David Brooks was struggling with sin. More precisely, he was seeking a way to translate the Christian understanding of sin into secular terms for millions of readers. His emerging specialty, whether in his New York Times column or best-selling books, is distilling dense concepts for the mainstream. An ugly word for that, he notes, is popularizing. On religious topics, some might say proselytizing. He calls it reporting. “He’s the master,” says Princeton professor Robert George, a onetime adviser to Brooks. “Nobody is better at that than David.”
Explaining Christian theology has bedeviled Brooks for several years now, in writing his latest book, The Road to Character, and in recent columns, much to the bewilderment of readers. It’s strange partly because Brooks was raised Jewish, but also because the opinion pages are generally reserved for current events and politics. For counsel on political punditry, Brooks used to make a practice of interviewing three elected officials a day. To flesh out his sense of sin, he sought a different sort of expertise.
He consulted Pastor Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s most prominent evangelicals. There are many explicitly Christian descriptions of sin: fallenness, brokenness, depravity. Keller suggested Brooks try a more neutral phrasing: “disordered love.” When we blab a secret at a party, for example, we misplace love of popularity over love of friendship.
Brooks recounted that guidance to me at a coffee shop in Arlington, Virginia, in between his regular Friday afternoon appearances on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’ NewsHour. He’s held those gigs for nearly two decades, and though he claims not to be bored with politics, his mind can seem elsewhere. When Brooks arrived that day at the bustling NPR headquarters in Washington, there was much to sort out. It was the day after the school shooting in Oregon, and the host wanted to know whether a gun crackdown was foreseeable. Would there be a contested race to replace John Boehner as Speaker? Did the Vatican really arrange the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to certify gay marriages? E.J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post columnist who is Brooks’ liberal counterpart on NPR, provided a bubbly stream of punditry. Brooks was almost listless. On air, his hot takes lacked spark.
Within minutes of arriving, he’d bagged a book from a give-away shelf, The Opposite of Loneliness, Marina Keegan’s posthumous bestseller about starting over. “I’ve been thinking about writing a column on loneliness,” he explained.
That topic might justifiably be on his mind. Just that week, he’d flown alone to a Gordon College event in Boston, Hope College in Western Michigan, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia to promote his book. He takes the train alone to Yale most weeks to teach, and lives alone (he’s recently divorced) in an apartment near the National Cathedral, a 10-minute drive from the Times’ DC bureau. His office, on a hallway some call “Murderers’ Row” but which he dubbed “The Hall of Big Egos,” is between Maureen Dowd’s and Thomas Friedman’s, but there isn’t much water-cooler banter among Op-ed staff.
Brooks, 54, also now occupies a lonely journalistic space. When he began using his column several years ago to philosophize about personal morality, he says, “I felt like I was wandering off the map into weird territory.” Where to, exactly, remains mystifying. Brooks thinks a tradition of journalists fluent, or at least conversant, in moral concepts dissipated in recent decades. Theologians were walled off within their denominations, and public discourse about values grew dysfunctional. A life of “meaning” by today’s standard, he wrote in his Times column to begin 2015, “is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.”
In general, Brooks contends, journalists balk at sharing moral viewpoints, and readers bristle upon receiving them. His critics find him an insufferable scold, a pompous sermonizer. “I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.” There is at least marginal evidence that this is changing. His book, published in April, spent 22 weeks on the Times best-seller list.
For Brooks, studying sin (and other moral categories) has been transformational. His political views have shifted before, quite publicly, but this is closer to an intellectual rebirth. Whether it is also a religious one, he won’t say.
On his book tour over the summer, Brooks committed to a mission for the rest of his career: to restore comfortable, competent dialogue about what makes a virtuous life. If that is truly an area of cultural illiteracy, then journalists have neglected it. Like Brooks, their values have been out of order.
Brooks is reluctant to share personal anecdotes in his writing. One memorable exception was a column revisiting his teenage years in Philadelphia. When he and his buddies gave up smoking marijuana, they’d realized that “being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.” The argument is distinctly Brooks: While most commentary about weed scrutinizes economic, legal, and medical consequences, he analyzes virtue. That’s partly because some writers favor objective criteria over moral preferences. Brooks’ reply is that morality is objective. Still, when writing about altered mental states, it’s hard to withhold personal experience and not come off as blowing smoke.
As an undergraduate, he learned that the keys to life are found in the Great Books, maybe even more so than the Good Book. Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and company were taught at the University of Chicago “with moral fervor,” he recalls. These texts provided blueprints for a healthy soul and society, and formed the foundation of Brooks’ thinking—early exposure he considers rare among journalists. Carol Quillen, the president of Davidson College, was at Chicago with Brooks in the 1970s but met him only recently. She remembers a unifying creed on campus: “The more you know about the past, the better equipped you were to defend civilized life from barbaric perversion. That’s pretty powerful as an 18-year-old.”
“I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today,” Brooks wrote in the column “Love story.” “I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.”
Senior year, when Brooks made his first TV appearance—on a roundtable student debate program moderated by former Chicago professor Milton Friedman (the video survives on YouTube)—he was introduced as a social democrat. He started to drift to the right during one of his first jobs post-college, reporting a police beat for a Chicago wire service. After five months, he accepted an offer from William F. Buckley Jr. to move to New York and intern for his influential conservative magazine, National Review. Within 24 hours, Brooks remembers, he went from covering rapes and murders to sitting in Buckley’s Park Avenue apartment. He calls Buckley—who would often bring interns to his mansion and aboard his yacht—his mentor.
There is extreme wariness of anything that touches on religious faith, especially faith that’s given a name.
Brooks would move on to a nine-year stint at The Wall Street Journal, where he was book review editor, film critic, Brussels correspondent, and Op-ed editor. He left to be a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, a new conservative magazine that would later lead the Iraq War charge. Writing in 2001 for The Atlantic Monthly, where he regularly contributed, his first sense of a decline in moral dialogue came from a visit to Princeton and led to “The Organization Kid.” The students he encountered lacked “a vocabulary of virtue and vice.” After talking to them about character, Brooks noticed, “they’re a little nervous about the subject. … When I asked about moral questions, they would often flee such talk.”
“Even back then, you find David beginning to develop this central interest of his own life’s work,” says George, who was heavily quoted in that article, and whom the Times later called “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.”
Brooks made his way to The New York Times two years later on the editorial pages overseen by Gail Collins, known today for her faithfully left columns. Initially, he felt obliged to act as a spokesman for mainstream conservatism. As the base shifted to the right of him, carrying its banner felt disingenuous, so he shucked that duty. “When I did that, I stopped being part of the team. I lost a lot of conservative friends, and a lot of conservative readers, probably.” Right-wing Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, once asked to name his favorite liberal columnist, replied, “David Brooks,” partly in jest.
Those who conflate ideology and disposition might overstate how much Brooks’ beliefs have actually evolved. Ideology informs policy stances, like Tea Party support for tax cuts. Brooks’ hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish philosopher, spoke of dispositional conservatism, which Brooks defines this way: “It’s a reverence for the past, a belief in incremental change, a distrust of abstract, permanent truths, at least about political matters.”
Brooks’ strand of conservatism allows for progressive stances, including support for gay marriage, but they stem from unconventional foundations. A 2003 column endorsing gay marriage has one of the most jarring ledes he’s ever written: “Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide.” He concluded, “The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments.” Brooks left the topic alone for a decade, then wrote a piece after a Supreme Court decision that many still resent: “Freedom Loses One.” In sum, marriage is the constriction of freedom, in a good way. Amy Davidson, the New Yorker staff writer who acts as its in-house Brooks critic, responded that Brooks acted “pleased to discover that gays and lesbians have quite misunderstood what they are doing—which is, in short, to prove that David Brooks is right about the world, and that they, until now, have been wrong.”
Brooks now cites “Freedom Loses One” among the columns he most regrets. “I remember thinking it was just needlessly provocative, just because I didn’t want to say the same old banalities that all my readers already agree with.”
Because of his conservatism on issues from drug use to casual sex, Brooks can be perceived as a fuddy-duddy. It’s surprising to hear him mention Amy Schumer’s raunchy summer comedy Trainwreck or loving Taylor Swift and Kesha. His “moment of glory” for zeitgeist knowledge, he says, was on NPR, when a White House source was quoted using the bizarre metaphor “like a fat kid loves cake.” Brooks clarified for the room that it was a lyric from the rapper 50 Cent.
“Professor, that you know 50 Cent is very impressive,” the host replied.
For a decade, Brooks took repeated stabs at the same question—What produces a life of depth?—using social science, psychology, and neuroscience. But after his 2011 book The Social Animal, his writing began a sharp turn away from the sciences. The last sentences of that book, in the Acknowledgments, read, “I may write about emotion and feelings, but that’s not because I’m naturally good at expressing them. It’s because I’m naturally bad at it.”
April Lawson, his assistant at the Times, remembers, “After the book’s completion, he became frustrated with neuroscience and what it can and cannot explain about the human condition, including his own inner experience of life.”
By the spring of 2012, Brooks found a forum for his emerging ideas in a course he began teaching at Yale. It was titled, “Humility.”
“The idea of a New York Times columnist teaching Yale students humility, I knew would get a blogger reaction,” Brooks says. Asked if there is anything elitist about studying at Chicago, then reporting at Princeton, then teaching at Yale, he says he joined a colleague in wrestling with that question.
“We said, Why aren’t we at a community college, among people where we can really make bigger impacts?” Brooks recalls. “I guess my answer is that the things I’m trying to teach, the people at Yale are no better off, and maybe worse off, than the people at a community college who may’ve had more challenging life experiences.”
Second, he adds, “Selfishly, Yale is just an amazing, stimulating place to be around. Third, we don’t pick, it’s sort of who we are.”
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, a frequent Brooks critic, wrote an only mildly tongue-in-cheek piece in 2012 headlined, “Is David Brooks Teaching Humility at Yale the Most Pretentious Moment In History?”
“Part of the reason Brooks comes off as moralizing,” Taibbi told me, “is because people don’t know who he is, just that he has a lot to say about other people.” Those people, Taibbi maintains, tend to be poor. Brooks “has basically one idea,” he explains, “which is that the poor are badly behaved and need to behave better, and all of these lectures that he gives on moral vocabulary are really a way to express this idea that all of the problems the underprivileged face are their own fault.”
What does Brooks say to those who think he is sheltered in elite culture and unqualified to speak on the poor? “I would say they don’t know anything about me.”
In fairness, not many readers do. Brooks reveals little of his personal life, either in columns, books, or interviews. He threads Christian theology through his recent work, yet won’t say whether he has converted to anything (though he’ll say vaguely that he’s integrating with a new religious community). He is divorced from his wife of 27 years, Sarah, but doesn’t explain what role that break up, or the reasons for it, played in his moral awakening.
Brooks refers to columns that share minor personal details, say, mentioning his three children, as “showing a little knee. But you’re not going to lift the skirt up any more.”
In the age of social media, public figures are expected to be naked. Journalists’ brands are built on prolific tweeting and perpetual audience engagement. Brooks uses his Twitter account almost exclusively to promote his work, though he peruses the site several times a day—“a lurker,” to use his words. When Reddit invited him to discuss his latest book on an “Ask Me Anything” forum, Random House convinced him to pass.
The problem with this approach is that Brooks’ interest in moral philosophy is emphatically personal. “It wouldn’t be genuine for him to be discussing these things if he hadn’t genuinely been through his own transformations and struggling,” says Campbell Schnebly-Swanson, who assisted on The Road to Character.
Whatever forces led to his transformation, it seems at least partly propelled by his disillusion with politics. Brooks was once infatuated with Capitol Hill. An unexpected bond formed between Brooks and the president, and he estimates that he visited the White House on 40 occasions during Obama’s tenure. But over time, Brooks came to find traditional political analysis to be trivial. “Who the hell cares about what Trump said to Ted Cruz?” he says.
A career immersed in those issues, even at the highest levels of journalism, was not as fulfilling as planned. One close friend is Yuval Levin, whom the New Republic calls “the right’s new favorite intellectual” and who Brooks calls a mentor. Levin says Brooks has come to believe “ultimately, it isn’t really politics that shapes an advance toward justice. It’s moral improvement.”
In the introduction to The Road to Character, Brooks scolds himself for a “natural disposition toward shallowness” and for having “to work harder than most to avoid a life of smug superficiality.”
“Somebody would come up to me with a bit of news in their own lives, and I would register emotion but I didn’t know what to say,” he told me. “I remember several awkward and regretful moments when I felt I wasn’t really reflecting back to the person what I was feeling and what they should be seeing in me as a naturally sympathetic human being.”
Part of the reason Brooks comes off as moralizing is because people don’t know who he is, just that he has a lot to say about other people.
At times, he evokes moral awareness in peculiar contexts. On Meet the Press, in 2011, David Gregory asked Brooks and E.J. Dionne about the lack of accountability in the Penn State child molestation scandal.
“We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is,” Brooks said. “And so, when people see things like that, they don’t have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it’s wrong, but they’ve been raised in a morality that says, If it feels all right for you, it’s probably okay.”
“I think David is way too abstract here,” Dionne interjected, perhaps appropriately.
Brooks aims to revive a “secular priesthood of intellectuals,” which at times can be taken as a shrewd form of proselytizing. When the Christian right campaigned for “family values,” that was tied to specific public policy. But when religious concepts aren’t a prelude to advocacy, but rather a resource for reflection, secular paranoia is undue. Writing about the pope’s recent visit to America, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker eloquently asserted: “One would have to be a little deranged—hostage to a dogma—to think that much could not be learned from [the Catholic Church].” He added, “[O]ne of the things that can make liberalism, and liberal cities, well, morally strong is that we really do believe that you can learn from people from a fundamentally different or even unsympathetic framework.”
Is religious thinking more palatable when phrased in secular terms? “There is extreme wariness of anything that touches on religious faith, especially faith that’s given a name,” says Peter Wehner, deputy speechwriter to George W. Bush, Times Op-ed contributor, and a friend of Brooks’. Regarding explicitly religious concepts, Levin says, “I personally don’t know how those ideas are understood outside a religious context. Maybe the book serves as a bit of a gateway drug.”
William Safire, who wrote a Times column for three decades, offered a tip to be used sparingly by Brooks, his successor: “Sometimes you just take the stick,” Brooks remembers the former Nixon speechwriter saying, “and you put it in the ant hill, and you shake it around, and you make everyone run around a little.”
Last July, Brooks had that advice in mind when he wrote the column “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.” The provocative headline was his doing, too. When “David Brooks” trends on Twitter for almost an entire day, the ant hill is sufficiently frenzied.
Coates had just published a brutally compelling book on race, Between the World and Me. Toni Morrison called him the heir to James Baldwin. After reading an advance copy, New Yorker editor David Remnick said the book, written as a letter to Coates’ teenage son, was “extraordinary.” It was met with universal acclaim. Brooks thought the book was excellent, too, and he wanted to bring attention to it, but with a qualifier:
“I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?”
Brooks explains, “I was trying to, in a backhand way, say, A white person has a place at the table of this conversation. I didn’t want to say that directly, so I did it in a backhand way. I knew it would generate a certain reaction, and sometimes you just want to get a debate going.”
The response was less debate than outrage. One reader wrote a letter to the editor saying, “David Brooks just couldn’t help himself. He just had to tell Mr. Coates where he was wrong.” Writing for Salon, Stanford professor David Palumbo-Liu called Brooks an exemplar of the “cult of white liberal race-deniers.” Brooks says some of his close friends were really angered by his column. “I stand by that piece. But,” Brooks adds, “some of the effects I put in there to provoke attention were maybe wrongheaded.”
“I felt I would be patronizing him if I didn’t disagree with him frontally,” he says. “Part of all that effect was, like, I have a place at the table and not only that, I’m going to treat you like an equal.”
Within moral commentary, few topics are as inflammatory as the argument that poor communities are partly to blame for their own ailings because of some type of “spiritual poverty.”
The reaction of The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb is typical. “We know unquestionably that social policy created the poverty,” he explains. “We can look at racism and white flight. We can look at who was given access to housing and who was not. … But then we elusively say, Well, social policy can’t solve all these problems. It’s a kind of particular absolution, and David Brooks is not the first person to do this by a long stretch.”
Brooks’ column never got a reply from Coates, but over the past year the two have discussed the idea of a public debate on the American Dream. Both were interested, he says, but Coates has been spending a lot of time in France lately, and Brooks is often on the road. That matchup could have been billed as a sequel (no less on the 50th anniversary) to the famous 1965 debate at Cambridge between James Baldwin and William Buckley on “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” It’s a shame that the opportunity passed—for now.
The unanticipated backlash against the Coates column demonstrates why, in Brooks’ view, all columns are “failures.” The cycle is just too hurried to allow proper reflection. Brooks writes each column on the day of its deadline. For every column, on his office floor, he creates a pile for each paragraph made up of news clippings, cut-out scans of book pages, and handwritten notes. When he referred in his book to his current assistant, the 28-year-old Lawson, as his “editor,” it wasn’t far from true. After he gives her a draft of his 806-word column (he tries to hit that number on the nose every time), she returns a list of notes that’s often just as long. Brooks’ assistants resemble Supreme Court law clerks: They do significant research, they have hefty roles in writing, and they’re often drawn from the Ivy League.
Times columnists are afforded academic-like independence. Brooks says he’s never been to a meeting or received a performance review. When he began drifting into unconventional moral territory, Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, didn’t intervene, though he does want Brooks to maintain some focus on politics. There’s no formal quota, but when Brooks writes a political column, he feels he’s allowed himself a moral one.
Those moral columns are often his most-read and most polarizing. Sometimes they simply dissect a term, like gratitude, or define a concept, like vocation. The line between moral philosophy and news analysis in Brooks’ writing has been increasingly blurred. When Brian Williams of NBC News was in hot water for exaggerating his professional exploits, Brooks wrote, “Some sins like vanity—Williams’ sin—can only be treated by extreme self-abasement.” That blurring aligns with Brooks’ mission: to restore the standard of a couple generations ago, when “[p]ublic discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well.”
The problem with this thinking, says Rolling Stone’s Taibbi, is that it crosses into telling others what’s right and wrong. “One of the hardest things to achieve as a writer is moral authority,” Taibbi says. “But one of the surer ways to win that trust is to avoid moralizing and lecturing people.”
Brooks says he doesn’t wish to instruct people on how to live, but to provide a context for thinking. People may reject his views, but doing so often prompts them to develop their own philosophy.
Knowledge of virtue may require communal nurturing. So says the other course Brooks teaches at Yale, “Studies in Grand Strategy.” One of its several professors, Charles Hill, the Yale diplomat-in-residence, explains, “The question is, Where is virtue to be produced? Does it come from family upbringing? Culture? Many cultures we have in America are more productive of virtue than others, although we’re not allowed to talk about that because it’s politically incorrect.”
I stand by that piece. But some of the effects I put in there to provoke attention were maybe wrongheaded.
Unlike Hill and Brooks, who defend universal morals, relativists believe morality depends on perspective and norms. Relativism may be more persuasive when defending differing paths to virtue, rather than standards of vice. How much authority does Brooks have to tell happy, successful people that they are morally ignorant? And yet, doubting moral truth should not delegitimize moral learning.
People who believe Brooks beats up on the poor often point to ethical spinelessness of politicians or corruption on Wall Street as evidence that immorality is multicultural, maybe even skewed toward the elite. Yet, this underscores why a popular journalist with conservative dispositions but liberal open-mindedness might be valuable to morally stimulate the “upper-middle class” and “upscale establishment.” In today’s America, a middle-aged, privileged, urban white man is needed at the table of moral dialogue. He represents a morally beleaguered constituency, which is why, to borrow from one forceful column, the proper course is not to banish people like Brooks from making such commitments to moral reflection. It is to expect that they make such commitments.
“Listen to your inner voice. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Your future is limitless”—“completely garbage advice,” Brooks told Dartmouth graduates earlier this year. The feel-good, fortune-cookie pablum that’s expected at commencement represents, to Brooks, what discourse about a virtuous life has become. It’s evident in colleges that minimize moral nurturing and venerate résumé building, in politicians entrenched in ideology and illiterate in moral philosophy, and in journalists insistent on putting issues into political and economic terms. The erosion of moral diction hasn’t necessarily made people bad, he explains; rather, they’re mired in a kind of “moral mediocrity.”
Some media heavyweights don’t consider morality to be a blind spot of their profession. “I find personal essays and ruminations about moral choices, relationships, ethnic identity, illness, death and dying in great abundance,” Remnick says, “in places like The New Yorker or even The New York Times, and online.”
What about reflections on the individual quest for fulfillment, Brooks’ focus? Has that lost journalistic legitimacy? For Remnick, “If Montaigne were alive today and made himself available to be a columnist at The New Yorker or The New York Times, I would be very interested in reading him.” The 16th-century French essayist is one of Brooks’ favorites, too.
Brooks notes that the Times opinion section has expanded its attention to moral questions, particularly in the Sunday Review and the philosophy blog “The Stone.” And yet, readers’ quizzical reactions to his writing on morality are evidence, at least to some extent, of the genre’s obscurity.
In the recent Democratic primary debate, Bernie Sanders repeatedly stressed that climate change is a moral issue. To Great Book authors like Plato, and followers like Brooks, that’s an odd point of emphasis—to them, all politics are moral. If Brooks could inspire journalists to engage in public discussion of morality, politics and current events would not be relegated in favor of abstract reflections. Instead, moral scholarship would inform analysis of just about any issue: student debt, income inequality, national defense, healthcare reform, mass incarceration, and on, and on.
And would that give journalists license to moralize? In common usage, that word refers to someone offering haughty opinions of right and wrong. But offering moral opinions or explorations should not be inherently self-righteous. Many readers prefer writers who discuss morality to be forthcoming about their own flaws. On that score, Brooks falls short.
Other readers are only interested in hearing moral analysis from exemplary people—say, a pope. Requiring moral commentators to be of the moral elite, though, is a form of elitism. If everyone can have a perspective on morality, then all journalists should be eligible to investigate ideas like virtue, for the public and themselves, in good faith.Danny Funt is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt