Fake it till you make it, right? It’s also the case that there’s a lot of brain science behind this. And this is what I give in the book. This book is only 10 percent problems and 90 percent solutions. And in the solutions, I talked step by step by step about how people, when they’re treated horribly, politically, on social media, or even around the dinner table, how they can train themselves to react in such a way that other people will find them convincing and they will become happier. And if we do that, the movement starts in our own hearts. We actually can fix the country.
BM: I think there’s so many challenges and barriers out there. One of the things that we’ve been focused on a lot lately here at the Deseret News is this idea of instant certainty. And that instant certainty, you know, not only does it prevent us from getting to the truth, but it also undermines trust because as soon as I hear a headline or read a headline, you know, I instantly assess this is what it means to me for my world. I’m right, you’re wrong, everything stops. So what are the some of the things that you offer in terms of how do we get to instant uncertainty, so we can be open and actually have the conversation?
AB: Well, one of the ways to do it is to make more friends, including friends that we disagree with. You know, life is just more interesting when we’re around people who are different than we are. You got to turn off social media, you got to talk to real people, and you got to listen to those people. And in so doing, it’s kind of good that you question your own beliefs or you have somebody that you like who questions your beliefs. You don’t have to be fighting with each other all the time, but just explore what it is that the person believes. Think about what the person’s moral purpose actually is. And see maybe you’ve got something in common. Life is better that way. And I talk about exactly how people can do that, how they can get out of their bubble a little bit and improve their lives.
BM: Yes. Some people say that there’s something in America that’s just broken. And it could be a lot of different things. Do you think as a country, are we broken, are we fixable? What does that look like from your perspective?
AB: I think it’s absolutely fixable. Because you go back through history, we’ve had tremendous periods of contempt. We’re as polarized today as we were at the Civil War. And of course, in the whole 19th century we had tremendous contempt leading to armed conflict. And I don’t think that we’re anywhere near something like that. But we found that the self-improvement movement after the Civil War, before World War I, you know, when the LDS Church, by the way, was really cranking, was really picking up a lot of people that were looking for a better life. The self-improvement movement that was secular was doing the same thing, and the Methodists, the Baptists, the tent revivals. And what people wanted was to have a revolution in their own heart. That was tremendously important for the United States, it made the United States the country that it is today, was that period after the worst period of polarization. We can do that again.
BM: I love that. And one of the things that you argue in the book is that it really isn’t about the argument, and it’s not even about trying to agree more, it’s about disagreeing better. Give me a little drill down on that.
AB: Well, so people often think that we need to agree, and we don’t need to agree. Agreement is bad if it’s done for the sake of simply trying to avoid conflict. It’s kind of a monopoly, it’s stagnation and mediocrity. America is based on competition, competition of ideas, competition in politics, competition in economics. It brings out the best in people. But we have to have basic rules of morality. I mean, morals have to come before markets for sure. But we should remember that disagreement, this competition of ideas, is incredibly important for us to become better, to be more excellent. So I never recommend that we agree with people, particularly if we pretend to agree when we don’t. But we have to disagree in the right way. We have to respect other people as we disagree with them. And then the real question is how, and that’s why I wrote the book. This is a how-to guide. This is a life improvement book. And if people read it, they’re going to get real solutions based on the cutting edge social science and brain science on how they can improve their lives and be happier and more persuasive.
BM: So I want to pick up on this idea you shared of morals before markets, drill down on that a little bit and maybe do it in the context. I know you’ve developed this very unique relationship with the Dalai Lama. The capitalist and the Dalai Lama have come together. And tell us what you’ve learned about that. And how does that fit into this morals before markets?
AB: Well, the Dalai Lama and I have had a close friendship for the past six and a half years. We’re working together on various projects. We write together, we’ve done a lot of events together where I interview him, where we talk about the differences between my religion, my Christianity, and his religion, which is Buddhism, and also between different economic systems. And what we find when we explore these topics is it really opens people’s minds and opens their hearts to different ways of thinking. Because they see people who think in a very different way who love each other, who really are friends. And this is the key thing that all of us should be looking for, these virtuous friendships between people who are different than they are. It’s easy to avoid these things in the era of social media, so easy to just be surrounding yourself with people who agree with you and trying to silo your news feeds and the TV that you watch so that you’ll be hearing over and over again, You’re right, they’re stupid. But that’s not good for you. Because you’ll become weak; you’ll become sort of flaccid in your thinking. You won’t be actually good at arguing in the right way. And you won’t have exposure to other people and see that they are people who have needs and wants and dreams just like you.
BM: I had an interesting conversation today with some of your soon-to-be colleagues at Harvard. Clayton Christensen, of course, has a new book out, “The Prosperity Paradox,” which was talking about innovation as the real answer to global poverty. And I know this is an area that you’ve been focused on. So today I had a chance to interview Efosa Ojomo and Karen Dillon about their work with Clayton on this whole idea. And I know you’ve got something coming in April, called “The Pursuit,” that I think is going to be in alignment with a lot of these things. Give us a little sneak peek into what’s percolating out there.
AB: “The Pursuit” is a brand new documentary film that asks how can people pull themselves out of poverty? How can we build a society that is based on opportunity, really starting at the margins? And so in this movie, basically, the movie makers, which is a film production company in Austin, Texas, called Emergent Order. They followed me around the world for three years in Indian slums, a little town in Kentucky, a homeless shelter in New York. You know, in a street demonstration of Barcelona. We went to see people who are honest to goodness social Democrats in Denmark to talk about their way of life. We just, in a very open way, saw how do people pull themselves out of poverty? How do they build a better life? And then how can all of us, on the basis of this, build better lives for ourselves and be happier? So it’s screening in 100 communities around the United States? It’s going to three nice film festivals and then by the end of the summer it will be on Netflix.
BM: That’s great. And what’s the driving force? What do you hope people come away with after watching “The Pursuit”?
AB: I hope people will understand that they are empowered, that the free enterprise system that they participate in is the greatest engine of prosperity and opportunity the world has ever created. I give the evidence and I talk to the people who are affected to show that 2 billion of our brothers and sisters have been pulled out of extreme poverty, starvation level poverty, since I was a child because of the free enterprise system. And when we make it work for others, when we have it printed on our hearts that this is a system obviously bounded by our moral duties and our religious beliefs, that the free enterprise system can and should get the next 2 billion people out of poverty. That’s what we have to focus on.
BM: Yeah. And I had this discussion, that was just interesting of, you know, the billions of dollars that have been spent on poverty programs or trying to eradicate poverty in different places, and much of it has, you know, good causes, good people, good intentions, but a lot of them have really fallen short in terms of making that transformation. And is it that it’s easier to throw the money at it, so to speak. Again, well-intentioned folks, for sure, that we’re not really getting the principles in place, these free market principles, these principles of freedom and liberty and entrepreneurship? Is that really the missing element in a lot of this?
AB: It is. It’s also just, you know, you can’t go to scale to pull people out of poverty unless people are working for themselves. And it’s only the free enterprise system that gives people incentives and courage, that gives people the aspiration to pull themselves up. Because the free enterprise system tells people you’re needed, we need you, we need your effort. We need your work. Charity work is really, really important. And I’m involved in it, and I tithe my income like you do, Boyd, and like a lot of the people who are listening to this podcast do. But that charity can’t do the work of pulling people out of poverty by the billions while you sleep. And it also doesn’t create the incentive so people at the end of the day can say, I built this, and there’s nothing that’s a greater blessing than feeling like you’ve earned your success.
BM: Yeah, I remember listening to you one time, I believe we were in Sen. (Mike) Lee’s office. And you talked about that very point of just why work is so important, that needing to be needed. Tell us a little bit more about that?
AB: Well, you know, it’s the essence of dignity is to be worthy of respect. And almost everybody in the West believes that dignity is equal, people are equal. Not everybody in the West is a Christian, of course, but the Christian religion, which comes from Jewish ideas, is based on the idea that we’re made in God’s image. And God is, of course, worthy of respect. And so therefore we are. Since we’re worthy of respect, that’s dignity. The problem is that we don’t have an equal sense of our dignity. To understand your own dignity, which is worth and purpose in life, that requires that you’re needed by your family, by your community, by the economy, by your workplace. And when you don’t feel needed, you won’t have a sense of your dignity. That brings despair. That’s the reason that unemployment is so highly correlated with suicide and drug abuse, simply because people don’t feel like they’re needed, they can’t support their families, and nobody really needs them. So that’s what we need to do is to create an economy to create a society in which every person has a sense of actually being needed. In point of fact, where every person is needed.
BM: You spend a lot of time on college campuses. You talk to a lot of young people around the country, many, many look at the rising generation and say, Well, you know, they’re just a bunch of narcissistic pansies and selfie-takers. And I’ve been one of those that’s pushed back on that a bit. I think they are a little more communitarian than probably their parents, they do it different. They do most of it online, or, you know, some kind of GoFundMe account or an ice bucket challenge. But as you’ve interacted with young people across the country, what do you see in them that worries you? And what do you see in them that gives you confidence moving forward?
AB: Well, the thing that people often talk about is that young people today are snowflakes, you know, they’re a little weak, maybe a little lazier than the generation before. I don’t believe that. I don’t find any evidence of that. I find that they’re actually very hard-working, which is great. I think that the problem, and what worries me, is that there’s a huge fear in the current generation. Not fear of not getting a job, fear of conflict. And part of the reason is because people my age, you know, I have kids who are 21, 19 and 16. It is very easy for people our age to have, you know, basically protected them from everything, right? The average person under 30 didn’t do anything meaningfully by themselves out of the house before they were 13 years old. You know, when you and I were kids it was 5 or 6. And you know, people don’t get their strengths. They lose their sense of fear by being self-sufficient. The parents adjudicate the disputes that their kids are in, then when they get to college they have safe spaces, they have trigger warnings, all of this nonsense on campus that protects them from things that are hard for them to hear, which is exactly what college is supposed to do. It’s supposed to challenge you.
And by the time they’re 22, the most, I think alarming thing that I see, is that they don’t basically date in numbers the way that we did. We find that young adults today, about 56 percent of them went out on a date last year. When I was at that age it was 85 percent went on a date in the previous year. Very problematic. St. John the apostle told us that fear is the opposite of love. Where there is love, love casts out fear, he said in the first letter. The scripture is very clear on this, and the scripture in all major religions tells us same thing, that fear is the ultimate negative emotion. Fear is the opposite of love, not hatred. So when you have a fear-based culture among young people, you’re not going to have love. And when you don’t have love, you’re going to have more bitterness, you’re gonna have more hostility, you’re going to have less romantic love, you’re going to have fewer marriages, people are not going to be in love. And all of these things are coming true.
BM: Yeah. And is that part of maybe what is broken in the country? Is it that we’ve got a rising generation that maybe hasn’t quite toughened up yet, or had the experiences to cast out that fear? And then we maybe have some, the family breakdown, some of those other things? Are all of those interconnected, from your perspective?
AB: Probably they are. But I think that in particular there’s a cultural predilection among young people to be protected from conflict, protected from rejection. And that’s a pretty new thing in America today. So one of the things that I tell young people is that they need to be entrepreneurs with their hearts, you know, when I talk to people in their 20s, I say, you know, you’re not an entrepreneur unless you’ve been in love. You’re just not. Don’t give me this stuff about starting businesses and venture capital, that’s boring, that’s minor. The real things that matter in your life are the loves in your life. And if you actually haven’t fallen in love by the time you’re 27 or 28, almost certainly it’s because you’ve been avoiding it because you’re not an entrepreneurial enough person. And that’s really startling for young people when I tell them that, but I’ve got the data. And it’s true. And so one of the things I say is, your assignment in the coming year is to put your heart on the line. The average entrepreneur has 3.8 failures before the first success in business. If you actually think that you’re going to be successful as a person who has love in his or her life, you need at least 3.8 bad breakups, is my view.
BM: Wow, my number was way higher than that.
AB: How old were you when you got married?
BM: I was almost 24.
AB: Almost 24. So you were just graduating from college? Because you’re 24 when you finish university right? Because you did a mission? Right?
BM: I did a mission and then I dropped out of school before. I had that great moment.
AB: Yeah, that’s right. So you had a life for sure. But you also were all in. You’re a life entrepreneur. And people need to do that today.
BM: Yeah, for sure. Very good. Hey, let’s shift gears now. And let’s talk about the swamp for a minute. So as we look at these principles that you’re talking about, that you write about in the book, how do we get those again, because these are clearly not left or right. These are just principles. And yet, it seems you know, as we talked about in the open that you’ve got, you know, the national news media is yelling and screaming. You’ve got both sides that raise billions of dollars a year off of anger, fear, angst and frustration, you know, convincing everyone that their hair’s on fire. So how do we turn that tide?
AB: Well, to begin with, we need to stand up to the man. That’s the old ’60s expression with somebody’s keeping you down. And the truth is, I have data that shows that 93 percent of Americans hate how divided we’ve become. I show all this stuff in “Love Your Enemies.” But that means the other 7 percent doesn’t hate how divided we’ve become. That for them it’s not a bad habit of contempt. For them it’s a lifestyle and a living. And I’m talking about the highly partisan media and the hateful pundits and the crazy college professors and the politicians who are actually trying to gin up a whole lot of hatred to keep themselves in power, the populists who are telling us the other side is stupid and evil. That’s a really bad thing. And we need to stand up to that, we need to recognize it. And the way we recognize that is not by standing up to people in the outrage industrial complex on the other side, you’ve got to stand up to it on your side, and then it will set you free. If you do that. I’m telling you, I’ve made a list and I’ve crossed people off, the people I’m not reading, I’m not listening to, and my life is so much better than it was. I gotta say, it’s funny. If you don’t spend time on Twitter, you don’t think America is about ready for civil war. It turns out that America is kind of OK. Twitter is all 7 percent all the time.
BM: And don’t you think it’s true also — my sense has always been, traveling around the country, that we really aren’t that divided. We know dictators have used division as a way to maintain power and the status quo forever. And it seems to me that, you know, when the American people experience these principles, it’s like oxygen, you know, that they’re never going to ask for these in a Pew Research poll. So they don’t quite know what to ask for. But when they experience it, it is like oxygen. It’s very liberating, as you said, but how do we push that oxygen around a little bit more?
AB: Well, to begin with, what we do is we model it. When someone treats you with contempt, and if you go on social media and you talk about politics any place, you’ll be treated with contempt very quickly. Eye-rolling, sarcasm, a complete dismissal of your point of view. Stop, breathe, say a little prayer if you need to, and then answer the way that you want to. And by the way, I hope people can figure out on their own. On the contrary, that’s why I wrote “Love Your Enemies.” In the book, I detail, chapter and verse, I mean, go through the list, it gives you a checklist of things that you can do. And if you practice these things, you’ll be great at this. So you can choose the way that you’re going to behave. And in so doing, people will be way more persuaded by your point of view, you’ll become happier and people will want to be more like you. OK, how soon before it changes America? I don’t know. I mean, but we have to start sometime and it better start with each one of us. And the best news of all is, just by starting that movement with yourself, you’ll be a happier, more persuasive more successful person.
BM: That’s great. And let me ask you, just as we come down the homestretch here, tell me two people who you think are modeling this well. And I don’t care if they’re famous, infamous, or otherwise, people you’ve come across in all of your travels, just give me two people and an example of how they are living these principles and how it’s making a difference.
AB: So there are a lot of people that I see in state and local governments who are doing this, who are rebelling against the hate. If I look at my friend, Doug Ducey, who’s governor of Arizona, I mean, he’s partisan, he’s a conservative and a lot of liberals really disagree with his policies, but he’s working to cool down the temperature. He’s not calling people out as stupid and evil, just because they disagree with them. And he’s the governor of a big state. Gov. Herbert in Utah, same deal. And I really admire that many, many, many governors at this point. We have a tendency to overcentralize our attention on Washington, D.C. But there’s many more interesting and constructive things going on in the states and in cities. And I see a lot of that. I also see a lot of people that are trying to cool the temperature by treating each other with love and respect on college campuses today. It’s easy to say that the places are all just bastions of craziness but it’s not true. I mean, there are a lot of places where I see people working together, trying to understand each other. My new institution, Harvard University, there’s just all kinds of efforts for people of different and diverse points of view to understand each other, to see each other as real people under the circumstances.
And then of course, I see this in communities constantly, people who are unsung heroes that are finding ways to listen to people who are different than themselves, to practice a real diversity of ideas. And so I think that the answer is local. The answer is not national. We’re not going to find — I mean, there are some people in the senate I love. Mike Lee, I’ve known him for years and years. And I think he wants to unite, even though he’s got strong points of view. But I think it’s a hard environment right now. So I think that Americans need to look more local, more in their communities, more in their companies, more in their families, and more in their state and local governments to find the leaders that are going to practice loving your enemies.
BM: This is the “Therefore, What?” moment. People have been listening for the last 25 minutes, they’re going to read your book, what do you hope they think different? What do you hope they do different as a result?
AB: The easiest thing to do is to love the people who agree with you, and even to love your neighbor. Right? What I want people to think differently about is to remember the people who disagree with you, they’re not just your neighbor, even if you thought of them as your enemy. These are your allies in building a better country. Because when people can disagree, be real foes ideologically, and not hate each other. That’s iron sharpening iron, as the Proverbs say. Now here’s a real “Therefore, What?” moment. I’m not talking about civility, civility is a garbage standard. If I said, Hey, Boyd, my wife and I were civil to each other. You’d say, Arthur you need counseling. I’m not talking about tolerance, I’m not talking about agreement, I’m talking about love for people with whom we disagree. And I want people to think about that deeply and how they can do it today.
BM: Arthur Brooks. The book is “Love Your Enemies.” Arthur, we always appreciate your time and your great insight. Best of luck as you continue and wrap up at AEI, and your new adventures at Harvard and beyond.
AB: Thank you very much, Boyd. I really appreciate it. Looking forward to seeing you in Utah.
BM: All right, we’ll see you soon. Thanks. Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is “Therefore, What?” Don’t miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you’re listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, the opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on “Therefore, What?”
What Arthur Brooks Gets Wrong
By Peter J. Leithart
Americans aren’t angry, writes American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks (Love Your Enemies). When we’re angry, we try to fix what’s broken, and we think we can. These days, we’re past hoping for a fix, and are instead “addicted to political contempt.” Contempt doesn’t try to fix anything; it “seeks to exile . . . to mock, shame, and permanently exclude from relationships by belittling, humiliating, and ignoring.” Anger cares. Contempt says, “You disgust me. You are beneath caring about.”
Brooks’s diagnosis is on target. Presidential candidates dump fellow citizens into a “basket of deplorables.” Trump’s insults are as numerous as Shakespeare’s, though far less witty. Fox News pundits find nothing worthwhile in anything any liberal has ever thought or said.
How did we turn into a “culture of contempt”? While we’re each responsible for our own actions and addictions, Brooks thinks America’s contempt pushers have a lot to answer for—members of the “outrage industrial complex” in the media, social media gurus and trolls who encourage ideological siloing, political parties that don’t even try to appeal beyond their settled base.
Contempt isn’t good for the country. There’s a strong correlation between marital contempt and divorce. Contempt is, as one researcher put it, “sulfuric acid for love.” We’re headed for societal divorce court, and Brooks hopes we can reconcile before it’s too late. He wants to teach Americans to “practice warm-heartedness,” overcoming contempt through love.
How? By deciding to act in love. Love isn’t an attitude but an action; attitudes, Brooks rightly says, follow actions. By learning that love works in the real world. Contrary to myth, kindness wins. Authoritative (not authoritarian) leaders lead by love. By turning down or turning off the outlets of outrage, listening to voices we don’t agree with, putting ourselves in situations where we’re surrounded by ideological adversaries, treating everyone with respect instead of disgust.
Brooks’s is a lively book, with a promising premise. But I don’t think his program can solve the problem he wants to solve. One shortcoming becomes evident in Brooks’s discussion of moral disagreements. Drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt, he lists five innate moral values—fairness, compassion, respect for authority, group loyalty, and purity. Though innate, these values take various forms and mingle in various combinations. Liberals and conservatives both advocate fairness and compassion, but have different conceptions of what these values require. More important, liberals emphasize fairness and compassion, but place little weight on the other three. Conservatism insists on all five. The lesson? Liberals and conservatives are equally moral, but liberals have “fewer moral foundations.”
Despite their differences, Brooks thinks liberals and conservatives can get along because the values they share (fairness, compassion) have to do with “social morality,” while the things they disagree about (authority, loyalty, purity) are “personal moral values.” It’s a facile distinction, and an odd one: Don’t respect for authority and group loyalty belong to “social morality”? Many Christians, myself included, believe that our sexual wasteland is a product of a societal decision to shunt sexual morality off to a realm where individual choice is sovereign. He makes his distinction of social/personal morality sound like a procedural rule, but by placing sexual morality in the sphere of private morality, he takes a side in our central cultural battle. In my judgment, it’s the wrong side. To heal our sexual pathologies, Brooks prescribes more of the disease. I may be wrong, but I’m not inclined to sign on to a proposal that defines my convictions out of public debate.
This exemplifies a more fundamental weakness. Brooks wants to “save America from the culture of contempt” by reminding us that we’re all Americans. But, as John Milbank and Adrian Pabst argue, a politics of virtue is sustained by a “transpolitical community” that embodies ideals that transcend earthly politics. In ancient times, this role was filled by schools of philosophers, in Christendom by the church. Brooks is Catholic, but, in the interests of staking out common ground, he keeps his Catholicism at arm’s length. The church plays no discernible role in his vision of America’s future. But an immanent salvation won’t save. Paradoxically, national renewal won’t happen unless a nation pursues ends that transcend the nation. America can’t be saved by devotion to America.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.