With conservatives like this, who needs liberals?
It’s almost hard to express how profoundly wrong Brooks is in this clip (see video below). We could spend all day parsing it, and marveling that Andrea Mitchell turned out to be the one sensible person in the group, but for my purposes here I’ll just focus on two passages. (Transcript from NewsBusters.)
The topic is Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, in which he invoked the Crusades and the Inquisition, apparently as a way to blunt criticism of Islamic State* for burning Jordanian pilot 1st Lt. Muadh al-Kasasbeh to death. Obama, you’ll recall, didn’t want us Americans getting on our “high horse” and thinking we’re right about everything. Here’s the first passage:
BROOKS: Well, I’m pro-Obama. I’m totally pro-Obama on this. I think he said the right thing. Listen, it was a gospel of humility. What sorts of people need a little gospel of humility? People in Washington, pundits, religious believers, I happen to be all three of those things. And so we’re told to, we’re told to walk humbly in the path of the lord, the lord’s ways are mysterious and so you’re saying we’re prone to zealotry as Jon [Meacham] said we’re fallen. And so to underline that that’s useful in Washington today that’s useful always.
And here’s the second:
BROOKS: No I think he was right. He gave the race speech. It was a beautiful speech. He’s given a whole series of great speeches, Trayvon Martin. I think this was utterly fine. This is exactly the moment you want to say this. We’re at the most moral danger to ourselves when we’re caught up in a righteous fervor against an evil foe which is what we have. And so, while we exercise hard power we have to take morally hazardous action, or we can be prone to get caught up in our own self-righteousness. This is exactly the moment [sic]
So, to recap: the Middle East is flying apart, Islamist radicals are launching guerrilla warfare in Europe and burning POWs in Syria, Iran is within 6 weeks from the starting gun to getting a bomb, and David Brooks thinks that now is the time for Obama to remind his people about the Crusades, and admonish us to not get caught up in our own self-righteousness.
A key problem with this is that it’s impressionistic, and doesn’t seem to be directed at anything useful. It’s one thing to say, “excessive self-righteousness is bad.” Who would disagree? But since Brooks is so happy that the point was made in this situation, what is its relevance to the situation? Does Brooks think that if Americans go around in a self-righteous snit, that will somehow affect how we conduct military operations against the Islamic State? The American people have no means of directly influencing that. If we have to worry about anyone being in a self-righteous snit, in that regard, it’s the commander-in-chief and the national command authorities.
We have a few hundred special ops troops and contractors in Iraq right now, and we’re flying military jets and helicopters over Iraq and Syria. What exactly does Brooks think will happen? That our men and women in uniform, in a fit of self-righteous zeal, might ignore the rules of engagement, decorate themselves with crosses, and start attacking people with maces and broadswords?
Or does he perhaps fear that America is suddenly going to set up a religious Inquisition and start torturing people into converting to Christianity? If he envisions something awful, what is it? The American people have no means of launching Crusades or instituting an Inquisition. None of our churches has the power to do that. The only entity with the power to do it is the government. As with FDR and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the target at which to direct admonition is the federal government. It’s not the people.
So, suppose Brooks was directing his remarks at the federal government. He did say that the people who need a little gospel of humility are “people in Washington, pundits, religious believers.” Let’s be charitable and assume that’s what Brooks meant to say: Obama needs to tell the Washington establishment not to get on a high horse of self-righteousness.
The problem with that is that any Obama speech to the National Prayer Breakfast will be, ultimately, directed at the nation. And there’s no way to turn what Obama said, or Brooks’s approving comments, into leadership, either spiritual or political. That’s because their words are not leadership. All they do is sow doubt and paralysis.
I’m going to show you what two forms of leadership would look like. Suppose a Christian president thinks the nation needs to repent. If he does, he leads the people in repenting. He doesn’t just strew negative thoughts around about past sins and pride and being on a high horse. He gets in front of the people and offers a prayer of repentance — the Bible has plenty of good passages to select from — and then prays for restoration and healing for his nation.
In another situation, he may not think it’s appropriate to lead the nation in repenting. Maybe he doesn’t think it’s necessary. But he wants to shape the national mindset for the challenge ahead. He doesn’t set up strawmen about the sinful mindsets people may be in, so that he can attack them. He outlines the righteous mindset he thinks we should have. He encourages the people, gives them ideas and a vision.
I would submit to David Brooks that the Christian problem with his commentary is that its emphasis is misplaced. The message of Christ isn’t about sin. It’s not about our tendency to self-righteousness or pride. The whole rest of creation tells us about that. The message of Christ is about redemption and hope. If you’re talking about a Christian perspective on anything, and you’re not talking about that, you’re doing it wrong. The good news for a president speaking to his people in a time of crisis is that that’s what he should be talking about too.
* Although I have typically used the term ISIS, for reasons outlined here and here, we will be making a concerted effort from now on to mostly use the term Islamic State. The main reason is to emphasize the obvious: that it’s an avowedly Islamic enterprise. Given the POTUS-in-chief’s reluctance to acknowledge that, the point needs emphasizing. When it’s important to stress the “al-Sham” in the name, I’ll revert to ISIS as necessary.