David Brooks on America’s abandonment of #Biblical values

In David Brooks’ New York Times Thursday column, he shares the story of Walter Judd, who paid his way through college at the beginning of the 20th century by washing dishes. His father had refused to pay his tuition since he thought that the manual labor would be good for his character. Brooks shares that “people then were more likely to assume that jobs at the bottom of the status ladder were ennobling and that jobs at the top were morally perilous” since they presumed that “the working classes were self-controlled, while the rich and the professionals could get away with things.” He writes that today our values are the opposite: wealth is applauded as the evidence of hard work, while poverty is presumed to be the product of laziness or immorality. Brooks attributes this shift to an abandonment of Biblical values in our culture.

Brooks finds the Bible to be the source of the way that the working class used to be the cultural heroes of America. He writes, “In the Torah, God didn’t pick out the most powerful or notable or populous nation to be his chosen people. He chose a small, lowly band.” And he quotes from my favorite passage in the Bible (1 Corinthians 1:27) about God choosing the weak to shame the strong. Brooks writes that under the old, more Biblically grounded rubric, “Your place is not determined by worldly accomplishments, but simply through an acceptance of God’s grace.”

I’ve never thought about applying the Christian doctrine of justification by grace in quite this way, but it’s very true. Brooks says that all the old models for understanding self-worth have disappeared so that the only one left standing is “the meritocratic hierarchy of professional success.” When Christians uncritically accept worldly meritocracy as the standard for measuring peoples’ worth, it reveals a complete erosion of the Christian belief that God’s grace is what makes people valuable.

It seems like a fair litmus test for evaluating how authentically you believe in God’s grace is to look at your attitude about poor people that you don’t have personal relationships with. If you talk about the poor being lazy and immoral or say that some percentage of the country are “the takers” while others like you are “the makers,” then what you’re saying is that you aren’t a “taker” in the “culture of dependency” created by the blood that Jesus shed on the cross.

Now I’m not sure about Brooks’ historiography. When have the poor ever not been the objects of scorn and presumptuousness about their moral failings? Were they really considered more noble in the 19th century? Wasn’t the fierce anti-Catholicism endemic to American Protestant culture 100 years ago an expression of hatred for the poor immigrants from Ireland and Italy?

The 19th century hated the poor too. Most of Charles Dickens’ 19th century novels about the Industrial Revolution include a miserly villain like Ebenezer Scrooge who hates poor people. One of my favorite Dickens characters is Josiah Bounderby in the novel Hard Times. He’s the notoriously cruel owner of the mill where the other characters work. He justifies his cruelty toward his workers by constantly referring to his own “rags-to-riches” story about growing up in the gutter and having to work hard all his life to get to where he is. This story is revealed in the end of the novel to be a complete fraud (since in Dickens novels, the bad guys always get theirs in the end).

The rags-to-riches story is a very interesting phenomenon. It’s very common for rich people to have a personal rags-to-riches story to justify their wealth. It reveals a need for rich people to imagine themselves to be working class people who “made it,”which would go along with the romanticism of the working class hero that David Brooks finds in our cultural heritage. Of course, the rags-to-riches story reveals a different kind of contempt for God’s grace.

Rich people who actually believe in God’s grace are not going to need to make up a works-righteousness story about how they earned every penny that they have by the sweat of their brow. They will simply be grateful for the unmerited blessings they have received and accept the responsibility of sharing the resources God has entrusted to them with those who haven’t been as fortunate. I wonder how many people who make up rags-to-riches stories about themselves and fill their minds with presumptuous explanations for the poverty of other people have done these things as a defense mechanism against being convicted by the undeserved grace they have received from God.


19 thoughts on “David Brooks on America’s abandonment of #Biblical values

  1. I agreed with a lot of things in this article… for example, that America has lost it’s moral foundation, and abandoned Biblical values such as the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

    However, it also contains some things that are really tenuous. For example, you say “It seems like a fair litmus test for evaluating how authentically you believe in God’s grace…” The problem is that everyone who knows any poor people, knows that a significant number of them are poor because they have done nothing to improve their situation. They are “comfortable” in their poverty and do nothing to better themselves. We also all know poor people who are poor because of bad choices – drugs, alcoholism, gambling, materialistic spending habits, etc. We also know people who are poor because of tragedy – natural disasters, a death of the primary breadwinner, etc.

    There are many reasons for poverty besides laziness, but that doesn’t change the fact that we all know lazy poor people who won’t do anything about their poverty. You carefully qualified your statement with “poor people that you don’t have personal relationships with” but it is from the group you do have relationships with that you extrapolate generalizations about the whole with whom you do not. If I know 10 poor people and 6 of them are that way because they are lazy slouches who are on the government dole and are content to continue, even game the system as long as possible to keep from becoming self-sufficient then I am going to extrapolate that to all poor people as a whole. It is human nature to use experience as a substitute for raw data. Your litmus test ignores this factor.

    Anyway this whole blog begs the question – “Why is poverty bad? Why are those in poverty looked at as less? Why should we seek to raise anyone out of poverty? Why is being poor a negative thing? Why do we have a bias against being poor? Is our bias really toward people who are impoverished, or is our bias against poverty itself?”

    Now these questions are merely for the sake of thought – I do believe poverty is a horrible thing. But the question is not whether I believe poverty is bad, but rather why do I believe it? Maybe I hate poverty (not the impoverished) because I myself am lazy. God tells us (oh boy – it’s “biblical”) to take care of the poor and needy. If those damn poor people would just get off their lazy butt, then I’d be off the hook to help them. Or maybe I hate poverty because I hate suffering, even the suffering of others. Maybe I hate poverty because I believe God hates poverty. Maybe I hate poverty because I love people and don’t want to see them hurting.

    Incidentally, I believe the reason we have abandoned Biblical values is because we have abandoned the Bible as the ultimate source of truth. The idea that “the Bible is a little off” or that “it can’t always be trusted” or that it isn’t the ultimate authority in every area it touches upon, or that it is a man-made book not wholly inspired by God is the root cause of rejection of Biblical values. The subjection of Biblical truth to moral relativism is the heart of it. If truth is relative, then nothing is actually true. Abandon absolute truth, and you abandon the very foundation for morality and values.

    • I didn’t know there was a “government dole” to be on anymore. Welfare went away under Clinton. In what sense are the poor people you know on the government dole? I have personal relationships with hard-working poor people (members of my former youth group and high school students who I taught) who receive government-subsidized health care through Medicaid, but I’m not sure how having vaccines and getting your teeth cleaned so they don’t rot and fall out makes you feel comfortable with laziness. They would still get evicted and go hungry if they didn’t work. You don’t get food stamps unless you’re employed or can prove that you’re putting in a certain quota of volunteer service hours a week if you’re out of work.

      Regarding moral relativism, the epitome of moral relativism is capitalism, the idea that whatever sells is what truth is. The reason our era is morally relativistic is because we believe more in capitalism than we do in God and we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by advertisers into thinking that we need a lot of things we don’t need in order to have a happy life. I’m not an advocate of socialism, even though you think I am. I don’t have anything against a free market. That’s not the problem. The problem is when people are seduced by the idolatry of making money, which so many people have been in our era. That greed needs to be confronted head-on as a real moral crisis in the church. Since we’ve focused all our moral attention on sexuality, things like greed and gluttony have completely escaped our notice.

      Regarding poverty, what I want for people to have is food, adequate health care, access to reasonable quality education for their kids, a place to live, a steady job, and enough time to worship God. I’ve had phases in my life when I lived very simply on very limited income and it was actually a much better life than the one I have right now. I spent a summer in a village in Mexico with people who had nothing materially speaking but had so much more than most Americans do. But when our minimum wage is so low that people have to work double-shifts to provide for their families, how are they supposed to participate in Wednesday night Bible studies at their churches?

      • ” In what sense are the poor people you know on the government dole?”

        Unemployment, food stamps, disability (when really they are capable), free health care, etc. I personally know people who are taking advantage of all of these systems unnecessarily.

        I also have personal relationships with hard working poor people who are not taking anything from the government. I come from a poor family. My dad is the hardest working person I know. My cousins are farmers; there are some hard working people (though they struggle financially, they are very blessed and happy). I have another cousin who spent the last 8 years living in the Dominican Republic doing full time ministry, relying primarily on support from others. Before that, he was a missionary in Ukraine. My comments are not to say that there are not a lot of hard-working poor people. Certainly, there are.

        You said, “the epitome of moral relativism is capitalism, the idea that whatever sells is what truth is”. I guess I don’t really see that, but I agree with most of what you’ve said here on capitalism. Capitalism, like self-governance, only works within an strong moral foundation. It’s a lot like a gun, for example. On it’s own, it is an inanimate, harmless, yet powerful tool. In the right hands, it is the greatest engine of freedom and prosperity in the world. In the wrong hands, it can be used for great evil. When resting firmly on a foundation of Christian morality, Capitalism has been the greatest economic force for global prosperity this world has ever known. Without that foundation, however, it is the means to make evil men very rich and powerful. Unlike Socialism and Communism (which are predicated on atheism), Capitalism is not only friendly to Christianity, but I suggest that it requires Christian morality to function properly.

        Regarding poverty, you know, I want all those things for people too. There is no disagreement between us about wanting good for people. The disagreement between us is the means whereby they can attain prosperity. If our government provides these things, we are slaves of and beholden to our government. If our corporations provide these things, we are slaves of and beholden to our corporations. Which is better? Which is worse? Well history tells us that tyrannical governments are the perpetrators of more murders than any other entity in the history of our planet (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, etc). Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Corporations typically have less power than governments. The corporations are perhaps the lesser of two evils. It is all “trickle down” economics… whether it trickles down from the wealthy corporations to their employees, or trickles down from the government to the people, we are never simply given the opportunity to generate prosperity in and of ourselves. That is something that each individual must do for themselves (entrepreneurs). Only in Capitalism do those entrepreneurs have the ability and opportunity to make something themselves, and make a better life for themselves and their families by hard work, creativity, ingenuity, and ambition. Evil men can also work hard, be creative, and be ambitious. It is not the system that is to blame – but blame evil men for evil deeds. If you want to change the result, you don’t need to change capitalism… you need to change the hearts and minds of people and restore a Biblical, Christian foundation of morality.

  2. Some people are self-made rich people. Others are rich because they were born into it.

    Some people are self-made poor people because of bad choices. Others are poor because they were born into it.

    We should be slow to judge anyone based on how much or little wealth they have. Wealth is relative anyways. Just by living in America you are likely the 1%, not the 99%.

  3. I think you are right that history does not support this point of view. I think, much like the present, the occasional poor person who worked his way to the top was lionized but only so that everyone could point to that person and say “See he made it…without our help.”

    On the odd occasion that I read David Brooks, I get the feeling he is frantically trying to put the pieces of his belief system back together in the face of circumstances that he knows are morally repugnant. I think he doesn’t want to believe that all of the policies and politicians he supported could have led to the current state of affairs. I think he desperately wants to believe that trickle down economics is true and that there was some previous “golden age” in American history to which we could return and be perfectly happy. But he’s having a hard time doing it.

    • I guess his redeeming quality for me is that he recognizes the moral repugnance in his own indirect way. He hasn’t given his heart to Satan like George Will and Charles Krauthammer.

  4. It seems part of a penduluum swing between two extremes, both of which are false and harm people. Whether one is judging the character of a poor person simply because they are poor, or a well-off person simply because they are well off, is a sort of, I dunno, “wealth-ism” not all that much different than judging someone by the color of their skin or their religious beliefs or something. Evil lives at both sides of the socio-economic spectrum, and so does God.

  5. Morgan, this analysis is spot-on. Some further thoughts:
    1. While I like Brooks on occasion, he seems to combine a fuzzy nostalgia with a one-sided critique of the working class. He was a big fan of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart last year. Murray argued that society is become more segmented, with the rich having great access to resources and networks. The Poor, on the other hand, had abandoned the classic ennobling values of discipline, hard work, and family. I was struck with how libertarian intellectuals like Murray (and to a lesser extent Brooks) use targeted explanations for different social classes (i.e., the rich have connections while the poor lack character).
    2. This is such a weird appropriation of the concept of Grace. Does “acceptance of God’s Grace” mean recognizing God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer in any situation I find myself? Or does he mean something more like “making the best of your lot in life”. If the latter, then the measure of success is rags to riches if you’re poor and modesty of lifestyle when you become rich. If Grace is really about God’s reaching out to me and sustaining me through all situations, then anything but responsible obedience (Randy Maddox there) to that Grace is a measure of self-sufficiency and works-orientation.
    3. There are other rich scriptural traditions to be mined if we really want to think about this, but Brooks is not really up to speed on his Bible (there’s a correction at the end of his piece correcting a couple of huge mistakes). God’s Grace is offered to the full society of Israel, not just individuals within it. That’s why the law calls for Jubilee — to overcome the accidents of birth. The prophets raise concern for the widows, orphans, strangers, and other poor because that’s the measure of what it means to be a nation of Grace. In the New Testament, the motif of beggars healed suggests a different vision of the Kingdom of God that was present in society then and now.
    4. His nostalgic vision is really as disconnected from reality as you suggest. As one example, you have to see Frank Capra’s movies as a critique on the inequality of the society and the excesses of the rich during the gilded age. George Bailey is the hero because Mr. Potter is just an awful guy who cares more about power than his fellow man. But George never was poor. His dad ran a small but fair business. They had a cook and sent their boys to college (at least one).

    I could go on because he can really get me going. But that’s enough for now.

  6. Good piece and I tend to resonate with it. Ironically enough, I’m teaching my students through the Proverbs and I’m coming up on an article on Laziness and Hard work. It’s kind of jarring to read because I’ve been trained to stop myself from making assumptions about the poor, at least consciously, but it’s interesting to note how work is associated with success, and laziness with poverty in the Proverbs. Not strictly, of course, and there are also admonitions for the just to help the poor because that is God’s heart as well. All that to say, I found your article and my own studies’ contrast to be interesting timing regarding #biblical values about wealth and poverty.

    • I wonder what the writer of Proverbs would write differently after he read the book of Job. Some of the hardest working people I know are poor. I think the critical thing is to read things like Proverbs for our own life application but not as a means of justifying presumptuous generalizations about macroscopic social problems.

    • Derek:

      I think it’s significant that Proverbs critiques “Laziness” and not Poverty. For a variety of reasons, American society has tended to treat them as synonymous.

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