DENVER — New York Times columnist, bestselling author and all-around pundit David Brooks has made headlines recently for his bold new book making the case for a societal return to morality.
Perhaps lesser known, however, is some of the inspiration behind the work — a humble priest described by Brooks as an “insanely joyful” man who sparked a nagging, internal question: Why was this cleric so happy and fulfilled?
What followed was a meticulously researched and engaging book that poses a provocative thesis: We as a modern society are cultivating outwardly impressive but ultimately superficial “resume virtues” — not character. And it’s costing us dearly, the author says, both personally and communally.
In a conversation with CNA editors, Brooks recounted his experience with the priest, along with his thoughts on why his book — The Road to Character (Random House, 2015) — is so important, as well as how it speaks to everything from politics to religion and education.
He also gave a hat tip to Pope Francis, whom he called “the embodiment of being a Christian.”
Below is the full Q&A, edited for clarity.
You’re very brave — all of your recent headlines explicitly tout the need for “morality” and your book’s glaring reference to “sin.” Has there been any fallout from this? What has the reaction been from your peers?
A friend of mine who is an editor at another publishing house — a really good editor — called me and said, ‘You know, I love the way you talk about your book, but I wouldn’t use the word ‘sin’ — it’s just such a downer, so you should use the word ‘insensitive.’” I, of course, think that ‘insensitive’ is a very paltry substitute for the word ‘sin,’ so there has been some pushback on that. And there’s some hostility towards religion in general. The book is not super religious, but it does have religious characters and certainly religious words and religious context. But I’d say the main reaction has just been welcoming: People are hungry for a conversation. And so, whether people are Christian, Jewish, atheist — I’ve been sort of surprised by the general desire to be in this general field of conversation.
When did you realize in your own life that you’d been building “resume virtues” instead of forming your character?
There wasn’t one big thing — but there were certain moments in my life when I saw people who had spiritual and moral gifts that I lacked. One of them was a guy named Msgr. Ray East, who is a priest in the Anacostia neighborhood in D.C. — a very poor neighborhood. He was part of a lunch I do every year for Catholic Relief Services, which I do with my friend Mark Shields. And, every year, Msgr. East would give the benediction. He was just insanely joyful — such an insanely joyful man, and I was just so struck by him. Just being in his presence would lift me up for a few weeks. I had the realization that whatever I had achieved in career terms, I haven’t achieved the inner joy that he possesses. And I was just curious: How do you get that?
In your book, you talk about a cultural shift over the last 50-plus years away from humility — and a natural sense of self-effacement people had — into the notion of the “big me.” What caused this?
There are many aspects, of course. One of them derives from the consumer society that teaches that you have these desires, and you should satisfy them, and so you should just go around satisfying your desires. And so I think you come to believe that your desires are good and to have tremendous trust in them — and that is a shift away from what people thought in previous centuries. Second, after World War II, people had been through deprivation and had seen a lot of darkness, from the Holocaust and just the death that WWII created. [A series of books from the time promoted the idea] that when we look inside ourselves we see that our nature is beautiful and full of good and that we need to love ourselves more. That, too, is a sharp break from the biblical tradition, which says that we are broken — so there was both a commercial and philosophical shift that happened.
A recent Pew survey documents the rise of “nones” (religiously unaffiliated people) in the U.S. With the general decline of those who identify as religious, would you say this correlates to a general lack of emphasis on character?
They go along together — character is the ability to commit to things outside of yourself, whether it is a political movement or faith or friendship or a love affair or a cause. I think people have a harder time committing. They are more autonomous, more individual; they have FOMO (fear of missing out), so they don’t want to ruin any option, and that leads to a general era of de-commitment. People are walking away from political parties and from organized faith — they are just living more individually. And I think that’s due to our inability to commit to things.
What about education? How does the school system help or hinder your concept of the need for more virtuous people?
I think, obviously, Catholic schools can teach us specific code, specific theology, but public schools really can’t. I do think that they can familiarize students with the religions and the faiths and the philosophies that are out there. So what I do when I teach a course is say: ‘Here are a bunch of moral ontologies, different systems that people have come up with. There is a Greek system favoring honor and courage, the Jewish faith favoring obedience and law, the Christian system favoring grace and humility; I’m not going to tell you which one to pick, but here are a bunch of systems. Do what seems true to you.’ But we don’t even give students the words or an education there. I think we have to at least make them literate in spirituality and moral matters.
Let’s move to politics. Many of the U.S. founding fathers either implied or explicitly said that democracy will only work if we are a nation comprised of people with character. What are the implications of your thesis for the American experiment?
I think that our founders were very clear on that. A healthy country requires a decent citizenry. And they also believed that statecraft is soulcraft — that, in forming a government, we’re helping to shape the character of the people within it. I think as we’ve lost the whole vocabulary and the whole focus, we now focus a lot on economics and economics as, really, the gateway between all social thinking and government policy.
And that’s not true — that doesn’t evaluate what people seek. ... And so we’ve kind of neutered the public square. I’m not the kind of person who thinks we’re in a state of national decline or anything like that. I think people find ways to behave decently towards one another as best as they can. But I just think we’re inarticulate and that we could be living satisfying and more fulfilling lives if we actually had words and more — greater — self-consciousness and better road maps for how to lead a life of depth and kindness.
Is social media to blame for some of our narcissistic, “big me” tendencies as a society?
I’m not hugely fearful about it. I don’t think Facebook is making us lonelier. I don’t think video games are making us more violent. The two things I do think are: First, social media and the desire for likes and attention on Instagram and such is amplifying the self, where we are broadcasting ourselves and just sort of being big about ourselves and win fame. And I do think social media damages our attention span. I’ve certainly noticed that in myself, where I have trouble reading for long periods of time without checking my phone. So I do think that’s probably the most harmful thing that has happened to us. Moral reflection takes stillness. You’ve got to hear that soft voice inside. ... So I think those are the two things I worry about.
What, in a concrete, practical sense can your readers take away from your book? What effect do you want to have on people?
First, I just want them to live in this space and think about this world. Second, I think we become better people by copying others. So I hope they’re excited by some of the characters and they just want to live a life like Dorothy Day or live a life like Philip Randolph. I think that’s how we are motivated — by exemplars.
As for the practical things, some of them are mundane. I have a friend who, when he goes home at night, asks how he did in his struggle against his core weakness that day, and he resolves ways to do better. I think you can surround yourself by friends and also by heroes (people you can put on your walls in your room who remind you what a decent, good life looks like). I think you can have discussion groups raising the subjects of: How do you turn suffering into a moral occasion? How do you build your relationships?
So there’s a spiritual component. I think you learn from Samuel Johnson the virtue of reading and how just having a settled philosophy of life is important in having and living a life of character. You can learn from Francis Perkins about a vocation. You can ask: What is the mortal world around me calling me to do right now?
I think there are a few different things that can be done. There’s no seven-step process to doing it, but there’s a lifelong journey that I’m hoping people find different avenues towards.
As a Catholic news entity, we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask your opinion on Pope Francis.
I have a quote in the book from Dave Jolly, a veterinarian, who says “the message is the person” — the way we communicate, what we value is not necessarily from the theology that we found, but by the way we act, the way we are. And I think Pope Francis is the perfect exemplification of that. I’m not a huge expert in Catholic theology, but I like the way he handles himself, and I admire the way he behaves in matters large and small. So to me, he simply is the embodiment of being a Christian: He radiates love, radiates joy, shows mercy and shows empathy.
That’s the way Jesus asks Christians to live, and Pope Francis lives that way. And so the message is the person.