A while back David Brooks, a conservative commentator, wrote an important op-ed piece in the New York Times: “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It.” Not that I agree with everything he says; not that he doesn’t oversimplify the problem; but Brooks has definitely hit an important bullseye. Basically he addresses one of the most serious flaws in our dominant ideology of liberalism: the issue of what I call “belonging.” To be clear, “liberalism” here means our social, economic and political ideology derived from the18th century ideas of such figures as John Locke. This was, you might say, the founding ideology of our country.
This liberalism bifurcates into Left and Right wings: the liberalism of the Left is what we call “progressives,” “liberals,” most Democrats, etc. The liberalism of the Right is what we call “conservatives,” most Republicans, etc. At the heart of both wings of this ideology is the dynamic of maximizing choice for the individual or a sort of “freedom.” To oversimplify the matter a bit, the Left seeks primarily to maximize lifestyle choices; the Right seeks to maximize individual economic choices. Both sides crash into the inherent contradictions of their own emphases and both sides crash into each other.
What Brooks does is show how both sides miss out on the “sense of belonging” that people badly need in order to flourish. Decades ago Thomas Merton pointed out the futility and delusion of equating our real freedom with having more choices of toothpaste or cereal, etc. He also was emphasizing the important distinction of the “chosen” elements of our life and that which is not chosen, that which is more fundamental really. For example, Merton said that the sun was going to rise tomorrow morning whether you “choose” it or not; your only option is to say “yes” to it or not, really to say “yes” to the God-given reality or not. This is also at the heart of the Sufi message. All the things we do choose, can choose, etc., fall within this more fundamental ground of the “not-chosen” aspect of our reality, who we really are.
Recall also the great sociologist, Robert Bellah, and his book from the 1980s, Habits of the Heart. He delineated acutely how the dominant ideology of liberalism eroded away all social bonds and an authentic sense of belonging to something larger than one’s own circle of reality. The ultimate logic of either Left liberalism or Right liberalism is a drive to focus on “me, myself, and I.” Left liberalism emphasizes the “freedom” of life choices that this “I “ has; Right liberalism emphasizes the “freedom” of this “I” to make as much money as it wants unhindered by other restraints. Obviously this is a bit oversimplified but you can get the picture of what is going on. What Bellah was especially good at noting is how all this eviscerates the fundamental dynamic of religion. He interviewed a number of people, and there was one that was especially memorable: Sheila (the name was fictionalized). It did not matter whether Sheila was Protestant or Catholic or even Christian because as Bellah pointed out her real religion was ultimately “Sheilaism.”
But let’s return to Brooks. He begins like this:
“John Bowlby is the father of attachment theory, which explains how humans are formed by relationships early in life, and are given the tools to go out and lead their lives. The most famous Bowlby sentence is this one: ‘All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.’ Attachment theory nicely distinguishes between the attachments that form you and the things you then do for yourself. The relationships that form you are mostly things you didn’t choose: your family, hometown, ethnic group, religion, nation and genes. The things you do with your life are mostly chosen: your job, spouse and hobbies. Through most of American history, our society was built on this same sort of unchosen/chosen distinction. At our foundation, we were a society with strong covenantal attachments — to family, community, creed and faith. Then on top of them we built democracy and capitalism that celebrated liberty and individual rights. The deep covenantal institutions gave people the capacity to use their freedom well. The liberal institutions gave them that freedom.”
Now one can argue with some of this, but there is a basic truth here. Our rootedness in the “covenantal institutions” has been seriously eroded since anything that seems to restrain that maximization of choice is considered bad by both Left and Right. Brooks calls this “naked liberalism.” It is “freedom” without any covenantal relationships; there is only the individual self and there is no sense of obligation to something greater than one’s own perceived good. And that includes religion as well–this is the essence of “Sheilaism.” To be clear, this is a lot more than the usual criticism of egoism or selfishness; it has to do with how we perceive our fundamental identity, or better, what is our sense of “belonging”–traditionally this enables us to begin to transcend our inherent selfishness.
“Naked liberals of right and left assume that if you give people freedom they will use it to care for their neighbors, to have civil conversations, to form opinions after examining the evidence. But if you weaken family, faith, community and any sense of national obligation, where is that social, emotional and moral formation supposed to come from? How will the virtuous habits form?”
The result of this problem is not pretty, and here I think Brooks is spot-on:
“Freedom without covenant becomes selfishness. And that’s what we see at the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis. Freedom without connection becomes alienation. And that’s what we see at the bottom of society — frayed communities, broken families, opiate addiction. Freedom without a unifying national narrative becomes distrust, polarization and permanent political war.
People can endure a lot if they have a secure base, but if you take away covenantal attachments they become fragile. Moreover, if you rob people of their good covenantal attachments, they will grab bad ones. First, they will identify themselves according to race. They will become the racial essentialists you see on left and right: The only people who can really know me are in my race. Life is a zero-sum contest between my race and your race, so get out.
Then they resort to tribalism. This is what Donald Trump provides. As Mark S. Weiner writes on the Niskanen Center’s blog, Trump is constantly making friend/enemy distinctions, exploiting liberalism’s thin conception of community and creating toxic communities based on in-group/out-group rivalry.
Trump offers people cultural solutions to their alienation problem. As history clearly demonstrates, people will prefer fascism to isolation, authoritarianism to moral anarchy.”
The solutions offered by our political culture are totally ineffectual because they completely miss the nature of the problem. Brooks again:
“If we are going to have a decent society we’re going to have to save liberalism from itself. We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal. The crucial battleground is cultural and prepolitical. In my experience, most people under 40 get this. They sense the social and moral void at the core and that change has to come at the communal, emotional and moral level. They understand that populism is a broad social movement, including but stretching far beyond just policy. To address it, we’re going to need to confront it with another broad social movement. Many people my age and above seem clueless. Our elected leaders were raised in the heyday of naked liberalism and still talk as if it were 1994. Many public intellectuals were trained in the social sciences and take the choosing individual as their mental starting point. They have trouble thinking about our shared social and moral formative institutions and how such institutions could be reconstituted. Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.”
Now it is important to point out that even though this op-ed piece is not intended as an extensive analysis, yet still Brooks has missed some important parts of the picture. It is a social/cultural analysis, and it is good as far as it goes; but I think the problem he indicates is never really solvable at the level of his analysis. There are serious limitations to the boundaries of his story of the belongings and the covenantal relationships that these various belongings create and inform. This would be true even of our sense of belonging to a certain church/religion and much more so of any belonging to a nation/nationality/race/family, etc. It is too often merely a social reality, albeit a necessary one. The result he is looking for can only be approximated at this level. Something much deeper is needed.
The really fundamental issue can be sensed through this question: to whom/to what do I fundamentally belong? It is this “foundational belonging” that then determines and informs how I perceive the world, my values, the moral and emotional state of my heart and mind. It is in this “foundational belonging” that we discover what Brooks has called the “covenantal relationships” that are so important for human flourishing and upon which our real freedom can then be exercised. However, what Brooks actually discusses are what I would term “secondary belongings” or derivative belongings; they are absolutely important but not foundational. In fact, if the foundational level is not uncovered in awareness then all the covenantal relationships can be easily distorted.
Let me illustrate some of this with these two marvelous examples: Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. MLK started out his public life with a strong sense of identity with his own Black community and with a clear commitment to win certain civil rights for his people. He was also rooted in his Baptist tradition. However, by the end of his life MLK had an incredibly enhanced vision. Without losing sight of the goal of the civil rights movement, he began to articulate the vision of what he called the “Beloved Community,” which of course has the faint echoes of the New Testament but goes outside this boundary to a lot more–this term was actually used in this sense by the 19th Century American philosopher Josiah Royce. King spoke of it in contexts such as this:
“…the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Now he was concerned with the poverty and injustice that afflicted all Americans and with the end of war as a national policy which inflicted suffering on us and on all people. His sense of belonging was now grown to a more universal dimension that generated his enhanced moral vision and even his social tactics. He was now able to embrace his “enemies” as the Gospel called for–note how that injunction in the Gospel to “love your enemies” is not some emotional “feel goodism,” but rather a fruit of this deeper vision of belonging that includes “your enemy.” Martin Luther King clearly saw the toxic racism and hatred in people’s hearts, did not gloss over that or look away from that, but rather he sought to heal that suffering within them, not to hate them or defeat them but to free them of that burden. He was rooted in his Baptist identity; he belonged to that community, but his new vision also enabled him to learn from such figures as Thoreau and Tolstoy and Gandhi because he also now belonged to a more universal sense of his humanity, the Beloved Community. The boundaries of his sense of belonging were now much deeper and much larger, and in a very real sense a true mysticism.
Malcolm X had a different story in many details, but the essential is very similar. He starts out with a very, very negative situation of a brutalizing racist social existence and prison experience; and then belonging to a group whose cohesion was built on a serious distortion of Islam. Everyone should see the movie about his life. For all the handicaps that this distortion burdened him with, his keen intelligence and the true spirit of his heart still enabled him to speak important truths, and he seemed like some kind of prophet in development. All he needed was a kind of jolt that would liberate him from that constricted, distorted sense of belonging that he was carrying. That came when he made a holy pilgrimage to Mecca, and there he encountered thousands upon thousands of other Moslems from all over the world and of all races and nationalities, and all focused on that One Reality, God. It was more than an eye-opener. It was a total heart-level transformation in his sense of belonging. He was now set on a trajectory that would have taken him very far and very deep but it was not to be. Just as with King, assassination was the result. What darkness, what delusion it must be with some people who would fear so much this vision that calls them to a new sense of belonging.
In conclusion let me remind everyone that this story cannot stop here. The real meaning of Christmas, which is almost upon us, points us to a sense of belonging that is truly “the further shore,” transcending all our notions and visions. When we speak of Jesus as being born truly man and truly God, we mean that we now are aware that we also belong to the divine realm, that our real identity is hidden in the Mystery of God.