Dear David Brooks,
Your column in the NY Times last Tuesday during the Democratic convention was thoughtful. Describing the current political climate, you explain,
Americans are no longer confident in their national project. They no longer trust their institutions or have faith in their common destiny. This is a crisis of national purpose. It's about personal identity and the basic health of communal life. Americans' anger and pessimism are more fundamental than anything that can be explained by G.D.P. statistics.
Judging from the words you use--trust, faith, purpose, identity and health--the spiritual nature of our political crisis requires our attention. How often do we forget that spirituality is a redwood rather than a weed? It grows slowly and often needs a fire to renew itself.
Albert Nolan, a South African Christian, was no stranger to this quality of spirituality. He writes,
Like all other forms of life, our spiritual life evolves, interacting creatively with other people, our environment, and historical events and responding to the opportunities that arise or missing them.
One comment is needed before I go on.
As we do spiritual analysis, we must resist the urge to label the complaints and protests of a diverse citizenry the same. Their ideas of justice, wellbeing and community often clash and even contradict each other, as you've pointed out.
Still, I appreciate your advice to Hillary Clinton to offer people a "soul satisfying faith in the American project" and "fight [her] party's materialistic mindset." You say,
Many Democrats have trouble thinking in these terms. When asked to explain any complex phenomenon, they instinctively reduce it to a materialist cause. If there's terrorism there must be lack of economic opportunity. If marriage is declining it must be because of joblessness.
I have a question, however. What do you mean by materialist?
Do you simply mean "not spiritual" or "not transcendent?" Or the demand for certainty? Or do you mean the reduction of reality to physical things, like boiling down human consciousness to electrical activity in the brain, or human taste to molecular properties?
I've recently revisited theologian Graham Ward's book The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens and I've developed a few ideas about materialism.
Ward talks about how our values and identities do in part reflect our socioeconomic circumstances. 'Things' in our lives do contribute to our spirituality in a broad sense. He mentions the postmaterialist thesis coined by political scientist Ronald Inglehart:
As a people moves out of economic instability, where basic survivor values such as food and physical security dominate, their values change--oriented now to quality-of-life issues such as human rights, personal liberties, community, aesthetic satisfaction and the environment.
He also points out that capitalism and globalization correlate to these quality-of-life values.
There is a cost, however, and Graham spends a great deal of time outlining those costs from a theological perspective.
Postmaterial citizens are morally fickle. We ignore the often unjust systems of production that create the possibilities for our spiritual privilege. We also confuse our 'things' with life's purpose. Lots of "bobos" in paradise, you might say.
In addition, a postmaterialist spirituality doesn't exactly square up with Christian mystical spirituality, nor for that matter traditional Christian moral theology.
My Christian forebearers let go of things and possessions--not acquired them--in order to encounter reality from a more authentic relationship with themselves, God and others.
We live on this side of science and globalization, however. The real deserts inhabited by the mystics are now reproduced by postmaterialists through retreats, diets, exercises, Twitter abstinence, and tiny houses. A kind of new asceticism, for sure.
Is this emergence a disaster for the human condition? Not necessarily.
Material desires and provisions have always been connected to spirituality, whether through ravens and strangers bringing food to reclusive hermits, or through government subsidies bringing healthcare to those isolated by long hours and short wages. We shouldn't forget that many of the mystical giants of the Christian tradition freely chose their spiritual deserts like postmaterial citizens now do.
Neither poverty or economic privilege guarantees more or less spirituality or freedom. But Americans are, for better or worse, more spiritually diverse than our ancestors. Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez' teaching that spirituality is the "terrain upon which people exercise their freedom" means something different for us than it did for those of past generations.
To be sure, the spiritual nature of the anger and frustration we see today is related to things like health care costs, education costs, jobs and ordinary safety. Political efforts to remediate social problems do indeed tap into the inner and outer wellbeing of citizens.
Alternatively, I believe worldview more than spirituality is the problem. To quote archbishop Hélder Câmara, "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."
Our ideas of justice influence the way we view the connection between the spiritual and the material, and these are seated in our worldview.
What we mean by justice is so crucially important. While political thought has separated it from religion, all religions place God as well as the flourishing of people as cornerstones of justice.
To go back to Nolan, spirituality--a crucial part of the Judeo-Christian heritage--is inextricably linked to the thirst for justice.
While neither the DNC nor RNC can claim to administer God's justice, Democrats don't reduce justice to a social policy any more than to a flat screen TV. The material wellbeing sought in their legislative actions is intended for a spiritually healthy body and bodies. The same goes for Republicans.
The danger lies in locating our spiritual identities in the freedoms of postmaterialism, which would be a different article for you to write.
Thank you for being a reasonable and imaginative voice among the cultural din.